Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 3, 2012
SALISBURY — When Robin Tynes wakes up, the music filters in immediately.
It’s with her as she walks between classes at Catawba College or hangs out at the student center.
Every evening, she can’t wait for another “Huck Finn” rehearsal and a chance to sing and hear the music again.
Billy Burke composed the songs running through Tynes’ head, as she prepares to play the lead role of Huck Finn in a musical comedy first produced on the campus in 1955, then again in 1958.
The amazing thing — the “awesome” thing for the 29 cast members practicing for the April rebirth of “Huck Finn, A Musical” — is that Burke is their show’s biggest cheerleader.
Generations of Salisburians know Burke as “Mr. Music” and “Mr. Bridge.”
A Life Master player, Burke still plays bridge every Monday afternoon and has been writing a bridge column for the Salisbury Post since 1969.
On the music front, he continues to play the piano at weekly Rotary Club meetings and, when he is able, for his Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church — something he has done for close to 80 years.
He has been the piano man for beauty contestants, dance studios, bands, weddings, reunions, parties — you name it.
But the young Catawba College players, born more than seven decades after Burke, see him more as their godfather.
On a recent Wednesday night, the 94-year-old Burke was sitting backstage at Keppel Auditorium, reminiscing about those “Huck Finn” productions from the 1950s and the 15 songs he wrote for them, when the cast arrived for the night’s rehearsal.
Director David Pulliam, professor of theatre arts at Catawba, asked Billy if he would mind meeting the players. Burke was thrilled.
One by one, the cast members introduced themselves and told Burke the roles they were playing. He knew each part, of course.
They had questions for Burke, too. What were his favorite songs? Burke didn’t hesitate. He named “The River Song” and “Miss Mary Jane,” the first two he wrote.
How does he feel about a woman playing the role of Huck Finn?
“If David thinks she can do it, that’s great,” Burke said, “and David thinks she can.”
Back in the 1950s, white students had to play African-American characters in black face. Now the cast is multi-cultural, prompting Burke to observe, “I think things certainly have changed for the better.”
What was it like, the students asked Burke, to compose these songs.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Burke answered. “It was a challenge. I did my best.”
“And his best is darn good,” Pulliam said.
As Burke remembers it, Bernet Hobgood, head of the drama department at Catawba College, brought fellow professor Arnold Colbath by Burke’s home one day and asked him to compose songs for the “Huck Finn” book and lyrics Colbath was writing.
“My first thought was, ‘Heavens, no, I can’t do that,’ ” Burke recalls. But then he asked if he could try maybe two songs — “The River Song” and “Miss Mary Jane.”
He had been playing the piano since he was 9, but Burke was not a composer. He had written only a radio show’s theme song and some music for the distributive education program at Boyden High School.
Hobgood and Colbath liked his songs and asked him to write 11 more. Looking back, Burke thinks it took him about nine months, as he tried to squeeze the composing around his regular human resources job at N.C. Finishing Co. and his regular playing engagements.
“It was quite a challenge,” he says, “and I still don’t believe I did it.”
The Blue Masque produced the show in early 1955 and in the fall of 1958. It became a treasured chapter in the history of the college’s drama department, Pulliam said.
For the second go-round, the musical was tweaked, and Burke was asked to write two additional songs, putting the catalog at 15.
Famed Salisbury stage and screen star Sidney Blackmer saw the show and wrote a local review in which he said, “The music was gay and melodic. Congratulations are in order for Burke, for composing and conducting flawlessly.”
Dick Pierce, a reviewer for the Charlotte Observer, also had this to say: “The show has speed, humor to burn and an amazing accomplished cast and every now and then a real good bit of music.”
Someone else saw the production and couldn’t get the music out of his head: N.C. Symphony Director Benjamin Swalin. In 1957, the N.C. Symphony performed an orchestrated medley of five of Burke’s “Huck Finn” songs, arranged by Thomas Cousins.
It was one of the proudest moments of his life, Burke says.
The “Huck Finn” musical also played in summer stock theater in New York. It had shows, too, in Lexington, Lincolnton, at Boyden High and the Salisbury VA Medical Center.
Much later, the Salisbury Symphony twice performed Burke’s “Huck Finn” songs, including the symphony’s 25th anniversary celebration.
Pulliam says he actually had been looking to produce “Huck Finn” again for the past five to seven years, waiting for the right mix of students to pull it off.
When the time seemed right this year, Pulliam approached Burke after one of the Blue Masque plays. (Burke has attended virtually every Catawba College theater production since the “Huck Finn” days.)
“As long as you look after my baby,” Burke told him.
Burke adds that he was flattered and delighted.
The first “Huck” production in 1955 relied on two pianos and a violin for its orchestra. Burke played one of the pianos.
The 1958 version employed two trumpets, two alto saxophones, a tenor saxophone, trombone, violin, string bass and piano.
Pulliam says the 2012 edition will count mainly on all stringed instruments on stage, including fiddles, banjos, guitars and an upright bass — a change that meets Burke’s approval.
Pulliam says the music holds up well, even more than a half century later. There has been work with the script, so that the Huck Finn character is given more of a narrative line to connect with the audience.
A Mark Twain character also has been added, to give Huck the chance at times to rebel against the author. “I think that’s a clever addition,” Burke says.
Tatianna Long, a junior, will be part of “Tom’s Gang” and the ensemble in the newest production. She is smitten with the song, “Black in the Ways of Sin.”
“It just can’t get out of my head,” she says.
Both Burke and Pulliam are hoping some original cast members will be able to attend the new “Huck Finn.”
Burke plans to be in the audience on opening night. He promised the cast members he would be close to the front, so he could hear better.
“You all sing out,” he asked them.
Before the “Huck Finn” players left for a session with the choreographer, they asked Burke if they could sing one of the show’s songs for him.
They chose “All Aboard,” and Burke cheerfully sang along.
As she was leaving, one of the kids shouted, “Thank you for the music.”
But it was Billy Burke who couldn’t thank them enough.
Huck Finn, A Musical
Book, lyrics: Arnold Colbath
Music: Billy Burke
Orchestration: Cameron Johnson
Director: David Pulliam
Performances: Keppel Auditorium, Catawba College
April 19, 10 a.m., school and youth performance
April 19-21, 7:30 p.m.
April 22, 2:30 p.m.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com