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March 4, 2016

We Love You, CONRACK

His composer died, his lyricist died, and yet Granville Wyche Burgess will never say die.

The bookwriter of CONRACK knows the famous show business spin on General Douglas MacArthur’s most famous quotation: “Old musicals never die -- and they don’t even necessarily fade away.”

Somewhere, somehow along the way, many manage to come back, seemingly from the dead – and some turn out to be very successful.

Will it happen with CONRACK? It recently had two very successful staged readings at the York Theatre Company. And while Burgess was as pleased with the results as the audiences, he wishes that composer Lee Pockriss and lyricist Anne Croswell, who respectively died in 2011 and 2012, could have been there to see the reaction.

Pockriss and Croswell met Burgess in 1982, after they’d gone to the WPA and had seen a performance of his play THE FREAK, about Edgar Cayce. “At the time, they weren’t satisfied with the bookwriter they had for CONRACK, so they asked me to take over. Considering that the story took place in South Carolina – and I was born there in Greenville – I decided to take a look.”

That meant reading Pat Conroy’s 1972 semi-memoir, semi-novel THE WATER IS WIDE, in which he told of his experiences as a white teacher in a classroom full of black kids. Conroy couldn’t quite get the kids to realize his right name, and after they had been calling him Conrack for a while, he became accustomed to it.

In a way, it was fitting, for Conroy became a new person while teaching these kids. Although he’d never had any particular success in his life – the acclaim for writing was still years away – for the first time, he felt he was accomplishing something. Better still, he was teaching the kids not just the three “r’s,” but he also was using unconventional methods to make them feel better about themselves.

Needless to say, an uncaring school department wanted everything done by the book, although that approach hadn’t worked in the past and only served to keep the kids ignorant. They needed a new way of seeing education as well as a teacher who didn’t view it as a chore and respected his kids as human beings, too.

That is anathema to many school superintendents, so Conroy was fired and left the island. But the lingering image is that he’d awakened the kids enough to education and life so that we were convinced that they now had to tools to survive and succeed.

In 1974, director Martin Ritt filmed the project, but retitled it CONRACK. Burgess couldn’t take anything that might have been in the screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., because Pockriss and Croswell had only the rights to the novel.

Of course, the team didn’t need the rights to THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST when they wrote their 1960 off-Broadway musical ERNEST IN LOVE; public domain protected them. The show which opened the night after THE FANTASTICKS ran a substantially shorter period of time, although the score is quite strong and witty.

Still, literally one week after the show had closed, Pockriss, albeit with lyricist Paul Vance, had a number one hit on the pop charts. It dealt with a female swimmer who is reluctant to emerge from the ocean because she’s had second thoughts about her very small patterned bathing suit of a color somewhere between tawny and golden saffron – oh, hell, let’s just say it was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini. “It was one of Lee’s 18 gold records,” says Burgess.

Pockriss and Croswell also wrote the much underrated score for TOVARICH, which at least the Grammy committee appreciated enough to nominate for Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album. Vivien Leigh got something out of it, too: a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical which she could put between her two Oscars.

After Burgess read THE WATER IS WIDE, he signed on. He agreed with Pockriss and Croswell that the story should have a mutual attraction between Conroy and some woman, whom they called Dr. Jackie Brooks. That she was a black woman who worked for the school department gave CONRACK more conflict.

In 1987, Rosetta LeNoire, the founder of the AMAS Repertory Theatre Company, liked CONRACK enough to schedule it. Stuart Ross, who’d later have a big success with FOREVER PLAID (which included the Pockriss-Vance Number Two hit “Catch a Falling Star”) staged it. Stephen Holden in the New York Times called it “a fine vehicle for school, church, and regional companies looking for a well-made family show that has something to say.”

While Burgess remembers those kind words, he also recalls that Conroy’s seven-year old daughter Susannah attended an Amas performance with her father – and was shocked when Conrack started his first song. Burgess still smiles at the memory: “Right out loud, she blurted out ‘Daddy, I didn’t know that you’d have to SING.’”

But five years had to pass before CONRACK’s next significant production. Now under the direction of Lonny Price, the musical opened at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington in 1992. “We were such a hit that we had to extend the run by two months,” says Burgess. “Even President Bush came to see it. I saw him there, because it was the closing performance and I had always planned to be there. Good thing I was, for I would have otherwise missed the president. Nobody took the trouble to tell me he was going to be there.”

Worse, virtually no producer took the trouble to make the trip to the nation’s capital to consider CONRACK for Broadway. Perhaps the less-than-enthusiastic notice in The Washington Post was the reason. “Only Jimmy Nederlander, Jr. made the effort to come down to see it,” says a glum Burgess.

And that was that – until recently. Burgess went to see a show staged by Stuart Ross, decided to say ‘hello’ afterward and was very glad he did. “Stuart said that CONRACK was his favorite experience directing a musical,” says Burgess before adding, “and that’s really saying something considering that he did FOREVER PLAID.”

Ross wanted to resuscitate the project, but the problem that often plagues years-old musicals reared its head here, too. “Where was the music?” says Burgess. “The arranger and the musical director didn’t have it, so I called Mrs. Pockriss who said she had ‘something.’ So I went to her home in Connecticut and what she did have were lead sheets written in hand. They weren’t much, but thank Goodness she had them.”

And where were Croswell’s materials? A Burgess search, which even encompassed ASCAP, led to nothing. But then bookwriter-lyricist Anne Berlin, who was having a reading at the York of her current project, happened to mention to James Morgan, the troupe’s producing artistic director, that she’d been friendly with Croswell during the last years of her life and was actually left some of the lyricist’s materials. Not only did Berlin produce them, but she also stayed on to help with the casting.

“That wasn’t easy, either” says Burgess. “For one thing, I forgot to say in my cast breakdowns that one of the children had to be black, and so I got all these applications from young white girls. What’s more, we actually had to start rehearsals on a Monday morning without one of the little boys cast. Luckily, by seven that night, we’d filled that gap.”

They filled plenty of seats, too, at the two readings, and were rewarded by roars of approval from the crowds. “It’s another way of showing that ‘Black lives matter,’” says Burgess.

So in addition to the paraphrase of MacArthur’s “Old soldiers never die,” let’s include an earlier MacArthur statement that may well apply to CONRACK: “I shall return.”

         — Peter Filichia



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