"DO-GOODER: Cassidy as a teacher of the everyday art of living and learning"
Patrick Cassidy as Conrack, Ford's Theater, Washington, 1992. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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TIME, MAY 18, 1992
"To the Rescue"

THE BOTTOM LINE: An unashamedly old-fashioned, optimistic tale, told with charm and polish.

As soon as playgoers perusing the program spot that one of the big song-and-dance numbers is sardonically titled White Liberal to the Rescue, they can guess three things about Conrack. First, it has an unabashed political concern. Second, it tackles issues with more complexity than is found in most musicals. Third, it is unashamedly old-fashioned - talky, story-driven, folksy and optimistic. What one can't foretell is that mostly obscure creators and cast can achieve a show of such charm and polish, so heartstring-tugging and hugely likable.

The story comes from Pat Conroy's autobiographical novel The Water Is Wide, recalling how, as a '60s burnout, he turned to teaching deprived black children on a backward island off the South Carolina coast. In the time-honored tradition of teacher-student tales, this man whom the kids call Conrack enriches not only their lives but also his own. Spurning conventional curriculum and methods, he gets his young charges to enthuse about his hero, Beethoven, and his other hero, soul singer James Brown. He instructs them to take pride in America's history and also in Africa's.

Touchingly, he lifts the self-esteem of even the slowest. But the more he teaches, the more he realizes that the island he views as a refuge is for them an intellectual prison, cut off from stimulus and change. By the end of the show, the rebel ex-hippie has talked himself out of a job but is convinced that his firing is for the best, because it will prompt the children to leave and grow.

Onstage he departs vowing to become the world's greatest teacher. In life he went on to grace the best-seller lists and the movies (The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides and 1974's Conrack, starring Jon Voight). The stage adapters and actor Patrick Cassidy keep the character endearingly ordinary - a bit silly, a bit rash, bright but not brilliant, decent but not saintly. He is a hero anyone can emulate. The children, talented and engaging, have the same down-home appeal, in contrast to the adult villagers and visiting officials, who seem contrived.

This is not a portrait of an artist as a young man, but a portrait of a young man sharing with the next generation the art of everyday living and learning. Every society needs such do-gooders to come to the rescue, working for the common good with un-common goodwill.

Pat Conroy, author of memoir "The Water Is Wide."

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New York Times
The Stage: 'Conrack,' a Musical
Published: November 5, 1987

"CONRACK," a new musical based on Pat Conroy's novel "The Water Is Wide," marks a striking change of pace for the AMAS Repertory Theater.

Typical offerings by the multiracial organization, which has created 60 shows in its 18-year existence, are sugarcoated 1940's-style affairs awash in gee-whiz naivete and gooey sentiment. "Conrack" also has its sticky moments. But the show, which features a score by Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss, who collaborated on the book with Granville Burgess, takes a hardheaded look at thorny questions of race, education and personal idealism versus bureaucratic machinery. Its well-made folk-pop score runs from wistful folk-pop ballads ("The Water Is Wide") to country-flavored vaudevillian nostalgia ("The 1920 Agricultural Exposition an' Fair"). Two excoriating lyrics -"White Liberal to the Rescue" and "Hopes an' Dreams" - don't shy away from portraying racial bitterness with a stinging incisiveness.

The show, which was also inspired by the film "Conrack," in which Jon Voight starred, is set in 1969 and recounts the adventures of Pat Conroy, a young white teacher assigned to educate a bunch of black children on the remote South Carolina island of Yamacraw. Like his predecessors in the job, Conroy (whom the school's starchy female principal insists on calling Conrack) encounters a wall of resistance from children who are accustomed to being bullied and abandoned.

Conroy eventually wins them over, and in doing so gains a newfound sense of professional self-esteem. But the young teacher, who has taken the job in order to flee urban civilization and its pressures, also discovers that even on Yamacraw, there is no getting away from bosses and bureaucrats.

The story is told in swift, well-sketched scenes, the best of which depict Conroy's winning over of his stubborn little charges. Steven F. Hall, who looks every inch the patrician southern rebel-altruist, brings a smoldering enthusiasm to the title role.

The director, Stuart Ross, has succeeded in the difficult task of creating a credible rapport between the teacher and the students (who are played by a talented ensemble of six young performers: Lisa Boggs, Herb Lovelle, Victoria Platt, Jamila Perry, Kobie Powell and Tarik Winston). Pamela Isaacs brings a fine psychological precision to the role of Dr. Jackie Brooks, a black representative of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare who becomes romantically involved with Conroy.

"Conrack" has its bumpy transitions, especially in the second act where very short vignettes advance an accelerating plot. While the show is too small in scale and intimate in tone ever to succeed on Broadway, it is a fine vehicle for school, church, and regional companies looking for a well-made family show that has something to say.

CONRACK, book by Granville Burgess with Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss; directed by Stuart Ross; lyrics by Ms. Croswell; music by Mr. Pockriss. Presented by AMAS Repertory Theater, Rosetta LeNoire, founder and artistic director. At 1 East 104th Street. Pat Conroy...Steven F. Hall Dr. Jackie Brooks...Pamela Isaacs Top Cat...Donald Acree Mrs. Brown...Peggy Alston Cindy Lou...Lisa Boggs Quik Fella...Harold Cromer Dr. Henry Piedmont...J. P. Dougherty Edna Brown...Ellia English Kate...Birdie M. Hale Sam...Herb Lovelle Anna...Jamila Perry Mary...Victoria Platt Prophet...Kobie Powell Richard...Tarik Winston

Granville Burgess, author of "Conrack."

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We Love You, CONRACK

Peter Filichia, March 4, 2016
Weekly column for

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.

Former President Bush & author Granville Burgess, during Conrack's run at Ford's Theater in Washington
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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."

Former President Bush & author Granville Burgess

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