Gilley's Rides Again

In the saddle for Travolta & Winger: Texas actors take on icons, bulls in Urban Cowboy outdoor revival

In the saddle for Travolta & Winger: Texas actors take on icons, bulls in Urban Cowboy outdoor revival

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A scene from TUTS' production of "Urban Cowboy" Photo by Christian Brown
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Photo by Christian Brown
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Austin Miller Photo via Broadway World
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Brooke Wilson
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News_TUTS_Urban Cowboy_Austin Miller
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For six nights only, the famed 1970s and '80s honky-tonk Gilley’s, is open for business in Houston. You won’t need to drive out to Pasadena to experience the music, dancing, drinking, bar fights, Dolly Parton look-a-like contests and, best of all, mechanical bull riding, because Theatre Under the Stars has brought it all back on the Miller Outdoor Theatre stage in its revival — Urban Cowboy: The Musical.

For those Houstonians perhaps too young to remember, Gilley’s was a mix of bar, country-western club and cowboy play land founded by singer Mickey Gilley. Aaron Latham wrote an Esquire article about Gilley’s and the urban cowboy culture it spawned, and in 1980 Latham and director James Bridges adapted it into a movie starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.

Set in Gilley’s with a country-western soundtrack, the movie told the rocky love story of Bud and Sissy. The film later became a 2003 Broadway musical with Latham writing the book.

In this TUTS revival, the lead roles are played by real Texans. Austin Miller is Bud and Brooke Wilson is Sissy. They both found time between rehearsing dance numbers and bull riding to talk with CultureMap about what it’s like to take on such iconic roles.

Though both actors were very young children when the original film came out, they definitely bring an authenticity to their parts.

Brooke Wilson was born and raised in Friendswood and has performed on almost every stage in Houston. Discussing how she plays Sissy, Wilson says, “I’ve been fortunate enough to be cast in a lot of roles that are similar, the no nonsense, very confident, self-assured woman who goes after what she wants and usually gets it. Sissy is very similar in that way.”

Though Sissy has a “run in with a bad lover or two,” Wilson sees Sissy as someone, like herself, who is strong enough to go for what she wants.

Miller also sees something of himself in his character. Miller was born in Alvin, and describing Bud, he says “Bud — and I feel this way also in real life — is from a small town that he really loves, but he’s won’t give over to it.”

Miller’s own parents used to drive into Pasadena to dance at Gilley’s. And in one final bit of coincidental Urban Cowboy connection, when Miller was growing up he spent summers in Los Angeles taking dance lessons from Patsy Swayze, Patrick Swayze’s mother, and the Urban Cowboy movie choreographer. Patsy Swayze is originally from Houston.

Miller has a great deal of pride in his Texas small-town roots. “Alvin’s awesome," he says. "I’d love to not have to live in New York for work and just be able to see my family all the time and just live out in the country. And that’s kind of how Bud is too.”

 Miller finds “there’s a game to all reality shows. And if you don’t play the game, they find ways to get you eliminated.” 

He believes Bud definitely does some “growing up” as the show progresses and he falls in love and comes to realize “that you can’t go around smacking people and shooting your mouth off all the time.”

Like Bud, Miller also left small town life and moved to big cities in order to pursue his dreams; however, his own realizations have been quite different from Bud’s. Miller experienced success in national tours of several Broadway musicals and some TV work like Days of Our Lives and Mad TV, but he gained more recognition coming in second on the NBC competitive reality show Grease: You’re the One that I Want. Reality television brought with its own life lessons.

“It’s a double edged sword," Miller says. "If I hadn’t done it, I would be mad at myself for not doing it. Having done it, I don’t think I’d put myself through it again."

Miller explains if he was asked to do a show like Dancing with the Stars he would probably do it, but only because Grease taught him how to play the reality show game. He finds “there’s a game to all reality shows. And if you don’t play the game, they find ways to get you eliminated.”

Miller laughs when he says he understands that it’s the producers goal to “make good TV and it’s your goal to not murder anyone or yourself.” He learned “a great deal” about the business and himself, but he also talks with pride about how Grease brought him an even greater base of fans across the country. Some of those fans have even promised Miller they’re coming to Houston just to see him in Urban Cowboy.

While both Wilson and Miller bring their own Texas accents and life experiences — and, in Miller’s case, own boots (because new cowboy boots are a “pain in the ass or pain in the foot, rather, to break in”) — to the parts, they might have to contend with audiences’ memories of Travolta’s Bud and Winger’s Sissy.

Wilson explains her strategy for taking on the well-known role: “It’s a challenge but it’s also kind of interesting to get to see what they brought to the role and what you can take from their performances  . . . and put your own spin it. It’s kind of a bittersweet, good and bad kind of thing, because you’re happy you’re able to walk in those shoes, but definitely as an actor you want to make it your own.”

She’s looking forward to presenting her Sissy to a Bayou City crowd. “Houston audiences just want to have a good time and be entertained," she says, "It’s just a dream of any actor to have an audience like that. I’m really looking forward to see how everybody reacts to the show, especially since everybody knows what Gilley’s was and the movie.”

 Miller and Wilson tell us that Aaron Latham has been in Houston making some alterations and improvements to the show, so while this revival of Urban Cowboy may be similar to the movie, it looks to be dramatically different from its Broadway predecessor. 

When asked about making Bud his own, Miller simply says, “I just have to do it my way.”

He has seen the film, but that was several years ago, and he felt no need to watch it while preparing for the part, saying “I didn’t want to do Travolta as Bud. I wanted to do Austin as Bud.” He’s also trying to give Bud more of a “spine” than Miller remembers Bud having in the movie.

Speaking with both actors, it becomes obvious they relish the challenges these roles bring. Miller laughs as he recounts an epiphany of sorts he had in rehearsal when he rode the mechanical bull while the onstage band played “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” He decided, “This is it. I’m done. I’m never doing another musical that doesn’t have a mechanical bull and cowboy boots, and that’s it.”

So what can audiences — those that remember Gilley’s and the film and those too young to remember either — expect from the show? Wilson assures that the play is “very, very close to the movie.”

However, those who saw the musical on Broadway  might be in for a big surprise.

Urban Cowboy: The Musical is still a musical, and a few of the famous songs in the film like “Could I Have This Dance” and “Devil Went Down to Georgia” are still there.  Most of the original numbers in the 2003 musical are gone though, replaced by classic country songs along with several from this century like “Sin Wagon,” “I Wanna Talk About Me,” and “I Hope You Dance.” Film fans might object to such relatively new songs being sung in a late 1970s setting, and Broadway purist might object to the scrapping of all the original songs, but younger country-western fans will probably be pleased to hum along.

Besides the significantly changed score, Miller and Wilson tell us that Aaron Latham has been in Houston making some alterations and improvements to the show, so while this revival of Urban Cowboy may be similar to the movie, it looks to be dramatically different from its Broadway predecessor.

The show debuted Thursday night and runs through Tuesday. After that, the lights go out once more at Gilley’s.