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.
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?
“No, he wasn’t difficult,” I said. “And he wasn’t method either. His mother was an acting teacher. He thought he could act the role without having to live it.”
While we were shooting the movie, everybody wore cowboy clothes – cast, crew, director, writer – everyone but John Travolta. As soon as we wrapped each evening, he would strip off his cowboy shirt and put on a T-shirt. He would exchange his cowboy boots for huge running shoes. He seemed to need to put a wall between himself and the role. But the day we finished shooting the movie, Travolta started wearing nothing but cowboy clothes.
Winger was just the opposite. She wanted to live the role in order to act the role. She thought the two of them should have real sex and real fights. But John wouldn’t play. That is, he wouldn’t play until we came to the scene in which he was supposed to slap her. Suddenly he got real. He slapped her so hard he knocked out one of her front teeth. Debra had finally gotten John to fight for real, but she still got nowhere trying to seduce him. Until we stopped shooting. Then John Travolta had an affair with Debra Winger and even asked her to marry him. But she said no. The movie was over.
Clint Black never did make it to the reading. “Just how interested are you in doing the music for Urban Cowboy?” I asked him over the phone.
“Well, I do have some problems with it,” Clint admitted in his Texas-cured drawl. “You know, people think Urban Cowboy changed country music. Made it less pure.”
“It helped bring a lot of people to country music who hadn’t been fans before,” I said. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“It was just too popular. People don’t like that. Would you be willing to change the name?”
“No!” I said a little too sharply.
He sent $3,000 to help pay for the reading he would miss.
Phil and I had our second fight. wedisagreed about who should play Pam. He said my choice was just like every girl he had ever seen in every chorus. I said his Pam was even worse. Later he called to say that my Pam had a conflict and couldn’t do the role anyway. I sort of believed him.
This time we invited show people. Mike Nichols offered kind words and welcome advice: He thought we should change the ending.
Actors Equity allows only twenty hours of rehearsal before a read-through. We started on Sunday at noon. We had four days to get the show on its feet, and we got off to an unpromising start. Jodi Stevens, Phil’s blonde and beautiful Pam, showed up in character: Like the spoiled rich girl she was to play, Jodi hadn’t done her homework. We wasted two precious hours going over the lyrics. I felt a spasm of pessimism. We were never going to be ready by Thursday!
Norman-my-doorman announced the arrival of Lauren Lucas, our 17-year-old Sissy. Tall, probably five-foot-ten. Well-constructed. Lovely face with a nose that tilted slightly upward. And long brown hair down to her shoulder blades. She really was Sissy from the first moment I saw her. It didn’t hit me until later that Lauren hadn’t even been born when the movie Urban Cowboy opened.
James Carpinello, our Bud, arrived; fortunately, he and Lauren had learned the words and most of the notes. When we rehearsed the falling-in-love scene, nobody kissed nobody.
Two hours later came Jim Newman, who would play Wes, the outlaw. Jim was from Alabama, so he already had a southern – if not quite a Texas – accent. He sang a Travis Tritt song about a convict who broke out of jail. In the movie, Wes was out on parole, but the real-life character he was based on was an escapee hiding out at Gilley’s. Phil pronounced Jim “perfect.”
On the second day of rehearsals, Sissy was first up.
“I’m set on fencin’ in a desperado/ takes my breath away like Colorado,” Lauren sang, taking my breath away, “who ain’t afraid to walk a mile in my boots, ooohh, Buckaroo.”
Then Jodi arrived. This time, she was ready. “Here’s Pam’s story,” Phil said. “It’s that business of I love you, you’re perfect, now change. She’s making him into her daddy. What she really wants is to feel, and she does feel in this song.”
James Carpinello arrived, as always in white T-shirt, and got right to work.
“James, you’re going into TV acting,” Phil warned. “You’ve got to stay big.”
Tuesday, the penultimate rehearsal day, our Uncle Bob, Michael Mulheren, who had been sick, arrived more or less healthy and completely in character: avuncular and caustic. Michael’s body is built on a wide chassis: He reminded me of a truck. In the musical, Uncle Bob’s job is to tell Bud when he is screwing up, so Michael lectured James all day long. “Now, James, if you don’t straighten up,” he drawled, “I’m gonna have to take you out back and introduce you to somebody you don’t wanna meet.” When somebody mentioned that my wife, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, was going to be our narrator at the reading, Michael asked: “What’s the matter, Ed Bradley wasn’t available?”
