Around a dozen years ago, hit country songwriter Shane McAnally had a revelation after seeing his first Broadway show, The Book of Mormon.
“At the end of that show, I just looked at my husband and said, ‘I’m going to do this’ — not even knowing the first thing about how you would do that,” he says. “I feel like I set a dream in motion.”
Similarly, even though revered fellow singer-songwriter and frequent McAnally collaborator Brandy Clark had been raised on musicals (after seeing Oklahoma at an early age) and had “this big, lofty dream at some point of writing a musical,” she tells Billboard, “I thought ‘I can’t do that. I didn’t go to college to do that.’ I thought you had to be super trained.”
After more than a decade, and a winding road that included abandoning both the original concept and a second attempt — taking a few years off before resuming and then dealing with pandemic delay — McAnally and Clark’s dreams come true Tuesday (April 4) when Shucked opens on Broadway at the Nederlander Theater.
The show, directed by three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien, features lyrics and music by McAnally and Clark and a book by Robert Horn, who won a Tony for best book of a musical for Tootsie, which he wrote during a break from what ultimately became Shucked.
The musical comedy is a laugh-out-loud “farm-to-fable” about the denizens of a small, rural Midwest community, one of whom heads to the big city — well, Tampa — to figure out why the village’s corn has quit growing. The musical combines the good-natured, fish-out-of-water vibe of The Book of Mormon and the occasional bawdiness of Avenue Q, with a redeemed con man tale reminiscent of The Music Man.
Part of the show’s charm is its effervescent embrace of obvious, often lowbrow, humor: The female lead is named Maizy, who lives with her grandfather and friends in, naturally, Cob County. It pokes fun at rural stereotypes, but always with great affection for its characters and a knowing wink, provided by Storyteller 1 and Storyteller 2, who serve as the in-on-the-joke narrators.
With Horn’s script often focused on laughs, much of the emotional lifting comes from Clark and McAnally’s songs — including poignant, tender ballad “Maybe Love,” resilient mid-tempo track “Somebody Will,” perky empowerment tune “Woman of the World” and audacious anthem (and bonafide showstopper) “Independently Owned.”
“Shucked” writers Shane McAnally (music & lyrics), Robert Horn (book), and Brandy Clark (music & lyrics).
Responsible for such hits (together and separately) as Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry-Go-Round” and dozens of others, Clark and McAnally know their way around a country hook. But they didn’t know their way around the structure and timing of crafting a Broadway musical — so they were thrilled when they got a care package from Horn early in the process.
“He sent us CDs, saying, ‘These are opening numbers. There are 11:00 numbers,’” Clark recalls. Hairspray’s bouncy, inviting first tune, ‘Good Morning, Baltimore’ was on the opening numbers CD, while powerful ballads The Wizard of Oz’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and West Side Story’s “Tonight” were examples of 11 o’clock numbers (even if those songs didn’t end their respective projects), meant to demonstrate the pacing and mood of writing for different acts.
“The thing about Robert is he’s a generous collaborator,” Clark says. “He wanted real country songwriters and he was willing to do that work to help us do our homework.”
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Around 10 years ago, Horn was approached by the Opry Entertainment Group to write the book for a musical based on Hee Haw, the hokey variety show that ran from 1969 to 1991 and mixed country music with groan-worthy skits, often set in a cornfield. He asked Clark and McAnally to work with him.
“We loved the idea of doing something associated with Hee Haw. We were the only people who felt that way,” McAnally says with a laugh, sitting with Clark in a second floor lounge in the Nederlander Theater the morning after a sold-out preview.
McAnally and Clark quickly discovered that, while Hee Haw did offer them their first exposure to artists like Buck Owens, Roy Clark and Tammy Wynette as young children watching with their grandparents, “there wasn’t a lot there and some of the humor did not age well,” McAnally says. The idea morphed into the broader-themed Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, which opened in Dallas in September 2015, and told the story of a small town girl who goes to the big city to be a TV weathergirl.
Feeling that Moonshine wasn’t where it needed to be, after the Dallas run, the trio put the musical on hold. “We stepped away from it and said, ‘Maybe it’s just not going to happen,’” Horn says. “But there was a seed of an idea that we loved.”
A year or two later, as Horn watched America riven by political and ideological conflict, he reached out to Clark and McAnally. ‘“We need to start over,’” he recalls saying. “Let’s write a show about how we find commonality in a country so divided. We can’t fix that, but maybe we can be a part of the healing.”
The show was completely overhauled, with O’Brien now onboard and the theme evolving to “a girl who is underestimated and finds out she has the ability to be a hero inside of her,” Horn says.
Shortly after the producers booked the show for a late 2020 run at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., the pandemic hit and the run was canceled.
“If the show’s successful, I credit it to the pandemic,” Horn says. “We sat down and dug into the show and said, ‘It’s not there yet.’ Had we opened that show, it was still a good show — but it wasn’t the show. We literally rewrote the whole show again.”
Though country songs are renowned for their storytelling, Clark says writing for characters for a musical hits different. “When Alex Newell (Lulu) gets a standing ovation [for ‘Independently Owned’], it feels out of body,” she says. “I remember seeing Miranda Lambert after ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ had been a hit, and when that part of the show came, being super-excited. This doesn’t feel like that. I forget that these are our songs. They are [the characters’ songs] — and when they feel like their songs, then I know it’s right.”
McAnally adds writing for Shucked is closer to his and Clark’s truest selves. “What’s funny is this actually feels like what we always did. We switched for [Nashville],” he says. “We have to edit [those songs] because we have a much more irreverent sense of humor. We love rhymes that are completely shocking, that people would go, ‘I’d never say that.’ Here we don’t have to do that — because we’re saying what these characters would say and not trying to figure out if Dierks Bentley would say it.”
