The Irreparable Insult: John Denver Does Not Star on Broadway as Will Rogers

Few people know that when “The Will Rogers Follies” was readying itself for Broadway, John Denver was supposed to play Will Rogers.  The role was originally written for him:  The book (the script) and the music and the lyrics were sculpted to fight John Denver’s sense of humor and singing range.

Both John and Will had a supernatural, folksy, charm that wowed audiences around the world.  The fact that John looked so much like Will was an uncanny benefit for the casting.

I was Peter Stone’s associate on the Broadway show, and he told me the story about John Denver and “The Will Rogers Follies” because it gnawed at him and there was nothing he could do to set it right.

It all started, Peter told me, as the writing of the show was coming to a close.  Peter was writing the book, and Cy Coleman was writing the music and Betty Comden and Adolph Green were writing the lyrics.

The creative team were meeting with John to discuss the construction of the show and to review the songs with him.

There was one particularly beautiful song called “Lucky Kid” that everyone loved.  The melody was touching.  The lyric was tender.  It fit the mood and the glow of the storyline by elevating the experience to the ethereal.

Except there was one problem.

John Denver didn’t like the title, “Lucky Kid.”  He thought it was insulting to call a child a “kid” — he’d never call his son that — and he wanted the title changed to: “Lucky Boy.”  John felt that small change would really help make the song better.

Cy and Betty and Adolph didn’t mind making the change.  There might have to be a revision to the rhyme scheme — but that was common and expected in the writing of a new hit musical.  If that change made John, happy, they’d be happy to do it.

Before anyone could agree to the change, Peter Stone spoke up and stopped the room.

“Listen, John,” Peter said in his infamous, stony, staccato, way, “When we write ‘The John Denver Follies’ — we’ll write a song for you called ‘Lucky Boy’ — but this is ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ and we’re staying with the ‘Kid.’

The room took on an irrevocable chill.

Cy and Betty and Adolph froze.

Stone puffed on his cigarette waiting for John’s reply.

John Denver stood there in stony silence.

“So let’s move on,” Stone said.

John shook his head and silently left the room.

The creative team were alone.

The meeting was over.

In the speaking of a single Peter Stone sentence — John Denver was out of the show.  Years of writing the show and hundreds of hours of wooing John were washed away in the span of a stony five seconds.

Peter told me he didn’t understand at the time how — what he’d innocently said — would quickly ruin everything.  He thought they were all having a discussion about making changes and he was simply expressing his opinion — even though he wasn’t the one who had to make the change.

Changing a song was the responsibility of Cy and Betty and Adolph, not Peter.  “The Will Rogers Follies” was Peter’s idea, though.  He brought in Cy and Betty and Adolph, and felt, as the original inspiration, that he was the show’s “protector.”

In the weeks that followed, John Denver permanently fell out of touch — Peter tried to call and apologize and he wrote John a heartfelt note, but all attempts at reconciliation were met with an icy silence — and the entire show was in jeopardy of never happening.

“The Will Rogers Follies” was built to be a star vehicle and they’d just lost their star.

If lesser talents other than Peter Stone and Cy Coleman and Betty Comden and Adolph Green had been writing the show — it would’ve been dead the day when John Denver walked out — but the creative team were stars on their own accord, and while they couldn’t sell tickets on their names alone for very long, they could still entice investors with the promise of making big money back on their investment.

Money raising continued as the show was continually written and rewritten.  Tommy Tune came on as the director and choreographer for the show, and that helped the “star power” meter to peg a little more on the creative team side.

The show still needed Will Rogers as its centerpiece.  After tossing around several names, it was decided to cast Keith Carradine as Will.  Keith could sing, and he was funny, and he came from a famous acting family, and he was willing to kill himself doing eight live shows a week.  Investors were initially wary of Keith — he certainly wasn’t as big a star as John Denver — but the creative team convinced the money people that Keith would be a fine choice in the long run.

The show would sell initially because of their names, they argued, and then when Keith took the stage — the show would belong to him, and people would line up to see Keith Carradine as Will Rogers — and that’s precisely how it all played out in the end to every investor’s relief.

When it was time to replace Keith, Peter Stone told me that everyone — Cy, Betty, Adolph, the producing team — wanted Glen Campbell to take over the show.  Stone felt Glen also looked a lot like Will Rogers and he could sing and he was funny, and he was willing to kill himself doing eight live shows a week.

However, Stone told me Tommy Tune refused to approve Glen Campbell for the role — even though Glen was interested — because of some unspoken slight Glen had paid Tommy early in his dancing career.

So, after Keith in 1991, Mac Davis became Will Rogers on Broadway and so did Larry Gatlin and a ganglia of other talented actors — but after each change, Glen Campbell was always brought up as the “perfect Will Rogers replacement” who would “sell even more tickets” and, each time, Tommy Tune said, “No.” — to everyone’s utter dismay.

The story of “The Will Rogers Follies” on Broadway is one of two, irreparable insults.  The immediate first, from Peter Stone to John Denver.  The longtime second, from Glen Campbell to Tommy Tune.

One can only wonder what might have happened if both John and Glen had played Will on Broadway — and if the history of the dying musical theatre might have somehow been revived a bit more from the bitterness of personal punishment and moved more into the warmth of universal, human, yearning.

Six years after “The Will Rogers Follies” debuted on Broadway, John Denver died in a small aircraft crash in 1997.  He was 53.  We all miss John a lot.  He was a magnitudinal talent you only meet once in a lifetime.

Oh, and here’s the final kicker to the story:  That song — “Lucky Kid” — never made it into the show.  It was cut and not replaced during the early rehearsal process.  So, the original insult that froze John Denver out of “The Will Rogers Follies” forever — was all for nothing over a song that now, never existed.

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