Lyrics #5 – Oiltown, an “interception,” a supplement

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This time… I wasn’t the only writer involved, but it was still just lonesome writer me again, this time providing an unsolicited revision to a musical written by my retired high school English teacher. 

The lyrics I “contributed” to Mary Lou Burkett’s original musical, Oiltown, are now posted at  https://georgecomeauxliterarygumbo.com/scripts/oiltown/ .

The two most significant aspects of this project were: 1) I should not have done that; and 2) because I did, twenty years later I had pre-cognition for one of the major events of my life.

I should not have done that because Mrs. Burkett did not ask me to.

She had been my English teacher junior year in high school, and I wrote one of my favorite themes in her class —
“Wrong Right” ( https://georgecomeauxliterarygumbo.com/wrong-right-1959/ ).     She was musically inclined, and her late husband had been band director for the high school, and they were major supporters of the town’s Little Theatre. After her retirement, she started writing, and produced two of her musicals and one drama, and published an epic poem, Fighting Men of Texas.

On one of my trips home, I met Mrs. Burkett in a reception line. I don’t remember the occasion – maybe it was her retirement. I mentioned that I had wanted to be a writer, and she told me about her writing projects. She was working on “Big Hill,” a musical about the discovery of oil in 1901 in Beaumont, Texas, which exponentially accelerated world industrial growth (and now threatens to choke out society!). I don’t think I saw a live performance, but she sent me a script and a VCR of the performance. I think I had suggested that “Big Hill” meant something only to the locals, and that even people up north may have heard of “Spindletop” (NYC had a restaurant by that name). Her published script became Big Hill: The Saga of Spindletop.

Before I had been unable to interest IBM in my Watson script, she encountered the same “who cares” in trying to interest our town’s major industry, since named Exxon, about an entertaining look at the origin of its industry. The main historic character, Patillo Higgins, was a converted roustabout who had lost an arm in a sawmill fight, became a Sunday school teacher, and noticed on hills outside Beaumont similar signs he had read about that appeared in Titusville, Pennsylvania, before oil oozed from the ground there. For twenty years he prophesized “there’s oil in them thar’ hills,” recruited several attempts at discovery, but was backgrounded by the time the big guys with the big equipment arrived to gusher up and take credit.

There was dramatic and musical potential, and I was interested in one particular aspect of the show – the appearance of St. Elmo’s Fire as a presage to the first gusher. I hadn’t been aware that St. Elmo’s Fire had been a powerful omen for sailors at sea, and also landlubbers. I thought it deserved its own lyric, not just mention, in the play. I don’t remember if I ever sent my inspiration to her, but this oozed out of my pen:

SAINT ELMO’S FIRE                            

Saint Elmo’s fire – The darkness bright; The restless squire, Who paints the night
Saint Elmo bless us, With mystery – A magic moment, About to be.

The stars inquire, “What spark ignites, Whose wrath, whose ire – These mystic         lights?”
The fates respond, In harmony:  “A magic moment, About to be!”

Foretell our fortunes, Reveal your dream, Or vanish swiftly, In mist, and steam,
Saint Elmo bless us, With mystery – A magic moment, About to be!

Copyright 1988 George Comeaux

We kept up correspondence as she was developing her next musical, Oiltown. She had mentioned that she did not have much contact with her graduated students, and seemed to enjoy the mutual interest. She had also written a novel, and her New York City agent (who was well into her eighties) had not responded to her requests for status, so she asked me if I would check on the agent the next time I was in the city. I meekly approached the agent’s downtown building, had the doorman call the office, and spoke to the agent, who said she had a cold and was unavailable. At least I tried.

In subsequent trips home, I saw her drama, A Few Friends of Ima Hogg, and her second musical, Oiltown.

(Short note on the drama: for some reason, Texas Governor James Hogg named his daughter “Ima.” Ima learned at an early age to deflect the obvious reaction to being introduced by inserting a pause between her first and last names, as in “Ima (pause) Hogg.” The play is a salon-type recounting of her adult spinster days as a major philanthropist in the Houston area, and several of the friends in her circle. That’s all I remember, except that my wife may have been with me on this trip, and was relieved to find out that the writer I had been communicating with for several years actually was thirty years my senior.)

