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A new musical shows Johnny and June Carter Cash as you’ve never seen them before

A man dressed as Johnny Cash performs onstage in a spotlight with a guitar and microphone.
Christopher Ryan Grant portrays Johnny Cash in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of “The Ballad of Johnny and June.”
(Rich Soublet II)
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Toward the end of the new stage show “The Ballad of Johnny and June,” John Carter Cash cautiously approaches his mother, June Carter Cash, to discuss a treatment center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. But not for the sake of his father, Johnny Cash, whose substance abuse issues were widely known and well documented.

“You know it’s a family disease,” he explains to her. “I think you need to look at your own relationship with pills.”

“During our first performance, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if they don’t believe it’s true because they’ve never heard of it before?’” Patti Murin, who plays June, said of the scene. “They might even think we’re trying to exaggerate something for the sake of the story, or to give June more part of the narrative or whatnot.”

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But the show’s depiction is based in fact: John Carter Cash, who first revealed his mother’s substance abuse in his 2007 biography, “Anchored in Love: The Life and Legacy of June Carter Cash,” discussed the subject in detail with the musical’s creators during its six-plus years of development. And while “The Ballad of Johnny and June,” making its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 7, charts the country music couple’s legendary love affair and re-creates duets like “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter,” it centers addiction in a way few major musicals do.

“The moment [John Carter Cash] said to us, ‘My mom didn’t save my dad, that is a myth, the problems continued,’ we realized that he didn’t want the fairy tale, he wanted the truth,” said director Des McAnuff. “That really became the reason to make this show, because what we’ve also found is that the truth is so much more interesting than the fairy tale.”

Singers onstage playing instruments
June Carter Cash (Patti Murin), Johnny Cash (Christopher Ryan Grant) and John Carter Cash (Van Hughes) in “The Ballad of Johnny and June.”
(Rich Soublet II)

Historically, characters who are under the influence in stage musicals are either fleetingly in focus, there for comedic or dramatic effect, or framed as fallen, even villainous figures gone astray. (A recent exception: “Days of Wine and Roses,” the somber, booze-fueled romance that briefly played on Broadway earlier this year.)

Addiction is a disease, but it has not been accurately portrayed,” said playwright Sean Daniels, who leads Florida Studio Theatre’s Recovery Project and Live Tampa Bay’s Anti-Stigma Initiative. “Somehow, we’re taught that people only have a problem after they’ve been stumbling around, or they hit rock bottom and crash their car. That’s a really old way of talking about it; that’s the version of portraying cancer as somebody coughing blood into a handkerchief, so we know they’re going to die.

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“The arts have proven to be effective in changing national narratives, as we’ve seen with conversations around topics like gay marriage,” he continued. “If watching your favorite musicians struggle with [addiction] and find a way through inspires you to get help or even just ask more questions, not only is it a fantastic piece of theater but it actually does a great justice. Shows like this can save lives.”

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McAnuff and Robert Cary, who previously collaborated on La Jolla Playhouse’s “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “Palm Beach,” sharpened the show’s focus after numerous candid interviews with John Carter Cash, who wanted to honor his parents’ legacies while also being honest about their dependencies.

“Sensationalism in the media and exploitation of addiction, it’s just something that turns my stomach,” said Cash, also a recovering addict. “But everything in the play that is touchy or whatever is something that my father and my mother were willing to talk about. They weren’t afraid to let their struggles be known, especially if it could help other people.”

“We’re celebrating the lives of these two brilliant artists,” said Van Hughes, who plays John Carter Cash, both a character and a narrator, in the production. “But we’re also trying to show how a relationship involving addiction has three parts: the two people and the addiction.”

A man and a woman singing onstage with a drummer at his kit behind them
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash perform at Radio City Music Hall in 1985.
(Ron Frehm / Associated Press)

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A man and a woman, both in black, sing into microphones onstage
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash perform at Madison Square Garden in 1992.
(Ron Frehm / Associated Press)

“The Ballad of Johnny and June” balances entertaining re-creations of memorable performances like “Ring of Fire,” “Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” with scenes that add up to a more precise and authentic representation of the disease. For example, Johnny Cash is rarely seen in a stereotypically inebriated state. Instead, actor Christopher Ryan Grant, who stars as the musician, plays it more subtly — an effect that keeps the audience in the dark as to how intoxicated Cash might be at any given moment.

“[McAnuff] gave me that note because he said, ‘The most convincing thing an alcoholic does is try to maintain his sobriety in public,’” said Grant. “It made me rethink the whole show, and the pressure he must have felt to continue to function without falling apart.”

Likewise, the musical challenges the common perception that addiction is a moral failing that calls for judgment or punishment. This is particularly true of the scenes featuring June, including her realization that many of her family members also battled the disease.

“We live in a culture where men are allowed to misbehave in ways that are almost celebrated, like it’s a sign of them as warriors that they tear through the world,” said Cary, who co-wrote the book with McAnuff. “But when a woman is suffering with some of the same demons, the expectations of how she’s allowed to behave are quite different. We want to dignify her humanity — she is a human being, as opposed to a saint who swoops in and saves Johnny.”

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A man and a woman sing into a single stand microphone and he plays the guitar onstage
Patti Murin as June Carter Cash and Christopher Ryan Grant as Johnny Cash in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of “The Ballad of Johnny and June.”
(Rich Soublet II)

That “The Ballad of Johnny and June” doesn’t attempt to tidy up the process of recovery in time for the final curtain is just as purposeful as any other aspect of its portrayal. When John confronts his father about what he’ll do to help his mother, Johnny responds, “You can open a door for someone, but you can’t make them walk through it,” and that he’ll “love her through her failures, her imperfections, the way she loved me through mine.”

“We want to be responsible about the way we describe these relationships,” said McAnuff. “Their love story is one in which addiction was an obstacle, and I wouldn’t say they conquered it because, sadly, it’s true that managing this disease is a lifelong pursuit. But together, they kept it at bay.

“If we can tell this story about the Carter and Cash family,” he continued, “hopefully it will impact other families who maybe aren’t so famous but are wrestling with some of the same nightmarish problems.”

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Someone in the family who’s already been positively affected: John Carter Cash, who grew up watching Broadway shows with his parents. “I feel like they’d be happy with this — it stands alone, and it’s like nothing else that’s ever been done about Johnny and June,” he said.

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“I knew it would show their hardships, but it’s important to me that it also shows the forgiveness and joy and enduring love that my parents had, and the fact that they stay together, no matter what they went through,” he added. “I hope that people who come to see it find strength in that, the way they do their music.”

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash walk toward a crowd outside a building in a black-and-white photo
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash arrive at U.S. District Court in Washington to watch the Watergate cover-up trial in 1974. The two were invited by prosecutor James Neal.
(Bob Daugherty / Associated Press)

'The Ballad of Johnny and June'

Where: Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 7.

Tickets: Starting at $29 (subject to change)

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one 15-minute intermission)

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