ALBANY, N.Y. — According to Josh D. Smith, music director and performer in Capital Repertory Theatre's production of "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash," everyone knows a lot about Cash the musician, few people know much about Cash, the person.
With sort of a wry laugh, Smith says not to expect that to change after seeing the musical that is playing the Albany theater — where it officially opens Tuesday after a series of weekend previews — through Aug. 12. "This is a show that focuses on the music of Johnny Cash. It's not intended to be a biography."
He does say that it's more than a simple tribute show. "This will be a super theatrical experience," he boasts. Smith also rejects the term "jukebox musical." "Interspersed throughout the show are elements of his life. We do touch on everything, blemishes and all," he explains.
His point seems to be that if you know the music that Cash created, you will know Cash the person. Smith points out that above all else the singer was "a storyteller. And many of the stories he told came from his own experiences."
Smith is emphatic that the performances in the show will not be impersonations. In fact, to make that clear there are six actors in the show all performing his songs. Included in the six is a female, who will sing Cash's music and also represent Cash's wife, June Carter.
He sees this show as a musical director's dream come true. It is a proven, established work that has a strong foundation — the music of Johnny Cash and connecting dialogue. However, the creators give each production a lot of latitude with regard to how many performers can appear in the work, which dictates the instruments used. "I get to use my entire toolbox," he says.
For instance Smith is excited that he's going to perform on a melodica, which he describes as "a cross between an accordion and a harmonica." He says it is the ideal instrument with which to conjure the sound of a train whistle. Another relatively obscure instrument he'll be playing is the autoharp. But not to worry about the show being too esoteric. Smith says for at least half the show he'll be playing piano. The other cast members have more traditional instruments — several guitars, drums and bass. There will be a variety of string instruments — banjo, fiddle, ukulele and the mandolin.
For the audience, having such an array of musical sounds is nothing but a bonus. However, audience members are not and should not, be aware that so many choices put a demand on the music director who must create orchestrations for the individual songs. This isn't like "Camelot," "She Loves Me" or "Mamma Mia" — other shows he's music directed at Capital Rep. It is very demanding.
Smith shakes off the idea that it is a burden. He points to his formative years learning his trade at Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY. where he was musical director for 9 years. "The summer stock company puts on a new musical every two weeks, which means you perform at night and rehearse all day. It was hard work, but you learn a lot," he says.
"It taught me so much. You work hard and learn how to work efficiently. I learned the value of being organized and about pre-planning. Most of all, I learned to demand quality from anyone I worked with. Our job is to provide an audience with the best experience we can offer."