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The Cowboy Chronicles

A few tense days later, we met again. Phil asked why I had walked out. I said it was because I thought he had lost his mind. He said that was fine, but walking out wasn't the answer. He had a point, but I noticed that he never again mentioned cowboys in tuxedos riding the bull.

Phil enlisted Eddie Rabin -- who looks like a hippie munchkin -- to be our music director. He also lined up Binder Casting's Tom Cianfichi -- tall, handsome, a Stone Phillips look-alike -- to find our actors.

We decided to hold the auditions in my apartment on the Upper West Side. After all, the price was right. I informed Norman, my 60-year-old doorman, of our plans. He asked me if he could try out, too. I said I'd have to get back to him on that.

At 1 o'clock one afternoon in November 1998, we were all in place, seated on couches and stuffed chairs in my living room: casting director, director, music director, choreographer, writer. We also had two actors, a male and a female, who were just helping out. They would play scenes opposite the auditioners.

The first actor to arrive was named Babs.

"Where do you want me?" asked Babs.

"Over there by the piano," said Phil, who had his black boots on that day.

"Shouldn't she be closer?" I asked. "She's twenty feet away."

"I know," Phil said. "That's too close, but if she backed up any more she would be out on the balcony."

"I still think she should be closer," I persisted. "Why doesn't she sit on the couch?" I wanted Phil to know that I had taken part in auditions before and knew what I was about. After all, I had been the one who spotted Debra Winger . . .

"This isn't a movie," Phil explained patiently. "There aren't any close-ups onstage. Back up, Babs." Auburn-haired, diminutive Babs had come to try out for the part of our hero's Aunt Corene. She sang two songs that she had chosen, making at least two syllables out of all her vowels, so she sounded country.

Babs made me laugh. I liked her. And thankfully I liked the scene we'd written for her, which didn't exist in the movie because it wasn't needed. It was in the show because Bud and Sissy had a costume change.

Next came black-haired, open-faced Chris, who was trying out for Bud. He had been in New York for five days. He sang and then read a scene with our Sissy stand-in.

"How many girls you done?" asked Sissy.

"Well, Spur's a real small town," said Bud. "There was only about five good-lookin' girls in the whole high school. How 'bout you?"

"There was about 2,000 good-lookin' guys in mine."

The small audience sitting in my living room did something wonderful: They laughed. I relaxed a little more. I liked Chris, but not enough. I wrote on my pad: Not a leading man.

An actor named Jamie -- who looked a little like Fonzie on Happy Days -- came in to try out for Bud, and he brought his harmonica with him. He read a scene that included Bud, Sissy, and her rival Pam. Unfortunately, we had only one female reader, so who was going to play Pam? Up stepped our only other reader, Taylor Poarch, a hulking male, an ex-cowboy D.J., the closest thing in the room to John Wayne. Reading Pam in a falsetto voice, he was so good we were tempted to give him the part.

"Hi, Sissy," said Jamie-as-Bud.

"Hi, Bud," said Sissy.

"You happy?" he asked.

"Hell, yes. I finally got what I wanted. I got me a real cowboy."

"Well, I finally got what I wanted, too. I got myself a real lady."

Enter Taylor-as-Pam. He was the voice of all my Texas aunts and all my Texas uncles at the same time.

"You're drunk," Taylor-as-Pam said to Sissy. "Ever tried AA? By the way, nice tattoo."

"Screw you," Sissy hissed. I felt sorry for Jamie, who'd gotten lost in the scene. My advice to young thespians: Never go up against somebody who is both a better actor and a better actress than you are.

So far, I was impressed. In Hollywood, you can go for days or even weeks without finding a single prospect. In New York, if you want to be in a musical, you actually have to know how to do something -- i.e., sing or dance or, preferably, both. (I guess in Hollywood, anybody can call himself an actor. Not only is the talent more diluted, but Hollywood has Bob Evans -- our producer. On my first day at Paramount, the casting director handed me two stacks of pictures. "These are the girls for Bob Evans," she said, "and these are the girls who can act.")

At the end of the day, we had two possible Buds, but despite the talent glut, we still didn't have a possible Sissy. I started to worry, because I knew from my movie experience that Sissys were hard to find. After hundreds of auditions, we'd actually left Hollywood for Houston to make the movie without a Sissy. Debra Winger and Michelle Pfeiffer both flew down. They danced with John Travolta on Gilley's vast dance floor, and they rode the mechanical bull.

I told everybody who would listen: Michelle is prettier, but Debra is sexier. Not everyone agreed. Bob Evans pronounced Debra "unfuckable." He said he "wouldn't fuck her with a ten-foot pole." To his credit, Michael Eisner, then president of Paramount, told him: "Bob, your problem is you're not married. I am, and I can tell you, they all look fuckable to me."

The truth was, Phil had someone in mind to play Sissy: a 17-year-old high-school senior named Lauren Lucas who lived in Columbia, South Carolina. He had worked with her in a Houston production of a charming vehicle called Take This Show and Shove It.

"She's gorgeous," Phil said. "She scares the boys away. I don't think she's ever been kissed." I e-mailed Lauren the script. When she finished reading it, she called to say that Bud couldn't touch her breasts. In the movie, Travolta cupped Debra Winger's breasts at the wedding reception for a gag photo. We had planned to carry this scene over into the musical. But not this time, unfortunately.

A couple of days later, we had call-backs. First up was James Carpinello, 22, who reminded me of a young Travolta but with a bigger nose. He wore a plain white T-shirt, motorcycle boots, and muscles from the gym. Born and raised near Albany, he didn't sound much like a cowboy, but then, Travolta had been more urban than cowboy when I first met him. We offered James the job. He wanted to know what it was like to work with John Travolta. Was he "method"? Was he difficult?