The director of the new Johnny Cash stage musical, Ring of Fire, struggles to define exactly what the show is, but one thing is certain - no one portrays the country music legend known as The Man in Black.
"This isn't a biography," director Richard Maltby told reporters on Wednesday at a rehearsal for the show that starts previews on Broadway next month for a March 12 opening.
"It's 38 songs without connecting material, but it's not a revue," he said.
"It has a story, it has characters," he continued, but no plot. "It's some other kind of theater piece, a play made up of songs. It's a book-musical without a book."
Confused? All will become clear, Maltby said, when audiences see what he calls a classic tale of American life - not Cash's own life but the story of an everyman who emerges from the songs he wrote.
"It seemed when you put it all together to tell an almost mythical story," said Maltby, who won a Tony award for conceiving and directing the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin and co-authored the hit musical Miss Saigon.
Featuring a string of favorites such as I Walk the Line and Ring of Fire, the musical has six main actors who play a couple in their 20s, a couple in their 40s and a couple in their 60s.
"You can relate to all these different ages of his life," Maltby said. "Those couples could be seen as the same couple at the three different stages of life or it could be seen as three generations of the same family."
FIVE YEARS IN THE MAKING
Producer Bill Meade spent five years persuading Cash to give his approval for a musical. Cash agreed just before his death at age 71 in 2003, which came just months after that of his wife, country singer June Carter Cash.
Meade said Cash was a big fan of Broadway and was excited about the prospect of a musical using his songs, though he was uncertain when the subject first came up.
"He said, 'Do you feel that my material is good enough?'" Meade told Reuters. "He's a guy who's won every single conceivable award that's been given to everybody in the world, and there was this sense of humility."
The show follows the critically acclaimed Cash biographical film "Walk the Line," a coincidence that Maltby said should boost the musical given that it takes a radically different approach.
A pre-Broadway run in Buffalo, New York, last year won good reviews and Wednesday's rehearsal offered a lively rendition of "I've Been Everywhere" that had reporters tapping along to the beat.
All 14 actors strum on acoustic guitars and there's plenty of line-dancing and cowboy boots.
Maltby said what he was striving for was authenticity.
"Johnny Cash didn't want to be Broadway-ized. ... He couldn't see Johnny Cash songs and chorus girls."