A few remnants from Moonshine remain — including the rowdy “We Love Jesus (But We Drink a Little),” which opens the second act and serves as the theme of the small-town girl going to the big city and actor Kevin Cahoon, who is the only holdover from the Moonshine cast, where he played an idiot savant named Junior Junior.
In Shucked, Cahoon’s character is now Peanut, the town philosopher — who come across as a bit of a rube, but then spouts profound universal truths. Based on Horn’s husband’s uncle, who was a peanut farmer, Cahoon’s character also runs the radio station, marries and buries people, and is the town clerk.
As Cahoon researched his part, he discovered the “great tradition of country storytellers, whether it’s Minnie Pearl or Jerry Clower,” he says. “You may have thought [they] were hayseeds, but they are saying things that are connected to you in a simple, pure, honest way. I thought about those great country comedians when I’m playing him.”
BOSNER’S ‘BEAUTIFUL’ EFFECT
The show may have remained dormant after Dallas, if not for Mike Bosner, one of the lead producers on the Tony-winning Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, signing on as lead producer. He heard about Moonshine after the Dallas run and met McAnally through McAnally’s husband, who knew Bosner’s wife, Brittany Schreiber, a booker for Today.
“Shane and I started talking about doing a different show, because I was obsessed about bringing a show to Broadway with country music,” Bosner says. “The fact that [there] hasn’t been one in recent years is a crime.”
Those involved say Bosner’s palpable enthusiasm, connections (he brought in O’Brien) and backing made all the difference. “We’re very happy that he got on board and feels so passionate,” McAnally says. “That relationship was really what put this into high gear.”
Around 2019, as Bosner began lining up other investors — the SEC filing’s range for the show is a minimum of $13 million and a maximum of $16 million — he approached Sandbox Entertainment head Jason Owen, whom he knew through his wife, to become a producer. (Even though artist manager Owen and McAnally are partners in Monument Records, it was Bosner who brought him in.)
Owen then brought in the other lead investor, AEG, which had last invested on Broadway in 2005’s The Color Purple, and whose team, led by Jay Marciano and Gary Gersh, has provided not just money but business acumen. “For the last six or seven months, we’ve had weekly calls with AEG,” Owen says. “They’ve been involved in looking at how we’re marketing in and outside of New York [and] cross-analyzing data on the ticket buyers that are seeing certain shows in and around New York.” AEG has also used its buildings and other venues to provide billboards and other out-of-home marketing.
(Owen further tapped into the music community, recruiting Sony Music Entertainment and clients Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook as co-producers.)
Broadway previews began March 8, and given how Shucked is an unproven commodity with no known hit songs and no big names in the cast, the show aggressively discounted preview tickets — with some going for as low as $29, and none higher than $149. According to Broadway News, the gambit worked, with attendance running at (or close to) 100% for the first three weeks of previews. “What we really needed to do was get butts in seats,” Owen says. “We were able to capture an audience that lives on social media and was able to start spreading the word about how great the show is.”
The play is deliberately being marketed as a musical comedy and not a country musical. As the U.S. emerges from COVID and remains mired in political division, the producers are counting on a show with no agenda, other than to make people laugh and accept one another, to have broad appeal.
The promotional ad campaign initially relied on stressing the punny humor, while keeping an air of mystery. One ad had the tagline, “’I saw it 300 times before it even opened’-George Santos.” Another read, “’The musical that has Broadway all a-Twitter’-Elon Husk.”
Despite its rural themes and Clark and McAnally’s pedigrees, the music falls more solidly in the pop range, and the producers didn’t want to risk alienating any attendees by labeling the show “country.” “In a big metropolitan city like New York, saying, ‘Oh, we’re doing a country show’ — the theater elite is [going to be] like, ‘I don’t know if that’s for me,’” Bosner says. “But if you’re selling musical comedy and saying this is a laugh-out-loud hilarious, then a country score or whatever [genre] it is, would be the gift with purchase. From the get-go, I’ve been saying, ‘We need to sell this as the best time out,’ and our goal is to not create any potential pothole that says, ‘That doesn’t sound like a show for me’.”
Owen agrees. “The marketpace on Broadway is currently 90% existing jukebox musicals, whether that’s [MJ the Musical] or Moulin Rouge. You know to some extent what you’re getting,” he says. “If we would have pigeonholed ourselves into a country [box] when it’s really not — it just didn’t feel right to look at it like that.”
Clark and McAnally join a short list of Nashville-based, country music songwriters to open original musicals on Broadway. The most successful of those musicals has been Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with music and lyrics by Roger Miller (“King of the Road”). The Tony winner for best musical originally opened in 1985 and ran for 1,005 performances. Keeping with the Mark Twain works, Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”) wrote the music and lyrics for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which ran for 21 performances in 2001.
More recently, Nashville based Wayne Kirkpatrick (“Change the World”) was nominated for a Tony for best original score for co-writing the words and music for Something Rotten!, which opened in 2015 and played for 708 performances.
Sony Masterworks Broadway will release Shucked’s original cast recording digitally on May 5 and on CD June 9, but there are already thoughts of finding big pop names to possibly reinvent the songs, à la 2016’s The Hamilton Mixtape, featuring Kelly Clarkson and Alicia Keys, or 2017’s The Greatest Showman: Reimagined, which included P!nk, Zac Brown Band and Kesha. “Imagine ‘Independently Owned’ sung by Lizzo,” Clark says. “That’s where our head goes.”
There are also dreams of taking Shucked into corners that Broadway musicals have never ventured before. “AEG has Coachella and Stagecoach. Is there a world where we can do the music of the show at Stagecoach in some way?” