Many years ago, while writing a profile of a Broadway producer, I accompanied her to a rehearsal, where a huge cast expended a ton of energy on a number one might describe as "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." After an embarrassing pause, the producer, who would later be convicted on 133 counts of fraud - none, interestingly, having to do with her taste in theater - declared, "I think the young people will like it."
I was reminded of this moment as I watched "Urban Cowboy," the musical version of the 1981 film that starred John Travolta and Debra Winger as ornery Bud and Sissy. I mention the stars, because they were the selling point. The story, about a Houston bar named Gilley's, which has a mechanical bull on which young men can demonstrate their machismo, was extremely strained. Bud and Sissy's on-again-off-again relationship took so many irritating turns it needed all the performers' charms to keep us interested. On Broadway, the ante has been upped. The plot is just as annoying, but now the actors have to sing their way through it. In this case, the thinking must've been that the hinterlands would like it. The mediocre musical versions of "Footloose" and "Saturday Night Fever" have apparently cleaned up on the road. The "Urban Cowboy" score combines songs from the movie and original numbers by Jason Robert Brown, a talented composer who wrote a song for "Kimberly Akimbo" that sounds like an old standard, but whose work here seldom has sizzle. The best number is "That's How Texas Was Born," a largely instrumental piece Brown performs at the piano with the excellent onstage band. Many of the more effective songs, like Wanda Mallette, Patti Ryan and Bob Morrison's "Lookin' for Love," are not his. The book, by Aaron Latham, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Phillip Oesterman, never makes the characters more than types. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in coarseness. Saddled with a thin score and a thinner book, the cast works hard, but to little avail. Newcomers Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella are very appealing as Bud and Sissy. Sally Mayes and Leo Burmester are especially strong as Bud's tough aunt and uncle. Marcus Chait and Jodi Stevens are powerful as the pair who temporarily split the young couple, and Rozz Morehead is winning as the hostess at Gilley's. A team of topnotch dancers goes through Melinda Roy's cliched choreography with gusto. The movie at least conveyed the feel of Houston. James Noone's sets are without atmosphere. Even the bull is effective only when Natasha Katz has spotlights whirling around it. Lonny Price has directed the show efficiently, but the whole thing is as mechanical as the bull.
Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back - all this and a whole lot of mechanical bull.
No one can accuse the new musical "Urban Cowboy," which rode into town last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, of having an original story to tell.
But the musical is certainly better than you might have feared, and in most ways is surprisingly enjoyable.
In it are 23 musical numbers - including Mickey Gilley's hit "Lookin' for Love" and six new songs by music director Jason Robert Brown - but no cohesive score. Nevertheless, that bouncy country sound is very welcome on Broadway, even if the music illustrates this musical rather than drives it.
The show is based on the 1980 movie "Urban Cowboy," which is itself based on a non-fiction magazine article Aaron Latham wrote for Esquire.
The story (book by Latham and the late Philip Oesterman) is more Hollywood-cliché than enthralling.
Bud (Matt Cavenaugh) is a country Texas kid come to Houston to make his fortune working on the oil rigs before returning home to buy his own few acres, and Sissy (Jenn Colella) is the girl he finds at Gilley's, a downtown Houston bar where blue-collars and white-collars mingle together in a Western dream-fantasy of cowboys and the gals who love 'em.
Essential to that dream is the bar's mechanical bull - a contraption that mimics all the bucking rodeo functions of a real bull without the manure.
It is through that fearsome machine that Bud and Sissy get together, marry and split up.
Bud goes with Pam, a Neiman-Marcus rich girl (Jodi Stevens), and Sissy with a real-life outlaw, a convict on the run, Wes (Marcus Chait).
Fear not: It all ends happily. After all, so did "Oklahoma!"
The onstage band is terrific, and director Lonny Price's beautifully slicked-up staging proves dexterously expert.
Choreographer Melinda Roy is probably the unluckiest woman on Broadway.
In any normal year, this newcomer's inventively boisterous and bouncy choreography would have carried off the Tony Award on a mustang - but this is the Year of Tharp, and Twyla Tharp's musical "Movin' Out" very properly has a lock on that particular item.
Cavenaugh makes a splendid Bud, whose charm is as impressive as his abs - and he can sing, too - while Colella is a zippy, feminist and sexy Sissy.