Oiltown had obvious interest for me, being set in a 100% resemblance to my hometown. The musical was a romantic tale of an obvious relationship that would develop over time, through the usual obstacles, between a recent widow and widower, she a local high school Dean of Girls, he an executive in the town’s major employer, one of the country’s largest oil refineries. The story wasn’t about the oil business, as in Big Hill, but about life in the oil town, with local colorful characters like the “Tin Hat Guys” and the “Dock Rats.”

She had lost her husband to a tragic airplane crash; his wife had yielded to a long siege of cancer treatments. She was being encouraged to move on with her life, sell the family boat, turn the page. He was attempting to re-assert his prominent place in society, especially with the ladies.

My immediate reaction was that Mrs. Burkett had captured the feminine aspects and attitudes perfectly, with poignant lyrics such as “The Image in My Heart,” “Please Let Me Be,” “Faith, Hope, Love,” “Only a Shadow Bent Down and Kissed Me,” and “I Love Pink Roses.” But I thought she missed the mark on the masculine attitudes. I speculated that She would remain stunned at her husband’s sudden departure, expecting him to show up at the door at any moment, and would resist any “get over it” suggestions, no matter how well intended; He would be drained from sharing the long cancer treatment cycles, and eager for immediate affirmation. That was in the script, but, in my opinion and taste, his reactions were a little off key. 

Probably one of the most aggressive acts of my life was to adrenaline-up and revise the script, not just his characterizations, but also some of the incidents in the story. I should not have done that because Mrs. Burkett did not ask me to. I even typed up a new script with my revisions, claiming dual credit. I had gained her confidence from the correspondences, and from our distance I did not observe any obverse reactions, but I can imagine she may have taken this as a major critical literary affront. (I’m sure I would have.) If I remember correctly, she graciously responded that the Little Theatre director had found some good moments in my revision. And this preceded her request that I get in touch with her New York City agent, so the communication was not broken off. But I now think that my “help” was probably unwelcome.

Her script had been staged; the combined one never was or will be. It is documented here only to join its sibling lyrics in my website’s “Scripts for Musicals” dropdown, as one of my destined-to-go-nowhere-but-my-little-droplet-in-the-cloud.

What follows is not a comprehensive scenario, but rather concentration on places where I changed the original script, referencing the lyrics on the web page. This will present an unfair representation of her work, because I did not alter seventy percent of the original, and those scenes and lyrics are not part of this post.

He was Homer. She was Sue. I’m focused on her complete state of bewilderment, and his urgent need to escape pain.

Mrs. Burkett’s script began with a stage setting lyric, “Pay Day!” I moved “Pay Day!” deep into the second act, for a change of pace, and substituted a title lyric, “Oiltown,” — “Where everybody knows, where everybody goes; everybody’s cares, and everybody’s woes; but everybody’s choosy, and everybody chose – OILTOWN!”

Mrs. Burkett musically introduced the two characters. Sue’s lyric, “The Image in My Heart,” was very touching and lyrical. Homer’s  lyric bothered me. “I Specialize in Widows” suggested to me “take advantage of,” maybe looking for “low-hanging fruit.” (Plus, in the script, he was courting very young “fruit.”) My replacement was “Numero Uno,” with Homer just trying to macho up – “Hey, you in that mirror – what do you see? The handsomest face in the land of the free! …  Number One! Numero Uno! Number One!”

Sue’s maid, Hattie, attempts to encourage her with personal advice, “Please Adjust to Summer.” I kept the intro but changed the tone from direct advice to a metaphorical advisory with “Summer’s Coming”: “Should a sparrow wait for the wind to fly? Should a swallow sing of the days gone by? Should a dreamer wait for a darkened sky? And where is the spirit that once filled your eye? … Summer’s coming – Summer’s coming – right on time.”

