Bayou City

Coming Soon: Houston! The (Imaginary) Musical

My new year’s resolution is to do more creative writing. I have four unfinished novels to revisit, and I’m convinced this will be the year I actually complete one. My biggest problem is finding time to write between a full-time, bill-paying job and this cherished labor of love covering Houston’s musicians.

It recently occurred to me I could merge these pursuits by writing an original musical, something I could toil over and take to TUTS for a big, fat paycheck. Even though I’d be paid handsomely for my work, I’d ingeniously call it “a gift to the city” by setting it in Houston. But, best of all, it would be powered by the original compositions of some of our favorite Houston musicians. I might devise an interesting story line, but I’m no Rodgers or Hammerstein. So I’d go Twyla Tharp à la Movin’ Out and use previously recorded original songs to guide the story.

My first thought was to do something satirical, like The Book of Mormon, only Houston-based. Maybe, I thought, the plot could revolve around some local veteran rockers who attempt to oust Joel Osteen from Lakewood Church to play one last Summit gig. The songs might include The Hates' “Moral Majority,”  deadhorse’s “Every God For Himself” and the Jones Family Singers' "Bones In the Valley."

But, taking a first stab at a musical, I realized my best bet is to allow the natural and incurable romantic in me some free rein. So I am settling on the tried-and-true formula of boy meets girl. A quick synopsis: Nice young man comes to the big city from a farm town. He’s on the fast track career-wise but keeps looking for love in all the incorrect locales. Let’s call him “J.J. Watt.” He meets an incredible young woman, someone with a smile that could melt Sweeney Todd’s stony heart, with Annie’s moxie to match. Let’s call her “Jennifer Lawrence,” because it is still my mission to “jHarmony” these two real-life singles into a real-life couple.

Back onstage, our protagonists quickly fall in love. But a career setback sours our man to everything in life, including his newfound love. They separate. SPOILER ALERT: Obviously, they’ll reunite and live happily ever after. I just mentioned I was an incurable romantic a few sentences ago, did I not?  So with that out of the way, which songs should fill my musical?

Introducing the protagonist, I'd go with "Mighty Man" by blues-rockers Sik Mule. The song has a lot of cocksure swagger, which definitely matches my man’s high opinion of himself. But there’s also something about the lyrics (“Mighty Man, with a shiny plan,…too bad he don’t give a fuck, ‘cause a Mighty Man don’t need no luck.”) that foreshadows the events that will humble him. It’s perfect for a musical because the band also has “Mighty Man II,”  a natural reprise of sorts for later on when the hero is having moments of doubt and pain. There's a swirling, psychedelic guitar break in “MMII" that will be our lighting designer’s wet dream, a chance to create visual effects to match the confused and tortured mood set by the song.

The good thing about making the protagonist a transplant is we can include songs that introduce him to the city, the way “New York, New York” did for that Scorsese musical. There are many to choose from but for maximum pride, it should be a rap song. Few Houston songwriters are as genuinely proud as our local rhyme-sayers. I’d probably go with Lil Flip’s “H-Town State of Mind” because it has an uptempo braggadocio about it. Also, expect at least a few lines from “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” to represent our fella’s rise and “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” to score his downward spiral.

I don’t know which Dollie Barnes song would fit into this fantasy musical, so let me just say I’d simply ask the band’s namesake, Haley Barnes, to write an original piece for it. Her songs are thoughtful, evocative and concise slices of life. When I hear my female lead introducing herself to audiences, I don’t necessarily hear Barnes’s unique voice, but I do hear her telling lyrics. I need a tune that speaks to the character’s nature, which is strong-willed, intelligent, creative and looking to break free from the expectations of her staid upbringing. Should be a piece of cake for this talented songwriter and her band.

Near the end of Act Two, things start unraveling for our hero. He needs reassurance from a comforting but strong voice, which is why “The Place Where You Are” by Sara Van Buskirk is perfect. Consider it the H-town folkie version of Dreamgirls’ “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” The lyrics comment on uncertainty and insecurity but also offer solace. Sadly, our Mighty Man doesn’t listen. The relationship is strained and he drives a wedge between them, symbolized onstage by the two of them standing on opposite sides of the Houston Ship Channel as the curtain falls. (Yes, I said Ship Channel, set designers. Get on it!)

Act Three opens in the seedy city streets (sorry, but every big city has a few) and is mega-charged by the stoner doom of Funeral Horse. The audience is immediately aware that our man has fallen from great heights. His growing hopelessness and cynicism echo in sing-shouts with dubious alley lurkers  — “You shall not falter! You shall not fear!” they cry, from “Gifts of Opium and Myrrh,” the neck-breaking closing track to Funeral Horse’s 2015 album Divinity for the Wicked.

Ultimately he gets his shit together enough to realize he can and must go on despite some dashed dreams. He shelves his anger in the remorseful “Apt. 2,” a song so spot-on that the always-busy singer-songwriter Adam Bricks could have written it specifically for this make-believe moment (he didn't; it’s part of his excellent four-track 2014 EP Demos). Our humbled hero seeks redemption, and is granted another chance with his true love. They assure one another and the audience that everything will be okay with the showstopper, Second Lovers’ “Hold On.” As uplifting as Hair’s “Let The Sunshine In,” it’s our musical's signature song, the tune filled with the vibe and the lyrics that connect us all to hope, a sentiment that can be more important than love, depending on the circumstances.

The whole thing ends with a reprise of “H-Town State of Mind” playing, with a myriad of dancers dressed as doctors, astronauts, energy-company executives and musicians, all doing "jazz hands" and bouncing around the stage as our couple drives their SLAB into the sunset, like Sandy and Danny but in a candy car, with the WE LOVE HOUSTON sign on the horizon. 

Or maybe I could just get back to those unfinished novels.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.