by Ellis Nassour

    Who says actors don't say nice things about producers? A case in point would be Sally Mayes, a 2003 Drama Desk Award nominee as Featured Actress in a Musical, singing the praises of lead producer Chase Mishkin and associate producers Barbara and Peter Fodor [they are not the travel writers] for their efforts to keep the much-lambasted musical Urban Cowboy open against any odds of ever turning a profit.

    "Chase has the biggest heart on Broadway," said Mayes on Monday morning, when she had an intuition that the final closing notice for the show would be up when the cast appeared for work on Tuesday. She didn't have to wait that long. It was announced on Monday, not long after the show received only two Tony nominations [Melinda Roy for choreography and Tony winner Jason Robert Brown, Clint Black, Jeff Blumenkrantz and others for Original Score].

    "What Chase did in rescinding our first closing notice [following the show's March 27th opening night] and keeping us employed," states Mayes, "was so heroic and wonderful. I just can't say enough good things about her and our producing team."

    The experience has been "like riding that mechanical bull at top speed. We knew it had to end. How much money can you throw into a bottomless pit? But we did have hope. The size of our audiences were getting better, and they have been incredibly supportive. What kept our spirits high was the faith of the producers and our fabulous cast. They are amazing and full of life, spirit and heart."

    Mayes was among the impressive things in Cowboy and many thought that, in addition to her Drama Desk nomination, she might receive a Tony nomination in the Featured Actress category for her hilarious turn as hip 40-something Aunt Corene, with her show-stopping number "All Because of You." However, the trio of Nine nominees (Jane Krakowski, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chita Rivera) and the nods given Gypsy's Tammy Blanchard and Movin' Out's Ashley Tuttle made that a mute point.

    She had great fun developing Corene. "There's nothing better than hearing an audience laugh, but if you go too far, it's parody. I really tried to strike a balance and since they respond to her the way they have, I guess Corene is just right: a little bit frustrated, a little bit hip, a little bit sassy."

    Phillip Oesterman, who began developing the project with Aaron Latham [writer of the Esquire magazine article and subsequent Paramount movie], died last year at the end of July. Oesterman was responsible for bringing Tommy Tune to New York from Texas and often collaborated with him [associate director, The Will Rogers Follies; co-librettist, Easter Parade; My One and Only, Grand Hotel].

    Oesterman saw Mayes in staged readings of a developing musical about the legendary country and pop singer Patsy Cline*. "Phil came up afterward and said, ëYou're the real deal, aren't you?' I knew what he meant and replied, ëYeah, I guess I am.'"

    No guessing required. She is. Mayes grew up "in a Texas hell hole," but instead of being weaned on country and western, her father, a jazz guitarist, "weaned me on Tony, Frank, Ella and Eydie. Grandma made me fluffy dresses and Daddy put me on a box in front of a mike. I started performing early and have been doing it my whole life" - some four decades - "playing joints, fronting a rock band, appearing in high school and college musicals and clubs."

    Oesterman's death had a devastating affect on Cowboy but Mishkin was determined to continue. Mayes didn't participate in the December 2001 workshop, with Sandy Duncan as Corene. She joined the show following her tour in Dirty Blonde. When the musical opened in Miami last November, "We were really well-received. There was cheering and screaming." From audiences. The critics sang a different song. A new director [Lonny Price] was brought in and everything completely changed."

    Things sailed along, not always smoothly. The show got to New York and, says Mayes, "after the first preview, they realized it would have to be gutted. We worked from 11:30 to 6 P.M. everyday, and then did the show. We'd have notes until 11:30, so we were putting in 12 hour plus days. I thought I was going to die! It was rough."

    She feels one reason Cowboy didn't get a good reception on Broadway was because it was never frozen. "There were massive changes everyday and then we had to go out and try to do a show. If you came back to see it now, it's infinitely better than it was when we opened because everyone has settled in. The problems with the show are still problems, but the actors are solid. The show is a crowd-pleaser, like Saturday Night Fever and Grease. It's not going to please anyone with an intellectual bent, but it's fun. It's a sweet, simple love story. The producers really tried to give us a run. They're heroes in my book. It's been an interesting ride."

    Mayes' goal was always theater, "but, back home, no one would cast me, so I headed to New York." She made a splashy Broadway debut in Cy Coleman's short-lived 1989 musical Welcome to the Club, playing gutsy Georgia country singer Winona Shook in the brassy style of Patsy Cline. She was around longer in Roundabout's She Loves Me revival, in which her aggressive portrayal of Ilona Ritter garnered her a 1994 Tony Featured Actress nomination. More recently she co-starred Off Broadway in Pete ën' Keely, a send-up of 60s TV variety shows, for which she received a 2001 Drama Desk Award nomination.

    Off Broadway she's been seen to good advantage in the revue Closer than Ever; Das Barbecu, a country musical somewhat based on Wagner's Ring cycle; co-starred in a tribute revue to the Boswell Sisters. For her club and recording work [Boys and Girls Like You and Me (mostly songs cut from shows, such as the title track, which was dropped from Oklahoma!), The Story Hour, Dorothy Fields Songbook and Comden and Green Songbook], Mayes has 12 MAC Award nominations and two Bistro Awards.

    There's been one very pleasant aspect to the last few hectic weeks, which come to an end on Sunday when Urban Cowboy unplugs the mechanical bull. Mayes' husband Bob Renino plays bass on the same block in The Producers pit, so the couple have had the opportunity to have dinner and come home together. "But, because of all that was going on," laughs Mayes, "I don't know if I was the best dinner companion or the best person to sit next to on the train!"

    [ * PatsyÖHonky Tonk Angel by Ellis Nassour ]


    Thursday, May 15, 2003 at 10:41 AM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.