My college advisor had read my work-in-progress attempt at a musical script, about adapting to college life, and had suggested I needed more conflict – perhaps an unexpected pregnancy. That may be why I changed one of Mrs. Burkett’s scenes, Sue counseling a student “Do Not Prove Your Love.” That was the early version of “just say no,” and, a member of the next generation, I didn’t particularly like the tone of the directive. I changed the session to a meeting on how to handle the student’s pregnancy, with the student making the brave decision to give her baby up for adoption, then contemplating the aftermath with a song, “Silently”: “Send a simple message, far across the sea; forever I must love you… silently.”

In another touching scene, Homer and Sue, finally considering a courtship, drive to Homer’s summer place on the bayou. Mrs. Burkett’s  “Only a Shadow Bent Down and Kissed Me” was a sensitive duet of the couple’ tentative feelings. I adapted the duet into two concurrent songs, Homer’s “How Can I Tell You?” and Sue’s “Only a Shadow,” beginning with interleaving soliloquys: “I want something to happen/I want something to last; I can’t wait forever/I can’t change so fast; I’ve been so very lonely/It’s been so very long; Since I’ve needed such loving/Since I’ve heard such a song; Like a boy in a dream world/Like my very first date; It could pass in an instant/Should I rush? Should I wait?” The scene ends with them in duet: “The magic of nature; the strength of the forest; the sounds of her stillness, her breezes and birds; the springtime renewing, the life of the forest; for two lonely lovers, with no need for words.” The scene ends with Sue leaving, for a while. The musical will end with instrumental refrains of this duet.

The promise of a new relationship ends when Sue hears a rumor, from one of the groupies chasing Homer, that he is dating her on a bet from some of his colleagues at the refinery. This leads Sue to choosing a different partner for chaperoning the senior prom. But, her leaving for the prom is interrupted by a visit from the father of the girl she had counseled, thanking her for talking to his daughter, asking her to tell the daughter he is now reconciled, and also apologizing for offering the bet to Homer, and relating that Homer did not accept the bet.

The prom gave me an opportunity to shoehorn in one of my favorite lyrics, “The Wanderer’s Waltz,” to accompany the dancing: “May they find what they’re after, through the wind and the rain; May the joy and the laughter diminish the pain; May they spin to the truth, through the shallow and false; May they come safely home from The Wanderer’s Waltz.” After the prom, Sue and new date go to a local restaurant, where, voila!, Homer is also there with a date. The previous issue gets resolved in a dance at the restaurant. Homer meets Sue in her guidance office at school for a “conference,” the proposal happens, and the happy curtain closes.

Fast forward twenty years… 

…because I did (write this revision), twenty years later I had pre-cognition for one of the major events of my life.

The situation above recurred, in my own life. Cancer made me a widower after thirty years of marriage. Two teenage daughters, two college students, and three college graduates lost their Mother. The two daughters at home kept me motivated to stay in the workforce, but I was totally unskilled in communicating at their stage of life, my wife having handled most family communications. A sister observed my disorientation and steered me, reluctantly, toward a bereavement support group. A youth sports grandfather invited me into the one he attended, and I met with the counselor and found instant rapport.

Several months later, the group was joined by a local resident whose husband’s life had been cut short when a seemingly minor condition evolved into a sudden death.

We had familial, but not personal, connections through school and sports. After five years living the ups and downs of cancer treatments, my grieving was half done in anticipation of the end game; it was a long half, and the half that followed seemed at least as long. Hers was a sneak attack sonic blast, no defense, no preparation, ground zero.

As I had imagined for Homer in the Oiltown situation, how do I get back into the wider world, reclaim some spirit, maybe even re-visit joy? As I had imagined for Sue, “he was here yesterday, when is he coming home?” – a long pause in a lingering shock wave nearly impossible to escape.

It has taken more than a two-hour drama, but, after almost twenty years of association, initially roller-coaster in nature, with family events including six children’s marriages, sixteen grandchildren born (each of us with six under the age of ten), our next generations living in seven different states, triangulated by Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Alaska, our appreciation for each other has “normalized,” we count numerous blessings, and our plans are to marry “sometimes in this century” – with much gratitude and Thanksgiving.

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