[This article first appeared in 2018.]
It all began when lyricist Anne Croswell and composer Lee Pockriss came to see my play THE FREAK, about the psychic Edgar Cayce in New York in 1981. They liked my writing enough to ask me to join them as the bookwriter for a musical based on novelist Pat Conroy’s memoir “The Water Is Wide,” about his time teaching on an island off the coast of South Carolina in 1969. Being from South Carolina myself and also being a fan of Conroy’s eloquent writing, I readily agreed.
Our musical, CONRACK, had its premiere at AMAS Repertory Theatre in 1987. It was well-received, with the New York Times critic calling it “a well-made family show that has something to say,” and applauding us for not “shying away from portraying racial bitterness with a stinging incisiveness.” What I remember best about the production, however, is that it provided me with one of my favorite theatre stories.
Pat came to see the show with his seven-year-old daughter, Susannah. When they sat in the back row of the tiny theatre in Harlem, I stationed myself right behind them, where I was amused to overhear this delightful exchange. The character, Pat Conroy, comes onstage to sing his opening song. As he launches into it, Susannah turns to the real Pat Conroy sitting next to her and exclaims, “Daddy, I didn’t know you knew how to sing!” For me, this has remained the most profound example I know of that ineffable mix of fantasy and reality that constitutes theatre’s magical appeal.
CONRACK went on to have productions at Goodspeed Opera House, the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. The Ford’s performance was attended by then-President George Bush, First-Lady Barbara, and Prime Minister John Major of Great Britain and his wife. A picture of the President congratulating the cast and me after the show and his personal letter to me are some of my proudest possessions.
But it is the personal connections with Pat Conroy that have meant the most to me as CONRACK journeys down whatever path the Fates have paved for it. In February 2016, our musical was chosen to have a staged reading by The York Theatre in New York City. Out of the blue, Susannah, who had recently healed an estrangement with her father and was fondly remembering their trip to see our show, contacted me to ask if there were any recordings of the music. The only ones we had were a cassette recording made from the audience at a Ford’s Theatre performance, which I promised to send her. On the first day of our rehearsal in New York, Pat announced publicly that he had terminal cancer. I edited the songs as best I could and sent them to Susannah. She later told me that they were some of the last music her father listened to before he passed away. Knowing that made me feel proud, happy, sad, grateful—a mix of emotions that flooded through me as I listened to the music pouring from the stage of The York Theatre that February.
In October 2018, I directed a full production of CONRACK in Pat’s adopted hometown, Beaufort, SC. I was thrilled to do so because it was part of the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, an annual celebration of Pat’s work and that of authors inspired by his writings. Many of Pat’s family attended the show, including his brother, sisters, children, grandchildren, widow, even his agent. CONRACK would be seen by the entire Conroy Clan! Having the people who knew Pat best witness our transformation of his very personal story into song and dance made me a little anxious. The show went great, the audience applauded and laughed, and Pat’s family seemed to really enjoy it. I was not prepared, however, to see them exit the theatre with tears streaming down their faces. They hugged me and thanked me for having created such a wonderful tribute to the humor, idealism, courage, humility, and respect for others that characterized Pat Conroy. I was so grateful for their gratitude. I cried a little myself. They weren’t to be my final tears in the Conroy saga that had begun some thirty-five years ago.
During my time in Beaufort, I had gotten to know Pat’s widow, Cassandra King, a charming, literate, down-to-earth “Southern gal” from Alabama. It was she who provided me further proof that, despite the fact that I had met him only once, my connection to Pat Conroy was deep and destined to last my lifetime. Cassandra had given me a bulging envelope on the last night of our musical’s run in Beaufort. Due to the usual closing performance late-night party, I didn’t open it until my wife was driving me through South Carolina the next day. When I did open it, I found a card which read: “Thank you so much for the fantastic production of CONRACK. It was a moving experience for the entire family. This is an actual pen of Pat’s, that he wrote with, and I only give them to very special people.” She had given me one of the pens Pat wrote with! I kept turning it over and over in my hands as I wept. I am pausing at my computer now to hold it again, gently rubbing it, thinking how Pat must have held this pen as he put down on one of his yellow legal pads some of those lyrical, humorous, rapturously descriptive words that have enthralled and entertained millions of readers and will continue to do so for many years to come. I hold a pen and I can feel spiritually connected to one of the greatest writers of my generation. I am overwhelmed.
Granville Wyche Burgess is an Emmy-nominated playwright and novelist. He is the author of The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe, a novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson, published by Chickadee Prince, and which is available on Kindle, and in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local bookstore.