Granville Burgess met Pat Conroy just one time.
It was in 1987 at a small theater in Harlem, where the stage version of the movie version of Conroy’s 1972 memoir “The Water Is Wide” premiered.
“Conrack” (the on-stage iteration) was written by Burgess and, like the movie and the memoir, tells the story of Conroy’s experience teaching on Daufuskie Island in the late 1960s.
Unlike the movie and the memoir, however, the theatrical version — which is in its final weekend at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts — is set to song.
“On a personal basis, I’ve always been attracted to Pat’s story, so I was really thrilled to make it into a musical,” Burgess, who directed the local production, told me this week.
The show, according to a New York Times review from 1987, “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 review reads.
The score was written by Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss, who also wrote the music and lyrics for “Tovarich” and “Ernest in Love.”
While Burgess considers it to be a serious musical with a lot to say, the show is also fun.
At a rehearsal earlier this month, Burgess guided Blake Logan, who plays a very convincing Conroy, through a scene in the classroom with local actors Jackie Bacon, Jamari Young, Austin Majors, Christopher Jenkins, Dasia Lucas and Lelia Green, all of whom play students.
In the scene, the school’s principal demands to know which student wet the floor.
Conroy steps in.
He falls to his knees and gives a dramatic and hilarious confession.
“I’ve been a bed-wetter all my life!”
The kids laugh as if it’s the first time they’re hearing this.
As they perform their next number, Burgess sings along with them softly and to himself.
“They’re very authentic,” he said about the kids, most of whom have never acted in a full-on production before. “I think they were amazed at all the details that go into (a musical like this).”
“Conrack” is being performed in conjunction with the second annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival, a celebration started after the local author’s death in 2016. It is the first time Beaufort audiences have gotten to see the musical on a local stage.
“I wish it could become an annual thing,” Burgess said.
Not only has the director, who is from Greenville, enjoyed being able to bring the show to Conroy’s beloved hometown, he’s enjoyed the people he’s met while here.
During opening weekend, he said he encountered a woman in the lobby of USCB’s arts center.
Tears were pouring down her face.
“I said ‘Oh that’s good,’ ” Burgess told me. “I’m really happy it moves people so much.”
Though this was a great “theater moment” for Burgess, it’s not his all-time favorite one.
That one happened during the one time he met Conroy.
Conroy was seated at the show in Harlem with his young daughter Susannah.
Burgess stood behind them within earshot.
“Susannah turned to Pat, and she said ‘Daddy, I didn’t know you knew how to sing.’ ”
Burgess laughed remembering the exchange.
“If I wish anything,” he said, “I wish he could’ve seen (the show) here.”
If you go
“Conrack” the musical is at 4 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts, 805 Carteret St., Beaufort. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and military, and $15 for students. For more information, call 843-521-4145 or go to www.uscbcenterforthearts.com.