I wanted Michael to be my Texas uncle. Some of them had let me down lately.
Two mornings later, 60 rented folding chairs arrived at my apartment. We had scheduled the reading for two in the afternoon. As the invited audience began arriving, I hid out in my office. When I heard the piano, I emerged but stayed at the back of the room. We had a more than full house. I recognized the back of my daughter Taylor’s head; she had driven down from Amherst College for the performance and would drive back as soon as it was over. I also recognized my agent, Sterling Lord. But mostly I recognized friends. We had deliberately not invited producers or investors, because we didn’t think we were ready for them yet.
Lauren made a dramatic entrance, coming down a winding staircase. She and James had a long talk under a starry New York living-room Texas sky. Would they kiss at the end of the scene? Yes, they kissed. Was it her first kiss?
Lesley drew the biggest laugh. As narrator, she was called upon to describe the aftereffects of Bud’s first rides on the mechanical bull. He kept getting hurt in the same painful place.
“Thanks to the bull, his balls are bruised,” said my wife. “Aaron, do I have to keep saying balls?”
Our second staged reading – held last January – was in most ways superior to the first. Instead of my living room, we had the Clark Theater at Lincoln Center. Instead of just a piano player, we had a piano and a band. The $11,000 in production costs was underwritten by Prosper Arts, a small nonprofit production company run by a very young producer named Matthew Putman.
We had decided to field a different cast, because we thought we would learn more from seeing new faces and hearing new voices. We were fortunate to find a truly dazzling Sissy in Natasha Diaz, half Puerto Rican and half Italian, a Sissy who cried real tears onstage. We cast Jeremy Kushnier, the star of Footloose, as Bud. As Jesse, we were blessed with The Voice, B. J. Crosby, star of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which had just closed.
We also had a new music director, the tall, handsome, manic John Rosen, who not only played piano but also wrote some new songs for us. We used one of them to open the show:
Bud: Hello, Houston, here I am / I heard that this is the promised land / I got nothin’ to lose but my innocence.
We even had Miss America: Kate Shindle, our new Pam, won the title in 1998. “Would you do a nude scene?” Phil asked.
“I’m really conscious of being Miss America,” she said. “It would have to be really integral to the story. I wouldn’t audition for Hair.”
“Aaron, would you do a nude scene?” Phil asked.
“Not only would I not do a scene with my clothes off,” I said, “I wouldn’t do a scene with my clothes on.”
This time, we invited show people. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein said kind things about our play. Mike Nichols also offered kind words and welcome advice: He thought we should change the ending. A representative from Disney loved the show but said Disney was only interested in making Disney musicals out of Disney movies.
I loved our second reading, saw how far we had come since the first, but I also felt restless and somewhat frustrated: I wanted to see the show on its feet and the mechanical bull kicking up its heels.
We submitted the script to lots of theaters; the Gloucester Stage Company invited us to come up to Massachusetts. They would underwrite the $65,000 production and make back roughly half that much on ticket sales. We would rehearse for two weeks and run for three.
On our first day of rehearsals, we had a nor’easter. The wind blew, the rain fell in torrents, and, worst of all, it was about 40 degrees in our unheated rehearsal rooms. Phil wandered about with Lindy’s pashmina shawl draped over his head (“It’s called Madonna with beard,” he muttered).
We had a new hero, because by now our first Bud (James Carpinello) was starring in Saturday Night Fever on Broadway (he got to play Travolta after all), and our second Bud (Jeremy Kushnier) was still starring in Footloose. We also had a new Sissy, because Natasha Diaz was starring in Pippin at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
We rehearsed at a dance camp in nearby Rockport. Upstairs was a big bare studio with one mirrored wall. Downstairs, we had a living room and a kitchen, both of which were freezing. We started with the dancing. If our show gets to Broadway, we will have twenty dancers, but in Gloucester we had two – Lindy and her partner, Chad Shiro – assisted by our new co-choreographer, Robert Royston. Lindy and Chad did a number of showy duets designed to divert the audience while stagehands moved furniture on and off the set.
“Something’s wrong,” said Phil. “I said I didn’t want the dancing to be country the way you see it on TNN or CMT. But in what you’re doing now, there isn’t enough country. You need to slow it down. You need steps instead of pirouettes.”
