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The Cowboy Chronicles

Twenty years after riding a mechanical bull to big-screen fortune and fame, the urban cowboy returns as a stage hero -- and the author finds that putting on a show isn't anything like they say it is in the movies.

An Overture

I got a letter out of the void from somebody named Phillip Oesterman, asking if I would like to try to turn my movie Urban Cowboy into a Broadway musical.

Of course, it wasn't really my movie. It was John Travolta and Debra Winger's movie, and director Jim Bridges's movie. But I was co-author of the screenplay, which was based on a magazine story I'd written in 1978 for Clay Felker at Esquire magazine called "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit." Set in a huge honky-tonk in Houston, the piece told the story of an unusual love triangle: a girl, a boy, and a mechanical bull. The boy's problem was that the girl could ride the bull better than he could. Soon after the tale was published, Hollywood started calling. So many people wanted to buy it that I was able to get first crack at writing the script. Before long, I was taking transcontinental flights to that cruel city that had abused the talents of Fitzgerald and Faulkner (but was nice to me).

When the movie came out, I heard myself saying in lots of interviews that the cowboy is the only truly mythic figure that America had created so far. He comes to the fore in the culture, then he recedes for a time, but he always seems to reemerge when we're uncertain about the future.

Now, some twenty years later, I found myself hoping that what was true for the culture might also prove to be true for the individual (namely, me). For at the moment, I was uncertain about my own future. As it happens, I'd always thought Urban Cowboy would make a good musical -- as Rodgers and Hammerstein demonstrated, Broadway musicals and cowboys were made for each other -- but I hadn't done anything about it.

And it looked as if i never would: I promptly misplaced Phil's letter until, a couple of months later at my wife's urging, I dug it up and made the call. Phil -- a Texan, like me -- turned out to be a Broadway veteran who, through a lifelong association with director and choreographer Tommy Tune, had helped launch such shows as My One and Only, Grand Hotel, and The Will Rogers Follies.

I suggested lunch. That was fine with Phil. We agreed to meet at his apartment, which is at the end of a long corridor on the ninth floor of a building on West 42nd Street. I showed up feeling wary, hopeful, and hungry. Phil suggested we talk on the roof. I followed him up film-noirish stairs to a sunny rooftop garden in full bloom. We sat down at a picnic table, joined by his partner, Nakies Constantinou, beneath a large umbrella. Oddly, there was no sign of lunch. Our meeting consisted of a two-hour, no-calorie conversation, during which Phil grilled me on my taste in Broadway shows (and found it wanting) and we agreed to collaborate on writing Urban Cowboy for the musical stage. Then he took me to an apartment across the hall to introduce me to our choreographer. Melinda Roy -- Lindy -- had been a star of the New York City Ballet until a knee injury cut her career short at 30. We didn't have a script or a producer or any money, but we had a choreographer. I left West 42nd Street puzzled by Phil. What was he really like? Who was he? Why hadn't we eaten?

I was 55 years old and had just published a book about my father that everybody said was going to be a best-seller. It wasn't. I was more than ready to welcome the cowboy back into my life.

And I couldn't help thinking of Jim Bridges, who taught me how to write screenplays. When I showed Jim my initial attempt at a script for Urban Cowboy, he politely informed me that most screenplays are not written in the past tense. Then we moved into an office on the Paramount lot, a big room with one desk and two typewriters. His was an IBM Selectric, and I pounded a Royal manual upright straight out of The Front Page. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and write a scene. The next morning, I would show Jim my pages. Then he would show me the pages he'd written in the middle of the night. And the dialogue would always be the same. Only his typing was better.

Jim died of cancer in 1993, and I have been looking for a replacement ever since -- as my collaborator, as my best friend, as my mentor. Could Phil be the one? By now I was 55 years old and had just published a book about my father that everybody said was going to be a best-seller. It wasn't. I tried teaching but didn't like that. There had been other personal disappointments as well. I was more than ready to welcome the cowboy back into my life.


A few days after our first meeting, I returned to West 42nd Street with another novice effort, this time at writing for the musical stage. Phil looked over my dozen or so pages.

"You can't get there from here," he said.

"What are you talking about?!" I retorted, nervously.

"Well, in this scene, you have Bud falling off a refinery tower," Phil explained calmly. "And in the very next scene you have him taking a bath. Not even Harry Houdini could make that costume change. You just can't get there from here."

No splicing scenes together in the editing room. Getting it, I felt a little better.

Day after day, we met in Phil's apartment because he had to smoke. His living room had a high ceiling with huge greenhouse windows overlooking the 42nd Street police station. Two cats, Jasmine and Pali, patrolled his property. Phil worked in a T-shirt, shorts, and bedroom slippers while I wore blue jeans and cowboy boots. He suggested taking two or even three scenes from the movie and turning them into one. Instead of having, say, six scenes taking place around the mechanical bull, we compressed them into three. And he kept saying: "The more surreal, the better."

As we talked, I took notes in longhand. Then I typed the new ideas into a computer version of the growing script. It was good just to be writing again, and I felt optimistic. I enjoyed my reunion with characters who hadn't aged while I had gotten a couple of decades older. Phil continued to articulate and elucidate the differences between musicals and movies, the principal one being this: In a movie, a character can almost never say what he or she really means. If he does, it's called being "too on the nose." Filmmakers hate that. They want to say it without saying it. You don't have the hero say: "I love you." You have him say instead: "You have nice eyes."

Musicals are just the opposite. If you want characters to say what they really mean, what they really feel, you have them sing a song. The song expresses what's inside their hearts, inside their souls.

We actually tried to write some of these on-the-nose songs ourselves: We rhymed scratch your itch with trailer hitch, rough dollar with blue collar, and the ever-popular assholes with elbows.

That was when Phil suggested we needed professional help. He wanted to send our script to Clint Black. I liked the idea of Clint's doing our music, even though signing him would mean losing my favorite song in the movie, "Lookin' for Love." Unfortunately, he hadn't written it. We sent him the script anyway.

Clint called Phil and pronounced the project a "good thing," but he had some reservations. Phil suggested that he come to New York, where we would do a reading for him with actors, singers, and a piano player. We would interpolate some of his songs into the show (though we hoped he would write new songs later on). Clint agreed. We set a date.

With time now of the essence, I switched from taking notes by hand to typing changes directly into the computer. At the worst possible time, Phil and I had our first real fight. He suggested that we introduce the mechanical bull for the first time at Bud and Sissy's wedding. He wanted the cowboys to ride it in their tuxedos. I closed my laptop, got up, and walked out of the apartment, reminding myself that Jim Bridges and I had never fought.