La Jolla Playhouse Ballad of Johnny and June

Wonderful Cash Musical in San Diego

By: - Jun 17, 2024

The La Jolla Playhouse presents The Ballad of Johnny and June, a musical about the lives of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.  Narrated by John Carter Cash, played by Von Hughes, the play begins with John trying to decide if he wants to get married.  John Carter Cash was the only child of the union of Johnny and June.  As John contemplates marriage, he tells the love story of his famous parents and their challenges with fame and addiction. 

According to country music lore, Johnny and June met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry as Johnny was preparing to take the stage.  The play starts with that moment. John then takes us  back in time. June Carter was a member of the famed Carter Family.  In a nice bit of historical storytelling, John outlines how the Carters brought country music to America. June was a princess of American country music royalty.  

Johnny grew up poor in Arkansas with a humorless father who believed any joy derived from music was sinful.  Johnny formed a band, the Tennessee Two, that played gospel music until, as lore would have it, music producer Sam Phillips told the young men to go out and sin and come back with something other than gospel. The group hit it big with ‘Hey Porter’, which would define the railroad beat of many Johnny Cash songs. By the time of that fateful backstage meeting with June, Johnny was famous. They both were married to other people.  

Touring keeps them away from their spouses, who resent having to stay home and manage their families.  As his fame increases, Johnny starts drinking and becomes addicted to drugs.  He is in constant trouble with the law, trashes hotel rooms, misses practices, and nearly misses performances. 

On the road, Johnny and June become closer to each other and farther apart from their families.  Thirteen years after meeting at the Grand Ole Opry both are now divorced. Johnny proposes to June on stage.  They are the King and Queen of American country music. 

Do they live happily ever after? 

They try.  John Carter describes the tremendous strains on their relationship that arose with fame, fortune, and drug addiction.  June tries to keep Johnny from the drugs.  However, through detox clinics, interventions, and constantly throwing out pills stashed around their home, June eventually slides into addiction herself. Through it all,  they support each other.  After 35 years of marriage, June dies of complications from heart surgery., Four months later Johnny dies of complications from diabetes.  John Carter finishes his story and decides he will get married.

The set created by Roger Brill, is designed to resemble a train car.  Rob Melrose’s arrangements of Cash’s music, constantly evoke the feeling of pistons powering a locomotive down the track, providing the energy that powers the play along.  

When the actor Christopher Ryan Grant walks on stage and says, “Hi I’m Johnny Cash”  he is Johnny Cash.  The poses, the way Cash held his guitar, stage presence; is it’s all there and thoroughly believable.  Patti Murin is superb as June Carter Cash, with her big hair, easily channeling the wit and vibe of June on stage.  The actors are supported by an excellent ensemble cast.  

Written by Robert Carey and Des McAnuff, and directed by McAnuff, The Ballad of Johnny and June is a fun country music ride.