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Johnny Cash Comes to Broadway

Musical based on Man in Black's songs comes to life

September 28, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Just as the life of Johnny Cash is about to hit the big screen courtesy of the Hollywood biopic Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix, comes the announcement that Ring of Fire, a Broadway musical based on the country legend's classic songs, will premiere at New York's Ethel Barrymore Theatre next February.

Created by Richard Maltby Jr. and William Meade, Ring of Fire will feature thirty-eight songs from Cash's five-decade career, including "Country Boy," "Five Feet High and Rising," "I Walk the Line" and the title song.

Meade conceived of the show six years ago, before the singer-songwriter's death from diabetes-related complications in September of 2003. "Many people had approached Johnny, but only Bill's idea convinced him," Maltby writes in the program notes. "And after about five years, just before he died, Johnny gave Bill the stage rights to this material." Maltby -- who was behind such Broadway hits as Ain't Misbehavin', Fosse and Miss Saigon -- will direct the production.

While Walk the Line explicitly charts an early period of the Man in Black's career and personal life, Ring of Fire allows the songs to tell a broader story, bringing to mind the hit Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp collaboration Movin' Out. "To me, Johnny Cash's biography wasn't the most important story available to tell," Maltby continues. "It seemed to me that there is another story here. It's an almost mythic American tale -- of growing up in simple, dirt-poor surroundings in the heartland of America, leaving home, traveling on wings of music, finding love, misadventure, success, faith, redemption, and the love of a good woman -- and eventually returning home . . . I refer to this as a story, but you won't find a plot, or dramatized scenes."

Ring of Fire is currently up for a limited run at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre, in upstate New York, through October 9th.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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