BWW Interview: Scott Moreau - It All Began in Brunswick
For actor Scott Moreau, playing Johnny Cash in the opening production of Maine State Music Theatre's 60th anniversary season is a very special homecoming. The Maine native who grew up in Litchfield says this is the fifth time he will have done the Million Dollar Quartet in Maine (previously in Portland and Bangor on the national tour and twice in Ogunquit), but that "Brunswick is much different!"
Moreau recounts his close ties with this community and with MSMT. "I was born at Bath Memorial Hospital. My parents had their first house on Mere Point Rd. before they moved to Litchfield, and my father taught at Brunswick High School for almost forty years. For me this is where it all began; this is where I saw my first theatre at the Pickard and at Crooker. My parents took me to the children's shows and then when I was in middle school, I began to attend the main stage productions. I remember seeing Forever Plaid in 1995 and thinking how much fun theatre was!" Moreau also recalls that when he was fifteen, his parents took him to London where he saw Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. It was at the latter that he experienced an epiphany. "I spent the entire show either crying or hysterically laughing, and I said to myself, 'This is what I want to do.' I was completely transported; it was another sort of experience I had never had before. I knew I wanted to become part of it."
Once he had made that decision, Moreau prepared himself to pursue musical theatre in college. He studied voice with a Wiscasset opera singer, Joyce Aldersley,"who taught me how to use my voice and expand my knowledge of musical repertoire," and took some dance preparation from his mother's college roommate, Ruth True. In addition, he studied the piano "because I knew I would have to take piano lessons in college" and he taught himself to play the acoustic guitar. All this enabled him to attend Illinois Wesleyan University where he took his B.F.A. in music theatre.
Since graduating, he has "been blessed to work in many different places and perform many different roles throughout the country, among them Orin in Little Shop of Horrors, Willy Conklin in Ragtime, John Dickinson in 1776, and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. He cites among his favorite parts the title role in Johnny Guitar, "a campy, funny show where all the music is written as a throwback to 1950s country songs" and Man 1 in I Love you, You're Perfect, Now Change because " I like the ability to play many different characters within the same show."
Moreau's appearance in Million Dollar Quartet will be his second time treading the boards at the Pickard. He won the role of Dan in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at MSMT's local auditions in 1999, and he has also performed at other Maine theatres among them Ogunquit, the Arundel Barn, Waterville Opera House, and Lyric Music Theater.
Playing Johnny Cash in Million Dollar Quartet and in two other tribute shows, Ring of Fire and Moreau's own script Walk the Line has been an important part of his life for the past decade. The actor tells the story of how he first became obsessed with Cash's music. "I was working at Bull Moose Records in Lewiston in 2000, and my co-worker, Mike Bannister played me the CD of American Recordings #3. I was immediately hooked. I needed to buy the recording right then and there as well as numbers 1 and 2 that had come before it. And then before long I bought everything else that Cash had recorded."
Moreau regards Johnny Cash as a kind of mentor. "Perhaps it seems odd to have someone I have never met be such a substantial part of my everyday life for the past ten years. But by being a fan, reading his books, and studying his music and life, he has given me a pathway to follow or not to follow, taught me how to make wise choices or make up for the bad decisions I've made. His music has been a huge influence on me, and learning about his life with all its pitfalls has steered me onto a better path." One of the points of connection the actor feels with the singer is that both of them come from small towns. "I feel a kinship because he came from an extremely rural area in Arkansas, and while my family were not poor sharecroppers, I can identify with the idea of being from a small town and how daunting going to big places like New York can be."
Moreau talks about preparing to play Cash on stage. "There is a good amount of me in the role though vocally, my performance is very much Johnny Cash and very little me because I am naturally a lyric baritone and have a higher speaking voice. Over the years of doing the part my singing of it has come along by degrees. Today I can hold some of the notes for a ridiculously long time when I couldn't do that before." He uses the analogy of lifting weights every day. "You won't get bigger biceps without working out and the same is true for singing. The more I do it, the more it stretches my range and allows me to do a more consistent and cleaner show."
Besides the vocal preparation, Moreau studied concert videos of Johnny Cash from the 1950s and observed "how he stood, how he held his guitar, how he interacted with his band and the audience, and all that helped to inform the process." And he has researched some of the underlying historical basis for the Million Dollar Quartet story. "While I am a slave to the script when I am on stage, understanding the motivations helps dramatically." He cites the very emotional scene when the musical's Johnny Cash has to break the news to Sam Phillips that he is leaving Sun Records for Columbia Records. "The truth about this decision was that Phillips wouldn't let Cash record gospel songs, which he very much wanted to do, and that Columbia was offering substantially greater royalties so it only made financial sense. Still it was difficult for Johnny Cash because he regarded Sam Phillips as almost a father figure. He realized Phillips had seen something in him that no one else had and had nurtured it. When I play that scene I play it as if I am telling my father that I've changed my last name and am moving away and will never see him again. I always feel deeply emotional at that moment."
Like MSMT's production, most of the Moreau's appearances in Million Dollar Quartet have been directed by Hunter Foster, though he once directed it himself at Farmers Alley Theatre and has also worked with three other directors. He says it is not difficult to undertake a new concept or new production for this show because there are a number of parameters that remain constant no matter who is at the helm. "It's a unit set; everything happens in one room; the piano has to be placed in a certain spot every time or the stage pictures make no sense, so the blocking doesn't change much. What does change," Moreau notes, "are the little things you can tweak and improve upon each time. That's the beauty of being a collaborator, and Hunter is just that. He doesn't say 'Do what we did at the PaperMill.' He is always looking to fix things and add touches so that it never gets stale."
Since Brunswick has been so significant in his artistic journey, what does Scott Moreau look forward as Million Dollar Quartet opens MSMT's Diamond Jubilee season? "We are all very proud to be in Brunswick and to be a part of the 60th anniversary. This is a celebratory show that will make a very fine kickoff to the season. I am expecting the audience, especially those who have never seen this show before, to freak out! They are going to be completely surprised at how good this musical is, and they are going to be transported to an older, better, simpler time. The show stirs up fond memories in people - amazing memories from childhood that are connected to the music. It is nice to be able to help the audience recall something positive from the past."
Photos courtesy of MSMT, Kinectiv photographer
Scott Moreau's upcoming projects include playing El Gallo in The Fantastiks and reprising I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at the newly founded ArtisTree's Music Festival in South Pomfret, VT www.scottmoreau.com