Lindy and Chad slowed it down, but not enough, according to Phil. “When we were doing The Will Rogers Follies,” Phil said, “we did this one dance where everybody was sitting down in a chair. It was the best dance in the show. In a dance, you need to define a limitation. That’s what makes it great. So this time, why don’t you pretend that your feet are nailed to the floor.”
Lindy and Chad entwined their bodies and writhed like snakes with their tails nailed down.
The snakes writhed more slowly.
“Slower. The slower, the sexier. If it’s really sexy, you don’t have to do too much. The audience isn’t going to be bored.”
They danced together like two willows, their roots anchored in the earth, limbs blowing gently in the wind, and they weren’t boring.
Then Phil and I took Pam and Bud downstairs to rehearse dialogue. Not only did I not have a coat, but I hadn’t even brought a sweater or sweatshirt. I considered taking down the drapes and wrapping myself in them.
“You’re speaking too precisely,” Phil told David Elder. He might just be the best Bud we have had. But he grew up in Houston and has been trying to play down his accent ever since.
“I’m sorry, diction is a big thing with me,” David said.
“God, I hate diction queens,” Phil retorted, laughing.
More scenes. More freezing.
“Bud has no subtext,” Phil said. “Pam is all subtext. Bud just means what he says. Pam, no matter what she says, means ‘I want to get laid.’ “
At 6 p.m., we finally broke. We all ran for the cars, because cars have heaters.
I reported to Phil’s place at 10 A.M. to work on the script. We kept on fiddling with the opening, which was supposed to be a combination of song and monologue by Bud. It was to begin with his saying good-bye to Spur, so I wrote:
BUD: I passed the Cadillac dealership, closed. Passed the John Deere dealership, closed. Passed the movie theater, closed. Passed the funeral parlor, open. That’s the only growth industry in town.
At noon, we went to the theater to rendezvous with three newly arrived actors: funny woman Susan Mansur (Aunt Corene), melodious Michael Arkin (Uncle Bob), and Angela Pupello (Sissy), who had finally gotten in around five o’clock in the morning. We piled into cars and headed for the dance camp to rehearse.
Phil and I worked with Bud and Sissy in the downstairs living room, and I learned another way in which plays are different from movies. Making a movie, the director usually lets the actors do whatever they want on the first take. Then he or she will say something vague like: “Give me a different color,” and then, “Let’s do it again.” Later he or she goes in the cutting room and picks a favorite performance. In other words, film directors don’t want every take to be the same. What would be the point? But theater directors want to find a performance that can be infinitely repeated. One just like the other, over and over, night after night. So Phil kept stopping the actors every few words to give them notes. That tactic would be expensive in the movie business, since it would waste a lot of film.
Lesley proposed a toast: “When you get to Broadway, break a leg and all their hearts.”
The next morning, we moved into the theater for the first time – 267 East Main Street. We had a home at last. It felt cozy – there was heat, for one thing – but tense. Tom Zemon, the actor playing Wes, our villain, was acting a little too villainous offstage. When Phil confronted him, he apologized, saying he was so used to playing villains that he often came across as more negative than he intended. The rest of the day, Tom followed us all around like a puppy hoping to be petted.
After rehearsal, Piano John came over to Phil’s to work on the opening song. They had a huge fight. Phil accused him of not being willing to cut anything. John accused Phil of destroying his music. Piano John also complained about his room. No phone. No curtains. Lumpy mattress. Misery upon misery.
Lesley came up to watch rehearsals. She was crazy about Tom. “He’s going to steal the show,” Lesley predicted. “I know you wanted to fire him.”
“I got over that.”
“I never liked those songs until I heard him sing them,” she added.
Then Tom fell asleep on the stage and snored while two other actors were rehearsing a scene. “Pay no attention to the beast,” Phil said.
When it was his turn to rehearse, Tom woke up energized. As he sang “I know I broke the law,” he put broke in quotes by crooking two fingers on each hand. During a break, Piano John started imitating him, gesticulations and all: “I know I stabbed my wife. I know she bled on the carpet …” On and on.
Angela chimed in: “I know I used a chainsaw on my mother …”
Then phil got in a fight with Daria Hardeman, who played Jesse. We were rehearsing the scene where Wes blackmails Jesse into letting him stay in the trailer out behind Gilley’s. Jesse said maybe it wasn’t blackmail. Maybe Jesse secretly liked Wes. I thought maybe she had a point, but Phil didn’t.