Other very good showings come from Chait as the glowering, confident bad guy; Stevens as the slinky rich girl, and a dazzling duo, Leo Burmester and Sally Mayes, as cute as well-worn buttons as Bud's uncle and aunt.
This ain't the greatest show Broadway has ever seen, but it's worth your time.
Willkommen, pardner. And come on in to this here little den of iniquity called Gilley's. It's Texas's own answer to that trashy Kit Kat Club from ''Cabaret'' and a place that proves that lewd and lascivious behavior doesn't have to have a German accent.
At Gilley's, as it's represented in the new musical ''Urban Cowboy,'' decadence may not be divine, but you can't say it's not American. It's the kind of honky-tonk where you lead with your pelvis and where the language is strictly double-entendres, Western style (ride 'em, cowboy!). Guys and gals introduce themselves to each other after they've had sex. And, hey, both the women and the men show lots of cleavage. Bet you can't find all that in Berlin.
That, more or less, is the implicit pitch behind ''Urban Cowboy: The Musical,'' which opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater in a conclusive demonstration that it's possible to be vulgar and bland at the same time. Based on the 1980 movie that starred John Travolta and Debra Winger, ''Urban Cowboy'' does indeed suggest ''Cabaret'' by way of Branson, Mo. And it makes you long for the quiet good taste of shows like ''The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.''
Broadway disaster cultists may be disappointed to learn that ''Urban Cowboy,'' directed with a hand of lead by Lonny Price, does not eclipse the now departed ''Dance of the Vampires'' as the season's worst musical. Featuring a rote book by Aaron Latham and Phillip Oesterman and a patchwork of new and recycled country-and-western songs, ''Urban Cowboy'' doesn't have the imagination to be so extravagantly bad.
Instead, it exudes the mechanical air of a show dutifully assembled according to a low and specific assessment of audience expectations. The jokes are sub-sitcom. The songs are mostly delivered in a shiny, anonymous twang that might be heard in a Texas-themed pavilion in Disney World. And the young, bottom-twitching ensemble members, attractive in a ''Baywatch'' sort of way, have little in the way of personalities to call their own. Unlike the recent stage version of ''The Graduate,'' which also turned a saucy, widely loved film into something devoid of flavor, ''Urban Cowboy'' has on its creative team someone who worked on the original movie.
That's Mr. Latham, who wrote the screenplay with the director James Bridges as well as the nonfiction article in Esquire magazine that inspired it.
Yet in translating the movie into the frothier idiom of song and dance, ''Urban Cowboy'' doesn't so much trade on fond memories of the film as squelch them. Within the screen version, as Vincent Canby pointed out in The New York Times two decades ago, there was a formulaic B-movie lurking close to the surface. But who wanted to look past the surface when you had Mr. Travolta and Ms. Winger, in their hormonal primes, generating such sultry chemistry?
If the New Jersey-minted Mr. Travolta, playing a rustic Texan in the skyscraper wonderland of Houston, didn't really seem to the cattle ranch born, he was grounded by a host of authentic-seeming, juicy performances from Scott Glenn, Barry Corbin and Brooke Alderson, among others. (For the record, I saw the show at the Broadhurst with Ms. Alderson, who restricted her responses to the occasional snort.)
What's more, Bridges' mise-en-scène pulsed with vividly observed details of Southern blue-collar life. Made just as the sexual revolution of the 1960's and 70's was burning itself out, the movie now reads like a nostalgic farewell to the age of promiscuity. The song most associated with the movie, ''Lookin' for Love,'' was a paean to settling down after sleeping around.
In the Broadway incarnation, this sensibility is turned into a case for having your beefcake and cheesecake and forsaking it, too. Here, the callow young farm boy Bud (the chiseled-bodied newcomer Matt Cavenaugh) no sooner arrives from the country than he stumbles into Gilley's, where he scores with not one but two ladies at once. (Now why does ''Cabaret'' keep coming to mind?)
Shortly thereafter, he meets the hoydenish, misnamed Sissy (Jenn Colella), with whom he promptly adjourns to alfresco sex. ''I just love doin' it in the back of a pickup, don't you?'' says Sissy. (Pickup trucks, by the way, also turn out to be a source of fondly remembered sex for Bud's elderly aunt and uncle, Corene and Bob, played by Sally Mayes and Leo Burmester.)
