'Urban Cowboy' survives Broadway

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2003

NEW YORK -- Forget mechanical bulls.

If you want to talk about rough riding, consider the journey of the new Broadway musical ''Urban Cowboy,'' based on the 1980 movie that made barroom bull-riding a national pastime.

In the space of 48 hours last weekend, the $4.5 million show opened, decided to close and then got a last-minute reprieve.

Those are some serious bumps -- but they were only the latest in the show's turbulent history. It has weathered setback after setback since it began life six years ago.

''Every time we turned around, there was a new problem,'' says Chase Mishkin, who is co-producing the show with Leonard Soloway. ''It became a joke: What's the crisis of the day on 'Urban Cowboy'?''

Here's a sampling from the past year leading up to the show's opening:

Phillip Oesterman, the original director and co-writer of the book, died suddenly before the show's out-of-town tryout in Florida.

One of the principal actors and the musical director were replaced.

A dancer broke his fingers; the leading lady sprained her ankle.

A musicians' strike cut into rehearsal time.

Even the mechanical bull -- the show's centerpiece -- wouldn't work. At first, it was operated by a computer, but that didn't allow for missed cues and variations in the show's pace. Now, it is run manually, but at less-than-thrilling speeds to keep the actors from being thrown.

''Someone joked that the locusts would be coming next,'' Mishkin says wearily.

The truth, once the musical opened, was even worse in Broadway terms: a swarm of poor reviews and sluggish ticket sales. The day after opening night, a defeated Mishkin announced it would close after just four regular performances, one of the shortest Broadway runs in recent memory.

The show's rocky journey to Broadway began smoothly. Back in 1997, Oesterman pitched his concept for the musical to Aaron Latham, who had written the original Esquire magazine story on which the Debra Winger-John Travolta movie was based (Latham also co-wrote the screenplay).

Latham was sold, and the two began a harmonious writing partnership.

Oesterman had a rather ambitious goal: to create a new kind of musical. He saw the songs being almost incidental to the story, much as they are in the movie, where the soundtrack is memorable but plays mostly in the background.

''Phil's idea was a play with music,'' Latham says. ''It should start with talking, talking, talking, and the music doesn't begin for 15 to 20 minutes, when you have your first song.''

But the musical took an entirely new direction when Oesterman died of heart failure in July 2002. Mishkin asked Lonny Price (''A Class Act'') to direct; he took the reins just as the show was beginning its Florida tryout. Price's first move was to scrap Oesterman's ''play-with-music'' approach.

''The music was decorative as opposed to dramatic, and I found it very confusing,'' Price says. ''I didn't feel that the music was serving the show or vice versa.''

Price retained a few tunes Oesterman and Latham had chosen, including songs from the movie and current country radio hits such as ''Something That We Do'' by Clint Black and ''Boot Scootin' Boogie'' by Brooks & Dunn. But he scrapped others, and replaced the original musical director with composer Jason Robert Brown (''Parade''), who also wrote some new songs to drive the plot.

The result was a show that bore increasingly little resemblance to Oesterman's original vision.

''The thing (Oesterman and I) wanted to do was give people something they didn't expect,'' Latham says. ''Don't have an opening number, don't have the curtain going up on somebody saying, 'Yahoo!'

''Now we've got the curtain going up on an opening number with somebody saying, 'Yahoo!' and shooting a gun,'' he says with a laugh. ''So I'm sure Phil is turning in his grave.''

Price and the producers cut one of Latham's favorite numbers, ''Honey I'm Home'' -- the Shania Twain hit -- a week before opening because it didn't contribute to the plot.

Quibbles aside, though, Latham says the show as a whole improved under Price's direction. ''Lonny made it into something more fun and more moving,'' he says.

Because the musical's overhaul didn't begin until its out-of-town tryout last fall, revisions continued practically until opening night on Broadway, March 27. The changes were especially hard on the performers, who had to learn new stage directions and lines at a moment's notice.

''They had so many line changes every day, and they were scared,'' says choreographer Melinda Roy. Roy herself grieved when her dances were dropped, even though she saw the logic in most of the cuts.

Finally, opening night arrived, and the cast and creative team took a leap of faith, confident they had transformed the show into a winner.

The leap, though, seemed to end in a hard fall.

''When the reviews came out, I picked up a towel and threw it in the middle of the room,'' Mishkin says. The producers decided to close the show to avoid further financial losses.

The two performances that were to have been the last were heart-rending for the company. ''There were people on stage about to lose it, and during costume changes we would grab somebody and hug them and then go on stage,'' says Jenn Colella, who plays Sissy, the show's female lead.

Latham took the news even harder.

''I was really devastated. I spent something like 24 hours in bed,'' he says. ''I kept trying to tell myself that the journey itself was the most important thing, but then I would come back to this overwhelming sadness.''

He had written, in his estimation, at least 1,000 pages of revisions on the script, struggling to make the original ''Urban Cowboy'' story -- high on gritty detail but short on plot -- suitable for the stage.

Dozing fitfully during his day in bed, Latham had an impossible, far-fetched dream: There had been a mistake, and ''Cowboy'' would stay open after all. A few hours later, he roused himself to attend what was to have been the show's last hurrah. He showed up late because he knew it would be painful.

Then, as the curtain came down, Price walked on stage and announced that Mishkin and Soloway had decided to keep the show running. Latham watched in disbelief as his impossible dream came true.

The cast, too, was in shock. ''Time just stopped,'' Colella says. ''Out of the corner of my eye, I saw (co-star) Matt Cavenaugh bent over, weeping.''

Mishkin says she found an investor willing to float a last-minute loan, giving ''Cowboy'' enough cash ($500,000, including $250,000 of her own money) to run at least a few more weeks. She wanted to keep the show open, she says, for two reasons: a deluge of phone calls from audience members begging her to give it another chance, and a sense of responsibility to the cast.

Mishkin also thinks the show might find an audience if given a chance, particularly among out-of-towners, who are less swayed by poor notices -- and are less snobbish -- than New Yorkers.

''I can't help it if Manhattan theatergoers are going to listen to (negative reviews). It's still an entertaining show,'' she says.

''Whether you think the book is thin -- it is. It's a simple love story. But it's no more simple than any other musical that's running successfully.''

Meanwhile, the day after their reprieve, actors and chorus members planned to don their costumes several hours early and campaign outside Theater Development Fund's discount ticket booth in Times Square, where tourists stand in line to buy reduced-price tickets.

''We'll do whatever it takes to make this show succeed,'' Colella says, her voice warm with optimism.

Latham, too, is again riding high -- at least for now. ''Right now I feel great,'' he says, and then laughs nervously. ''But if we have to close again in a few days, I won't feel quite as great.''


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