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Mr Mark Twain

A stage musical biography of Mark Twain. Book by Jane Iredale; music and lyrics by William P. Perry.

Performed Elmira, NY and Hartford, CT (1987-1995)


Act One

Mark Twain in his mid-30’s arrives at Quarry Farm, his summer home in Elmira, New York. He greets the audience and begins to recount how he came to be in Elmira, far from his Missouri beginnings. As he talks about the past, two characters from his book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, appear – Aunt Polly leading the very same Tom Sawyer by the ear.

Twain admits to a certain similarity between himself and the recalcitrant Tom. He watches with amusement as Tom, doomed to white-washing Aunt Polly’s fence, inveigles his pals into performing the task for him. They have entered, teasing Tom with the song, We’re Goin’ Fishin’, and they exit with a victorious Tom singing along with them.

Twain explains that his joyous boyhood was over when his father died and he had to make a living. After a period as a printer’s apprentice, he ran away to become a pilot on the Mississippi River. We see the young Mark Twain, known then as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, express his excitement at the prospect of his life on a steamboat as he sings A Pilot on the Mississippi.

The Civil War brought an abrupt end to Twain’s career on the river, and for a brief period he joined the Confederate militia. But he soon headed West, propelled by fatigue brought on by “constant retreating” and his dislike of killing. It was here that he became a newspaper reporter and was sent by his paper, the Alta California, to cover the first American pleasure tour abroad. His arrival on French soil inspires the song, Welcome to Paris. Then he and his traveling companion, Charlie Langdon, are taken to the sensation of the day – a Paris nightclub where they watch and take part in The Can-Can.

While at the club, Charlie shows Twain a miniature portrait of his sister, Olivia, known as Livy. Twain immediately falls in love. On his return to America, he writes a hugely-successful book about his travels which he calls The Innocents Abroad, and then he sets about courtship in earnest. Livy proves to be an elusive target. She resists his advances even though he regales her with stories of his past adventures, including his colorful years as a miner in the West. Even the boisterous singing and dancing of Roughing It fails to move her. But gradually she succumbs, and when we return to present time, Twain is married with three daughters and is blissfully happy.

He also has built a picturesque and expensive new home at Nook Farm in Hartford, next door to Harriet Beecher Stowe. The house sits on a small hill below which is a pond which freezes over in the winter and inspires Twain to compose verses for The Skating Madrigal.

Much of Twain’s life in Hartford is spent in socializing and entertaining. But in the summers, he concentrates on his writing at Quarry Farm, and one of his greatest joys is to gather his family in the evening on the porch and share with them the pages he has written during the day. On this evening, he reads them the first chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The family is entranced as the scene literally comes alive in front of them. It ends with Jim and Huck floating off down the river on their raft while Jim sings of the freedom he knows will be his in I Know There’s a Place.

But Twain’s happiness disappears when his financial world is ruined by his own reckless investments, and he is forced to move his family abroad to save on expenses. He leaves his favorite daughter, Susy, behind so she can enter college. The Act closes with Susy wistfully waving her beloved family goodbye as she sings The House on the Hill, and their carriage pulls off.

Act Two

The Act opens with Twain and Livy in London at a performance of his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before Queen Victoria. After the singing and dancing of The Camelot Rag, the Queen admits that she has been really “quite amused”, and Livy tells her husband that God is the only famous person he has yet to meet.

Their spirits are high though a telegram from the States arrives telling them that Susy had fallen ill. It is not thought to be serious, but suddenly the newsboys hawking their newspapers call out that “Mark Twain’s daughter dies of spinal meningitis.” The family is devastated. They long to return home, but Livy insists that they stay abroad until all their debts are paid. Twain reluctantly embarks on a world-wide lecture tour.

One of his stops involves Russia, where he is meets the Czar and is entertained by a folk troupe performing a Russian Dance.
Jack Waddell as "Jim" and Adam Bennett as "Huck"

At the age of sixty, now free of debt, he returns home a hero and internationally recognized as a man of letters. His love for Livy is as strong as ever, which he expresses in a tender scene with her when he recognizes the huge contribution she has made to his life. She asks what he is most proud of, and he tells her that it is Huckleberry Finn. As she moves into the house leaving him to reminisce, the raft bearing Jim and Huck reappears. Together they sing When Out on the River.

The peace of the Mississippi is soon shattered by the appearance of the King and the Duke who are escaping from irate townsfolk. Huck lets them take shelter on the raft but soon realizes that he has provided haven for a couple of scoundrels. Without further ado, in a riotous song entitled Let’s Give the Folks a Taste of Royalty, they devise their plans for hoaxing the citizens of the next community they come to. Twain abandons his reverie as the King and the Duke are once again driven out of town.

Twain’s thoughts return to Livy and her obviously failing health. Hoping that the warm climate of Italy might help her, he sets up house in Florence. But she is suffering from a heart disease. Fragile and exhausted, she dies in his arms. He remembers the first song he sang during their days of courtship, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

She is buried next to Susy in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. Grief-stricken, Twain retreats to Quarry Farm. His comfort comes in the form of an invitation to go to Oxford University in England to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters. This long-cherished dream sends Twain off on his last overseas journey. Along with Auguste Rodin, Camille Saint-Saens and Rudyard Kipling, Twain receives his honor as the graduation students sing Men of Oxford.

Twain steps off the podium and makes his way through the students who discard their gowns and reveal themselves as the characters from his books. One by one they greet him with the words he placed in their mouths. The final character is Jim who reprises I Know There’s a Place. As the mists of time begin to swirl, Twain mounts the steps of Quarry Farm where Livy is waiting with outstretched arms. They go inside as the chorus sings Homeward Bound. The house slowly begins to turn, and a great Mississippi Riverboat swings into view. Twain is in the pilot house, home at last.

Musical Numbers

  1. Orchestral Prelude: "When Out on the River"
  2. We're Goin' Fishin'
  3. A Pilot on the Mississippi
  4. Welcome to Paris
  5. The Can-Can
  6. Roughing It
  7. National Lecture Tour
  8. The Skating Madrigal
  9. I Know There's a Place
  10. The House on the Hill
  11. The Camelot Rag
  12. Round the World Lecture Tour
  13. Russian Dance
  14. When Out on the River
  15. Let's Give the Folks a Taste of Royalty
  16. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
  17. Men of Oxford
  18. Finale: I Know There's a Place; Homeward Bound