David Lutken reflects on playing cowboy humorist Will Rogers

David Lutken, as Will Rogers, and the cast of the Goodspeed production of 'The Will Rogers Follies' rehearse. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
David Lutken, as Will Rogers, and the cast of the Goodspeed production of "The Will Rogers Follies" rehearse. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Sometimes, actors get to revisit the same character multiple times over the years — and, if they’re lucky, those characters are rich and multifaceted. For David Lutken, Will Rogers is one of those characters.

He has starred in “The Will Rogers Follies” in seven productions — the latest being the one opening Friday at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

“The role of Will Rogers, in many ways, represents the pinnacle of what I have made my living doing now for a very long time,” he says. “I described it to my niece when she was about 5 years old. She said, ‘Uncle David, what do you do for a living?’ I said, ‘Well, I play a guitar and I talk to the audience.’” He laughs. “The role of Will Rogers in ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ is that. Interestingly enough, without the guitar playing, the role of Will Rogers in his life in the world was that. He performed his rope tricks and a few other little gag things and spoke to the audience — that was what he did. He graduated from that to making movies and everything else.”

Indeed, Rogers was an icon in the first part of the 20th century, a figure known in part for his humorous takes on America, all delivered with a plainspoken cowboy charm.

“He wasn’t just funny. He was very insightful,” Lutken says.

One of Lutken’s favorite Rogers quotes (“and, boy, is it appropriate these days,” he says): “I don’t make jokes. All I do is keep track of Washington and report the facts.”

The Rogers line that usually gets the biggest laugh in the show is one of the meanest, Lutken notes, adding it’s about how “man was not descended from apes, that he had never met an ape that was devious or heartless or greedy. He always just figured man was descended from lawyers.’

And, of course, Rogers famously said, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” which prompted one of the song titles in “The Will Rogers Follies.”

The show debuted on Broadway in 1991, starring Keith Carradine as Rogers, and won a Tony for best musical. "The Will Rogers Follies" set highlights of Rogers’ life story in the context of the glitzy, dance-happy Ziegfeld Follies, in which Rogers actually starred. “The Will Rogers Follies” boasts a book by Peter Stone (“1776”), music composed and arranged by Cy Coleman (“Sweet Charity”), and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“On the Town”).

About a third of the way through the original Broadway run, Lutken started playing Wiley Post, the renowned American aviator whose plane crashed in Alaska in 1935, killing Post and his passenger — Will Rogers. Lutken went on as an understudy as Will Rogers, too, several times on Broadway.

He is Rogers again in the new production at Goodspeed, where Lutken has also starred in “Honky Tonk Highway,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Big River.” (Lutken’s other Broadway credits include “Inherit the Wind,” “Ring of Fire” and “The Civil War.”)

Lutken says that “Will Rogers Follies” “is one of those shows I’ve come back to many times, and it’s always a great pleasure. This time in particular is something I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year now because I knew it was not going to be the production I have done or some small variant of a production I have done so many times. (This) was really going to be something new and deconstructed and reconstructed in a way and reinvented. That’s a wonderful thing to get the opportunity to do.”

While many "Will Rogers Follies" productions have hewed close to the original, Goodspeed's version changes up elements of the staging (though not the script). There is, for instance, new choreography by Kelli Barclay in this production directed by Don Stephenson.

Lutken notes that Rogers was an entertainer who came along at the exact time that entertainers had gone from being second-class citizens to being celebrities. The explosion of radio and newspapers, steamship travel and airplanes allowed for the creation of mass media and for entertainers to become more widely famous.

Rogers wrote a column, for instance, that was one of the first syndicated columns in newspapers.

Lutken says that, when he was growing up in Dallas in the 1950s and ’60s, Will Rogers was still a famous presence. And Lutken’s parents remembered him well. When Lutken’s father was a boy in Mississippi, he saw Will Rogers perform. As an adult, he still owned the little souvenir rope his own father had bought him.

Lutken remembers seeing Will Rogers movies when he was a projectionist in Durham, North Carolina, while he was a student at Duke. The theater screened movies for film societies, and Will Rogers films were among them.

Rogers’ famous roping skills were showcased in the silent movies he starred in early in his career.

“His athletic ability is what took him everywhere, really, because that’s what made him into a star first on the wild west show circuit and then second in vaudeville. Then, he began to talk,” Lutken says.

“In my own life, it’s been my ability to play the guitar that has gotten me to where I am. I hope I’m a reasonably good storyteller, but … I have leaned on my ability to play and sing to lead me to parts like this.”

Lutken learned some roping when was young, too.

