Singing the songs of Johnny Cash the way Johnny Cash sang them requires practice and repetition. For Scott Moreau, whose natural voice is a lyrical baritone with a sweet, bright quality, finding the rugged bottom end that’s required to effectively sing the songs of Johnny Cash does not come naturally or without effort.

“I am sure people assume I open my mouth and it just comes out, but a lot of trial and error – and a lot of time – goes into it,” said Moreau, 41, who grew up in Litchfield and whose uncanny ability to sing like Johnny Cash has taken him from Maine to stages across the country and around the world.

“It is still a work in progress, and something I have to work at all the time. To do a lot of the lower stuff, it’s not necessarily in my voice’s nature. I think about it exactly the way I look at working out – you have work up to it. If I haven’t sung Johnny Cash music in six weeks and I try to sing an entire show, my voice does not understand what I am trying to do.”

Moreau, who graduated from Winthrop High School in 1997 and earned a bachelor’s degree in musical theater from Illinois Wesleyan University, will portray Cash this month when Portland Stage and Maine State Music Theatre co-produce “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” at Portland Stage. It’s a jukebox musical about Cash and some of the moments of his life, beginning with his early days sharecropping in Arkansas through his rise and fall as an American cultural icon and his end-of-life spiritual redemption. It’s an unofficial companion piece to “Million Dollar Quartet,” which dramatizes the first recording session in Memphis among Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis in 1956.

Moreau became a fan of Cash while working at Bull Moose in Lewiston. A buddy of his hit play on the CD “American III: Solitary Man,” and Cash’s blood-of-the-earth voice rumbled through the in-store speakers as he sang the opening lines to “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty. “I immediately fell in love with it and became a weirdly obsessed fan,” Moreau said.

Mainer Scott Moreau waits in the wings during a rehearsal of “Ring of Fire” at Portland Stage. Moreau has turned his portrayal of Johnny Cash into a career, touring nationally in this show and “Million Dollar Quartet.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That was in 2002. Moreau went on a deep dive, listening to Johnny Cash music going back to the 1950s, reading all the biographies and watching all the movies. He began singing Cash songs at karaoke bars and open-mike nights, and in 2008 he was cast as the lead in the regional production of “Ring of Fire” at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Moreau, who lives in New York, found his niche in his professional portrayal of Cash. He’ll play other roles on stage, but his portrayal of Cash is his specialty. He has performed in “Million Dollar Quartet” at least 1,100 times, including on the first National Tour of the Tony Award-winning musical, which came to Portland courtesy of Portland Ovations in 2015, and at the Ogunquit Playhouse, which produced the show in 2016. He’s played the Man in Black in various incarnations of “Ring of Fire” many hundred times, and also tours with a tribute show to Cash.

“Ring of Fire” opened on Broadway in 2006 to mixed reviews, quickly went on tour and moved to regional theaters. It was rewritten and revised five years later, with a smaller cast of actors who doubled as on-stage musicians. That’s the version that opens this week at Portland Stage, with five actor-musicians playing 14 instruments among them and more than two dozen Cash classics, including the title song, “I Walk The Line,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and others.

Cash won multiple Grammy Awards and other honors, including a National Medal of the Arts. He’s a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Raised during the Depression, he explored the human condition in music the way Arthur Miller did in theater, writing about human failings and suffering and the need for redemption. Bob Dylan considered him the North Star. “You could guide your ship by him, the greatest of the greats then and now,” Dylan said when Cash died in 2003.

“Ring of Fire” celebrates his achievements by telling stories from his life and through his music, and touches on some of his darker moments as a way to show people he was able to overcome them.

“You cannot tell the full story of his life without acknowledging some of his lower moments. As an obsessive fan, I need all of that,” Moreau said. “Those lower moments are what are most inspirational to me, because you can tell the story of his redemption through them. If you are out there struggling with anything – a bad past, addiction, abuse – you can see that somebody like Johnny Cash had those demons too and overcame all of them.”

The Portland show is co-directed by Katie Barton and Ben Hope, who both act and sing alongside Moreau. The musical director for the Portland production is Eric Anthony, who appeared in the original Broadway cast of “Ring of Fire” in 2006. Anthony and Hope co-wrote and starred in the new Everly Brothers musical, “Dream,” also a co-production of Portland Stage and Maine State that premiered in Brunswick in July.

Moreau is friends with all of them. He has known Hope and Barton for 12 years and Anthony for six, when both were cast in a production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Anthony was a groomsman in Moreau’s wedding last September in Georgetown. The other members of the cast are Morgan Morse and Elizabeth Nestlerode.

Elizabeth Nestlerode and Scott Moreau rehearse the roles of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash in the upcoming musical “Ring of Fire” at Portland Stage. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Which is to say, the people performing on stage in Portland this month have deep connections to both the music and each other. It’s as much a band of musicians and friends who have performed together many times as a cast of actors assembled for a single production. Moreau is trained in musical theater and can sight-read music and perform with anyone on a moment’s notice. But with this group, it’s like playing in a band with friends, and that feeling serves the music well, he said.

“When you are doing a piece like this or ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ there is no book in front of you. You are on stage and figuring out how to play as a band and as a group of musicians, and you are talking more about feel and finding tempos organically and not finding them on a metronome,” Moreau said.

Anthony, the musical director, said “Ring of Fire” demands musical acumen, attention and precision. The musicians need to be adept and confident, and also stay within the confines of the music’s familiarity for the show to work. It’s a huge challenge and reward, he said, and much easier achieved when the musicians know and trust one another.

“The music is so deceivingly simple, and the simplicity of it exposes such deft skill that goes into making the sound. With this music, there is not much sound, so if you miss out on getting it just right, you miss out on the nostalgia part of it for the audience,” he said.

Hope enjoys performing with Moreau because of Moreau’s dedication to Johnny Cash. With Moreau, the performances honor Cash by respecting his music, he said. “Scott is able to evoke Johnny Cash without going so far as to impersonate him,” he said. That said, “He raises the hair on the back of your neck, he sounds so remarkably akin to Johnny Cash.”

Moreau has never been interested in method acting and he lacks the experiences in life that Cash had, so he cannot inhabit the man he portrays on stage. But he has never felt more emotionally connected to material that does not come from his own life as the music and stories of Johnny Cash.

“I do not have any trouble reaching the emotional highs and lows that I reach in this show. I have no problem, because I am so connected to this piece,” he said.

His approach is to honor Cash “by trying to be as true to him as a whole, to his full persona, his life, to his legacy, to his voice and to what I have learned, through all of my research and having now met a lot of people who were close to him in real life. Those conversations about what he was like inform what it is that I do on stage.”

Because of the pandemic, Moreau hasn’t performed this role as much as he might have otherwise. He used his time away from the stage to read books about Cash’s contemporaries – Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, George Jones and others.

When it’s time to loosen up and return to a place where Johnny Cash takes over his own persona, Moreau puts on headphones and listens repeatedly to two Cash albums from start to finish, over and over again: “Ride This Train,” a concept album from 1960 about the railroads and how they changed America, and “Personal File,” which was officially released in 2006 and includes songs that Cash recorded alone in his private studio over a decade beginning in the early 1970s. On both records, Cash introduces the songs and talks about their importance to him – vital information for Moreau.

“How I speak as him is just as important as how I sing,” he said. “Those two records give me everything I am looking for – the sound, the resonance and a lot of different words.”

And a whole lot of soul.


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