Then, faster than a greenhorn can fall off a horse, Bud and Sissy get married, get jealous and split to go off with inappropriate new partners: a rich, smug golden girl named Pam (Jodi Stevens) and a mean escaped convict, Wes (Marcus Chait).
In the meantime, the lovable Uncle Bob has developed an ominous cough, so you can safely predict there'll be a funeral as well as a wedding. And Jesse (Rozz Morehead), the good-time hostess at Gilley's, has brought a mechanical bull into the bar, creating the opportunity for a thrills-free, suspense-free ride-off between Bud and Wes.
Except for the tameness of the mechanical bull and Bob's cough, this is all according to the movie. But here the plot's main raison d'être is to provide an occasion for the patrons at Gilley's to strut and swivel in form-fitting jeans in a series of interchangeable production numbers in which blind drunkenness and Kama Sutra positions are simulated with down-home gusto.
Both James Noone's chrome and neon set and Melinda Roy's choreography bizarrely bring to mind the dance hall in ''Sweet Charity.'' The dancing is a combination of gymnastic do-si-do-ing and Fosse-esque hip gyrations. There is even one brazen tableau in which the performers (male and female) pose with invitational menace like the sullen taxi dancers in Bob Fosse's staging of ''Charity.''
The wholesome message seems to be that sex is really better with someone you love, but in the meantime there's nothing wrong in getting a few kicks out of life. Correspondingly, the billboardlike dialogue veers between the crudely suggestive and the piously sentimental, between hearty raucousness and dime-store romance. (Pam to Bud: ''You don't love me. You just looked at Sissy like she was wild horses. I want someone to look at me like that.'')
The score, which includes standards like ''Could I Have This Dance?'' and, yes, ''Lookin' for Love,'' is orchestrated and arranged by Jason Robert Brown (the composer of ''Parade'' and ''The Last Five Years''), who also wrote several of the show's songs. As with the dialogue, the musical numbers swing between hoedown hedonism and misty-eyed treacle. The onstage band is good, evocatively producing those twanging chords of heartbreak and defiance that can make country pop hits so irresistible.
The performers, for the most part, fail to find an interpretive equivalent for the genuine emotions in the music. Mr. Cavenaugh and Ms. Colella, while both as cute as smile pockets, tend to deliver their songs and their lines at the same pitch, which is loud, assertive and nasal. Ms. Mayes and Mr. Burmester, both seasoned pros, do what they can with the standard-issue roles of feisty old love birds. Everyone else is, in a word, forgettable.
For all the insinuating talk and posturing onstage, ''Urban Cowboy'' isn't remotely sexy. The proverbial tired businessman is more likely to get a nap than titillation out of the show.
Rest assured, however, that at least one group should be pleased: the executives at Anheuser-Busch. Budweiser beer bottles, cases and pictures are seen throughout the show, and much is made of the happy coincidence of the names of the show's hero and his favorite drink. ''This one's for you, Bud,'' says Pam, dedicating a song to the strapping cowboy. Who says Hollywood has the monopoly on product placement?
You might have thought there was enough mechanical bull on Broadway already. Apparently you'd be wrong. The producers of "Urban Cowboy" have now put an actual one centerstage at the Broadhurst Theater, where it serves as an uncomfortably apt symbol for the musical itself, which expends a whole lot of energy but never seems to go anywhere. It's gonna be last call at this hoedown pretty darn quick.
The musical is, of course, the latest attempt to mint a new Broadway hit by re-creating a popular Hollywood picture onstage. But it has more in common with bland misfires like "Footloose" and "Saturday Night Fever" than with this season's ebullient "Hairspray."
Perhaps producers need to look more closely at the material itself, rather than making judgments based on box office figures and soundtrack sales. The listless 1980 movie is not exactly a gold-plated classic. It features an exceptionally dull-witted screenplay, adapted by Aaron Latham and director James Bridges from Latham's headline-grabbing Esquire magazine cover story.
The subject was Texas laborers trying to assert their manhood in a hero-less era by riding a mechanical contraption to glory at a glitzed-up roadhouse called Gilley's. The movie was enlivened only intermittently by the lush presences of John Travolta and Debra Winger, two intuitive screen actors who brought a wounded sense of soulfulness to characters written as utter dolts. Still, as Bud and Sissy, they seem to spend about half the picture pouting, the other half bickering.
Formulaic though its feuding-lovers storyline was, the movie at least had a certain funky grit to it, since it was filmed in and around the actual Gilley's. But as soon as the curtain rises on Gilley's at the Broadhurst, and we discover that this redneck hangout is run by a sassy but lovable black woman, Jesse (Rozz Moorhead), it's clear we're not in Texas proper but a slick, sanitized Broadway facsimile thereof. (I guess since Jesse is the only African-American onstage, the feeling was she'd better be given a position of importance.) James Noone's functional but unatmospheric set is festooned with enough neon Bud signs to suggest significant promotional fees.
The central characters have been given a few more dimensions in Latham and Phillip Oesterman's book. Bud is played by the glisteningly handsome Matt Cavenaugh, with a million-dollar smile and a body to match. He's a boy from the sticks who moves to Houston to earn money at an oil refinery in order to buy a patch of land back home. He's given a broken-heart backstory about a two-timing ex-girlfriend, which goes some way toward explaining the irrational developments in his love affair with Sissy.
Sissy herself is more of a chicken-fried feminist on Broadway than she was in the movie. When we first meet her, she's itching to ditch the mop she's been given (somewhat ludicrously) and join the boys working on the sky-high rigs. Unfortunately this more spirited Sissy, played with brash gusto by Broadway newcomer Jenn Colella, is hardly the kind of girl who'd be obsessively pining for a "real cowboy," so her behavior grows increasingly illogical as the show plods through the contrivances of its cowboy-meets-girl, cowboy-loses-girl, cowboy-gets-girl-back story.
Colella's Sissy seems too smart and independent-minded to rhapsodize over the trailer Bud buys for their wedding nest or, in a particularly silly plot development, to give it a good cleaning to try to win him back. These updated versions of characters more crudely drawn in the movie no longer cohere with the outmoded views of male-female relations promulgated by the plot.
And yet the musical has nothing to do but creak along the rusty grooves of track laid out by the screenplay. It dutifully does so under the smooth but faceless direction of Lonny Price. The score is a hodgepodge of extant country tunes and new ones written for the show, primarily by Jason Robert Brown, the composer of Broadway's "Parade" and a surprising guy to be found pounding out a rockabilly riff on the keyboards and singing "That's How Texas Was Born."
Brown's contributions blend smoothly with the country standards, the most famous of which are "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and "Lookin' for Love" (in all the wrong places), both used in the finale. The tunes are performed with the proper twang by the lead performers, fine singers both, and work quite well in context, but they merely adorn the show; they can't make either story or characters more compelling. And, despite the steel guitar and fiddle in the arrangements, their Nashville roots tend to be overriden by Broadway gloss.
Supporting characters are few: There's Bud's crusty Uncle Bob (Leo Burmester), with an ominous cough, and his tough-loving wife, Corene, Bud's surrogate parents in Houston. As Corene, veteran Sally Mayes makes the most of her brief passages onstage, singing superbly and dishing out Corene's down-home witticisms with comic flair. The rivals for the hearts of Bud and Sissy are, respectively, platinum rich-bitch Pam (Jodi Stevens) and long-haired, tattoed ex-con Wes, played by Marcus Chait, who tries his damnedest to be scary while singing and dancing his way across a Broadway stage.
And there's the fake bull, of course. This creature is both bone of contention between Bud and Sissy (she wants to ride it; he, inexplicably, can't abide the idear) and the vessel that delivers them to a happy ending when Bud triumphs over Wes in the big showdown, more nail-polishing than nail-biting. The bucking contraption swirls onstage regularly, often during the big hoedown numbers that are the evening's liveliest moments. Melinda Roy's choreography deftly uses the unison moves of country line-dancing to generate some excitement (there would be more if the onstage bandstand didn't leave so little room for movement).
And the dancers are terrific, their athletic energy and steamy two-stepping far upstaging all that sexual romping on the bull. They're a handsome bunch, too, with the women in costume designer Ellis Tillman's camisoles and low-rise jeans, the men in matching skin-hugging denim. Indeed, between the chorus and the lithe bodies of the two stars (Cavenaugh's oiled abs have been heavily -- indeed, exclusively -- featured in the show's print ads), there's scarcely an ounce of fat on the whole cast. Too bad the show itself is just so much lard.