“No, it’s just blackmail,” Phil said. “She won’t have anything to do with him. Not now. Not anymore.”
“Okay,” Jesse said, shaking her head.
“Why are you shaking your head?” demanded Phil. “I hate it when an actor agrees but shakes her head. If you disagree, tell me.”
“I’ll do it your way,” said Jesse. “You’re the boss.”
“I find that insulting,” Phil replied. “I find that highly insulting.”
When Phil finally calmed down, the actors did the scene the way he wanted. Later, Wes noticed that we had moved his last song from after the rodeo to before it. He said he wasn’t sure the change would work for him. Oh, no. After rehearsal, Phil surprised me: “He’s right.” We would go back to the old progression: The song would come after the rodeo.
“Jesse will kill me,” Phil said.
Lesley and I had dinner at the Yankee Clipper. We both had lobster, which is strangely hard to find in Gloucester-by-the-sea.
When David-as-Bud strolled onstage to begin the show at a few minutes past eight, I was in the front row with an empty seat beside me; this time, Lesley was the victim of our bad weather, her flight delayed. Bud introduced himself to the audience with a song:
BUD: In the town of Spur, my momma had a baby (me)
In the shadow of a West Texas hill
My daddy sold his favorite milk-cow just to pay the doctor bill
Don’t you know he had to pay the doctor bill
Which is exactly what my father had to do when I was born in Spur once upon a time.
The first act flew by. It was running more smoothly than I had dared to hope. But the second act seemed to have slowed down. And then something went wrong onstage. Two actors were supposed to walk on, but three stepped out instead. The two who belonged were Bud and the rich girl, Pam. The third, who didn’t, was Aunt Corene. Not knowing what to do, she just stood there – trying to play a floor lamp – while Bud and Pam played their scene.
If we had been doing our show on Broadway, we would have had weeks of previews to fix our mistakes. But here we were in Gloucester without such a luxury. And there were the critics, ready or not. The Boston Globe’s Ed Siegel wrote: “Ooee! Them folks in Gloucester sure know how to partyyy. Remember that movie Urban Cowboy … Well, they turned it into a good ol’ musical type thing with a buncha songs from the country station and a whole lotta bellybuttons. Ooee!” and on like that. Some people thought Siegel was simply making fun of us. Some others thought he liked it. I have no idea what he was trying to say.
The Boston Herald said the show was “a lot of fun” but felt “the action slows to a crawl” in the second act. Well, they got that right. Our host, playwright Israel Horovitz, the artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Co., summed it up: “You got one demented and one good review.”
The next day, Phil told me he had learned something from Aunt Corene’s gaffe. Maybe she had done us a favor. How so? Well, in her own mind, she had obviously cut the Bud-Pam scene she walked into. What if subconsciously she was right? Did we really need that Bud-Pam scene? What would happen if we cut it?
“Let’s try it,” I said. That evening we did, and the second act flowed much better. After Sunday’s matinee, the cast had two days off. They came back rested and did a great job Wednesday night. I was elated. We invited tour bookers to Gloucester. They liked the show and wanted to send us on the road. One even mentioned investing a million dollars. We’ll see.
Over the three-week run, our audiences kept getting larger. We sold out our final week. The last performance was our best. The audience gave the cast a standing ovation. We all went out to a restaurant called the Rudder and danced until almost dawn. During a pause in the dancing, Lesley proposed a toast: “When you get to Broadway, break a leg and all their hearts.”
Our next step will be a run in February in Fort Myers, Florida, followed by a possible tour and … Broadway? I am in that all-too-familiar position of hoping but trying not to hope too much. Some mornings, I wake up and feel that all my red blood cells have taken on extra oxygen and are pumping me up with optimism. Other mornings, I wake up with no oxygen in my red blood cells. Hope gasps for air.
The curtain is going up on a whole new act in my life. There will be no guaranteed happy ending. This isn’t a movie; this is theater, and I am on the edge of my seat. No, Phil isn’t Jim Bridges, but I’ve stopped needing him to be. Phil and I never write the same dialogue overnight, but we do agree on things the next morning. Usually. And for a time, at least, my cowboy has indeed come back.