On a sunny afternoon the authors and star of the appealing Off-Broadway musical Cowgirls have gathered to chat at an appropriate setting, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village. Never mind that actress Rhonda Coullet is the only one who arrives looking like a cowgirl, in a black shirt with silver-tipped collar, jeans and cowboy boot earrings. We're soon in a down-home mood, digging into corn dogs, chicken and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy and quart-sized glasses of iced tea.
Cowgirls was conceived by composer Mary Murfitt, a classically trained violinist best known for singing and fiddling her way through the homespun 1987 musical revue Oil City Symphony. "I'd written a couple of silly country songs," says Murfitt, a native of Kansas, "and I started thinking about my own background and the combination of classical and country."
The show that resulted, with a book by Betsy Howie, imagines what would happen if the classical "Coghill Trio" rather than the expected "Cowgirl Trio" arrived to perform at the grand reopening of the largest country music hall in Kansas. Could these uptight, citified musicians enter "the kingdom of country" in time to save the hall and its financially strapped owner? Celebrities ranging from Dolly Parton to Itzhak Perlman have come to the Minetta Lane Theatre to find out.
Cowgirls' cast of six includes Murfitt as an uptight violinist, Howie as a naive waitress with a head for numbers, and Coullet as the owner of the music hall, together with actress/musicians Mary Ehlinger, Lori Fischer and Jackie Sanders. Every note of music is played from the stage as the performers accompany themselves on violin, cello, piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, autoharp, percussion, tambourine and grain bucket.
"It took two years to assemble this cast because there were so many qualifications," says Howie.
Murfitt explained, "Some people might have been good enough musicians but not good enough actors. It was very hard. Everyone I trusted told me, 'You've got to get Rhonda Coullet.' But first, we had to find her."
"It was a call from cowgirl heaven," jokes Coullet, who brings a down-to-earth warmth and a strong singing voice to her central role as the music hall's hard-luck owner. A former Miss Arkansas whose Broadway credits include The Robber Bridegroom and Pump Boys and Dinettes, Coullet moved to Nashville in 1989 to concentrate on songwriting. "I'd lived in New York for 17 years, and I decided to go back to the South and live a simple life," she recalls with a laugh. In time, however, she realized that she missed the theatre.
"Exactly a year ago, I went to visit the grave of my grandmother at a country church cemetery in Oak Grove, Arkansas," Coullet says. "It was a ten-hour drive from Nashville, and all the way there and back, I prayed that God would give me some guidance about what to do next. I surrendered control, and when I got home, there was a message asking me to do this show. So my dead grandmother did this for me, God rest her soul."
Murfitt acknowledges that the Cowgirls score is not filled with radio-ready country songs. "Country music tends to go in circles," she observes. "If you put real country songs into a theatrical piece, people would fall asleep." For her part, Coullet says, "What made this show inviting to me is the fact that the music is very contemporary. Anyone who can manage to get a contemporary feel into musical theatre is doing a great service. We need more modern musicals."
One of the nicest things about Cowgirls is the sight of six talented women onstage together in a show that celebrates the strength and individuality of each character. But Betsy Howie, stung by several reviews that felt the show was not feminist enough, bristles at the idea that a musical written, performed and directed by women must have a hidden message. "We didn't set out to write a feminist piece," she says. "We set out to tell an entertaining story. Why do we have to be pegholed or segregated because we're chicks?"
Coullet turns to Howie and responds, "I find it interesting that you have that point of view because you are an evolved, assertive young woman. What am I 25 years older than you? You're what feminists hoped would happen. The women in this show are trying to take their lives into their own hands, and that's something a lot of women still don't do. I spent the past 15 years trying to decide if I was an actor, a musician or a writer. Men never feel they have to make a choice. They do it all!"
The success of Cowgirls has inspired Coullet to go back to work on her own one-woman show, Runaway Beauty Queen, based on her real-life abdication as Miss Arkansas after one too many personal appearances on the back of a flatbed truck. She congratulates Howie on the sale of her first novel, Snow, to Harcourt Brace. "I wonder now why I felt so much conflict about combining writing and performing," Coullet muses. "I think it's because women don't take themselves seriously."
"And neither do other people," adds Murfitt, who says with a smile that her next project will be "something dark very dark. I wish I'd started writing music sooner than I did. I thought music was something you read and played, not something you wrote. There's not a single show except ours running now that was all written by women. Where are the women writers? Where is the place for commercial projects like this?"
The women's mood lightens as they discuss the enthusiastic reaction of young theatregoers to Cowgirls. "Last week a woman came in with five girls of different ages, and they all wanted autographs," Murfitt recalls. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if seeing this show made one of those girls decide to do something different?' "
"When we come out after a show, we see a broad spectrum of people," says Howie. "During the very first production in Florida, old men would come up to us and say, 'Can I be a cowgirl, too?' "
-- By Kathy Henderson