Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1992
He always thought country music was “irritating, repetitive and revolting. The music of stupid, ignorant hicks.” Now Mark Harelik is starring in a country-musical he co-wrote: “ Lost Highway : The Music and Legend of Hank Williams” (at the Old Globe’s Festival Theatre through October 4). He’s come a long way, baby.
Growing up in a rural, central Texas town, Harelik hated country music, preferring classical piano. But when he moved West in 1973, something happened. “In California ,” says the genial actor/writer, “a sense of identity is very important, because it’s difficult to come by out here. Like most of the other expatriates, I became nostalgic for the things that reminded me of home. I developed a taste for Mexican food and country music.” And in particular, Hank Williams.
“His poetry was so simple. His style and his words go straight to the heart. The very thing I despised early on — the notion of music of the ignorant — is what makes his music so appealing. It’s ingenuous, sincere, unaffected. He’s completely trustworthy, so you make yourself completely vulnerable. You know that someone is speaking strictly from the voice of his pain, directly to the part of your body that understands pain.”
Hank Williams had his share of pain. His meteoric rise to fame lasted only four years, from 1948-52. By 1953, at age 29, he was dead, a victim of his addictions and his stardom. He left behind a timeless musical legacy, songs like “Hey, Good Lookin’, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love with You.”
These songs resurface in “Lost Highways”, conceived in 1979 as a musical revue which Harelik performed as a student at PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria . It started growing, and gained Randal Myler (Harelik’s collaborator on “The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album”, a play about the migration of Harelik’s Jewish grandparents from Czarist Russia to Southern Baptist Texas). In 1987, “Highways” was produced at the Denver Center Theatre Company and a year later, at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A.
The script has been “substantially revised” for the Globe production. But it remains “a Hank Williams concert, a performance piece with connecting text,” Harelik explains. “A dream play-slash-performance piece.”
Getting the performance right is important. Harelik plays the guitar, and his three band members, representing Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, are musically talented actors who play steel guitar, upright bass and fiddle. Half the cast of twelve has been associated with the production before. Myler directs once again.
Does Harelik capture the country master? “I certainly don’t sound like Hank Williams,” he confesses. “But there’s a spirit and flavor and a piercing whine that I can achieve with some degree of success. And fortunately, Hank was no genius on guitar.”
His genius wasn’t in his melodies either, says Harelik, but in his words and his style. “Hank was emotionally crippled in his offstage life. But onstage his emotional handicap became his stock in trade. The reason he came to people’s attention was because he suffered so well. We all need somebody to suffer for us. The trouble is, they’re really suffering, while we’re grateful for the commiseration. Hank had a need for recognition, a need to prove that he wasn’t white trash, wasn’t as ignorant as what he sang about… It’s a picture of an American archetype. Elvis. Janis Joplin. Judy Garland. An innocent songbird made to sing until it dies in captivity. His drive was matched by what the public gave him access to. It was a fatal combination… We hunger for these people, and demand their native gift. They need to do what they do, and we need to see it. We cheer their self-destruction.”
Harelik shares little with his musical subject, except a Southern upbringing. Not the lack of education (Harelik attended the University of Texas at Austin before leaving for California ), not the musical background (classical versus country), not the anguish in relationships or addictions or deep-down dissatisfaction.
At 41, Harelik sounds pretty self-satisfied. He just got married last month, he’s acted in over a hundred musicals and straight plays, appearing at prestigious venues such as the Mark Taper Forum, American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Rep, the Old Globe (he starred in “Kiss Me, Kate” in 1984) and the La Jolla Playhouse (he was a convincing Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard” in 1990 and a powerful “Elmer Gantry” in 1991).
He’s been doing just what he wants: confining his acting to this coast, working with Sidney Lumet on the screenplay of “The Immigrant”, while completing its stage sequel, hoping for an active future life for “Lost Highways”. What’s his professional fantasy? “This is it,” he says of his multifaceted involvement in “Highways” — as conceiver, writer, lead actor/singer, musical coordinator. “I’m completely busy and very happy. I don’t feel that I’m singing in a cage.”
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.