“Growing up in Texas and working on my family’s farm in Louisiana, I actually worked as a cowboy in my teens and early 20s, when my father was in his disastrous foray into the cattle business on our farm,” he says with a laugh. “He bought at the top and sold at the bottom.”

Lutken did a lot of riding, fence-building, hay-stacking — and a little bit of roping. He did, though, have to learn trick roping when he joined Broadway’s “Will Rogers Follies.” Vince Bruce, a roping expert who appeared in that production, taught him.

“I mess up every once in a while, but so did Will Rogers. I have now, over these many productions, developed enough jokes, I hope, to cover my screw-ups,” he says.

From Will Rogers to Woody Guthrie

Lutken has also spent a lot of time playing another iconic figure: Woody Guthrie. He put together his own show, “Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,” 11 years ago and has done it all over the world. He won the Helen Hayes and Joseph Jefferson best actor awards for his performance in “Woody Sez.”

Having portrayed Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie many times, Lutken jokes, “These two Oklahoma guys must be very chagrined that they’re being played by a guy from Texas.”

Lutken thinks that Guthrie is a very important voice in American history and says he “has been kind of an idol of mine. His politics were a little rougher than Will Rogers’. He was not quite so self-deprecating and not quite so introspective, I guess, in his sarcasm. Will Rogers was always pleased to make fun of America and Americans, including himself, whereas Woody Guthrie used to make fun of very specific classes of people — which Will Rogers did, too, but in a gentler way,” Lutken says.

Guthrie called his newspaper column Woody Sez, after Rogers’ Will Rogers Says column.

“Woody Guthrie was very definitely trying to follow in the footsteps of Will Rogers and people like him. I’ve often compared the two of them to Mark Twain, who did a similar thing in a different way in the century before,” Lutken says.

A version of “Woody Sez” premiered in 2007 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and Lutken continued to develop the piece through various performances, most of which were in Europe. (Lutken says Guthrie, American folk music and a lot of American culture are wildly popular in Europe; he recognized that when he was in London in the 1980s, making money singing in pubs while a student at acting school.)

“Woody Sez” ran for four months on London’s West End in 2011 and then came to the U.S. the following year.

Lutken and his “Woody Sez” compatriots have staged the show around the world, from Shanghai and Nanjing to the Middle East. They did the show in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and they sang on both sides of the “peace walls” in Belfast.

Lutken adds, “And I would love to do ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ in all those places.”

IF YOU GO

What: "The Will Rogers Follies"

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Opens Friday and runs through June 21; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also performances at 2 p.m. on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays

Tickets: Start at $29; all prices subject to change, based on availability

Call: (860) 873-8668

'Will Rogers Follies' cast members, from left, Kelly Sheehan, Kaitlyn Frank, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Caitlin Wilayto and Emily Jeanne Phillips dance with David Garrison, right, as Clem Rogers. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
"Will Rogers Follies" cast members, from left, Kelly Sheehan, Kaitlyn Frank, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Caitlin Wilayto and Emily Jeanne Phillips dance with David Garrison, right, as Clem Rogers. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Director Don Stephenson, front, and assistant director Amanda Kate Joshi, share notes with the cast during a 'Will Rogers Follies' rehearsal. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Director Don Stephenson, front, and assistant director Amanda Kate Joshi, share notes with the cast during a "Will Rogers Follies" rehearsal. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

A Trump encounter

In one of his early productions of “The Will Rogers Follies,” David Lutken played Rogers alongside a woman named Marla Maples — who was the second Mrs. Donald Trump. 

Maples was cast as Ziegfeld’s Favorite in the Broadway version of “The Will Rogers Follies” in 1992, when she was engaged to Trump.

“Marla and I came into the show at the same time,” Lutken recalls. “She was very sweet and very nice and had no illusions about her talent or lack thereof. But she was nice and she did the part — she did it well. She was no Cady Huffman (who played Ziegfeld’s Favorite originally), she was no Brooke Lacy (who plays it at Goodspeed), but she did it well. She enjoyed doing it, and we had a great time.”

Maples took time off after giving birth to daughter Tiffany Trump in October 1993 but eventually wanted to star in the show again. “The Will Rogers Follies” went on the road, with Lutken portraying Rogers.

At the afterparty during the Dallas run, Lutken recalls, Maples introduced Trump to Lutken’s parents. (“At that time, he was still kind of a humorous character,” Lutken says.)

“Mr. Trump, in his inimitable style, turned to my mother and said something to her … that she never forgot, and she just thought it was the funniest thing she ever heard in her life, kind of like head-tilting peculiar but funny. He said (Lutken goes into a Trump-like voice and cadence), ‘Nice to meet you, Mrs. Lutken. David’s great, David’s going to be a star, he’s going to be a big star — all he needs is a good scandal.’”

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