Urban Cowboy Company Struts Its Stuff, and Shows Some Skin, at Press Preview

News   Urban Cowboy Company Struts Its Stuff, and Shows Some Skin, at Press Preview
The score to the new Broadway musical, Urban Cowboy, is a "potpourri of songs," director Lonny Price told media visitors at a Feb. 13 rehearsal-hall preview of the show.
Matt Cavenaugh
Matt Cavenaugh Photo by Ernio Hernandez

The musical — set to begin performances at the Broadhurst Theatre Feb. 27 prior to a March 27 opening — is based on the 1980 film of the same name, and the score is "collected from a bunch of different sources," Price explained. "The first is the film, we also have what I'm calling 'Country-Western Modern Classics' or 'Modern Country-Western Classics.' And in addition to that I think we're up to 11 original songs by a bunch of people, but the bulk of them have been written by our conductor-arranger-orchestrator Jason Robert Brown."

However you define the score, the show still maintains its hit standard, "Lookin' for Love," by Wanda Mallette, Patti Ryan and Bob Morrison, which the creative team suggested was the universal theme of the new show.

The libretto is co-written by Aaron Latham, who co-penned the screenplay for the movie that starred Debra Winger and John Travolta. Latham, whose article for Esquire inspired the movie in the first place, was among the creative team present for the sneak peek.

Introducing the show's choreographer, Melinda Roy, who makes her Broadway debut with Urban Cowboy, Price said, "The trickiest thing to doing a new musical is finding a choreographer. It seems like there's a list of three or four people we use over and over and over again. But I think after today, and certainly after this season, another name will be added to that list... A former soloist for the City Ballet, known there as the 'Bad Ballerina.'"

The director then noted that 14 of the young, strapping and scantily-clad actors in the ensemble are also making their Broadway debuts with this show. Included in that group are the young leads Jenn Colella (playing Sissy, the Winger role) and, as Price puts it, "our very own Urban Cowboy, you've seen him half-naked all over the city," Matt Cavenaugh, playing Bud, the part made famous by Travolta. The actor's image is on the theatre marquee and in ads, showing him straddling a mechanical bull. His shirt is unbuttoned, offering a glimpse of his sweat-slicked, muscular torso. Price then gave way to a performance of the opening number of the musical, "Long Hard Day," written by Bob Stillman, quipping, "The time is 1980, the place is Houston, Texas." With that, Brown counted out "5,6,7 and" as a young cowgirl in the ensemble let out a holler and the barflies of the fictional Gilley's Bar began their hootin' and honky-tonk dancing.

The next song performed, "Boots Scootin' Boogie," by Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn), involves the first encounter of the leads, Bud and Sissy. From that number, Cavenaugh and Colella played the scene which precedes "It Don't Get Better Than This," a song by Brown in which Bud reminisces about his home — described in the show as "about as far away as you can get and still be in Texas."

A second act number "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" by Jerry Chestnut (originally performed by Elvis Presley and more recently by Travis Tritt) was sung as a live performance at the show's central watering hole. The press event concluded with a performance of the show's finale "Lookin' For Love" by Johnny Lee.

Composer-lyricist Brown (a Tony Award-winner for Parade), who adds five songs to the show, told Playbill On-Line Bud is introduced with a new song called "It Don't Get Better Than This." Brown explained, "We needed to establish him as a real leading man and somebody who really wanted something, a simple life, a home life. "Then, one of the things that was most needed when I came on board was a good song for the bad guy. Bad guy songs are hard to write; they're really tricky. And so I said I wanted to take a crack at that. He sings a song all in the guise of seducing Sissy, so he sings about riding the (mechanical) bull. Then Bud has the finale of Act One, which is a big heartbreaking soliloquy that he sings with a lot of high notes and that's called 'I Take It Back.' Then Sissy herself has a song in the second act when she finally decides she's had enough of Bud being a big loser called 'Mr. Hopalong Heartbreaker.'"

Brown, who handles a number of tasks for the production (including arranger, orchestrator, composer and musical director) gets his own moment to shine — as a singer — in the show's entr'acte. "I have a song that I sing myself at the top of the second act called 'That's How Texas Was Born' which is just to introduce the band and set the audience up for a good time," Brown explained.

"It's a country show, but it's also a blues show and sort of a gospel show," said Brown, who joined the team just before the production in Florida in 2002. "It's a very loose, very spontaneous, very live show, a show that relies so much on the energy of the musicians every night."

The show has changed since the run at Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse late last year, Price confirmed to Playbill On-Line: "I would say about 30 percent of the show is new. There are three new songs, we've cut two. We just did a run-through yesterday, and I really feel like we've raised the stakes. I think it's even better than it was in Florida."

Director Price (A Class Act) also spoke about the difference between the film and the stageshow. "I think why this was such a natural musical was because it took place where singing is very logical," he said. "Like Cabaret takes place in a cabaret, this takes place in a honky-tonk called Gilley's where music is all around it all the time. And the film is practically a musical except the people don't turn to the camera and sing. So, it really wasn't that much of a stretch."

Discussing the mix of old and new music, he revealed, "When I inherited the job from Phil Oesterman [the co librettist-director who died unexpectedly in 2002], it was mostly country-western songs aside from the film songs. The problem with just using country-western songs is that they don't have the specificity to reveal character that we needed because they're written, obviously, not for this story. And Jason's managed to write a bunch of songs that are very country, as did Jeff Blumenkrantz, who wrote three songs, very much feel like the world of that country western theme."

He continued, "The show mostly takes place in Gilley's and the idea that the story is really happening in and around that place. The people of this play all work at a petro chemical plant where there is very little beauty in there lives. They have really hard rotten jobs that they go to and make probably very little money. They live in trailers, a lot of them. And the only moment in their lives that is somewhat lifted or magical is this place, Gilley's. It's where they live out their fantasies. They get drunk, they get laid, they find love."

Summing up the central conceit of the show, Price concluded, "What this show really is about is: Amidst all of that cold petro-chemical world the way you survive is to find the person you love. A very simple message, but I think a profound one."

Discovered at a showcase by casting guru Jay Binder, leading lady Jenn Colella was asked to audition. "I grew up watching the movie a lot," the actress told Playbill On-Line. "I was very familiar with the movie. But, it was fun because Lonny allowed us to bring in ourselves and whatever we wanted to. And Aaron was also very kind with letting us integrate our own thoughts and feelings into his words."

Broadway's latest hunk Cavenaugh was traveling with a tour of Strike Up the Band when he was spotted by one of the show's composers, Jeff Blumenkrantz. "It was just little show, I wasn't that great in it, but he thought he saw something!" Cavenaugh said. "And so he knew they were still looking for a Bud and so he got my contact."

Of the very revealing ads, the actor said: "I get calls just about every day from friends going 'Oh my God! I'm walking down 44th Street, what the Hell is this!'"

Does Cavenaugh feel the need to work out more? "A little bit," he said. "A tanning bed definitely couldn't hurt either, I'm pasty white. Casper the cowboy."

Tickets to Urban Cowboy at Broadway's Broadhurst, 234 West 44 St., can be purchased by calling (212) 239-6200 or online at www.telecharge.com.

The cast of <i>Urban Cowboy</i> performs a number at a recent press-only rehearsal.
The cast of Urban Cowboy performs a number at a recent press-only rehearsal. Photo by Ernio Hernandez
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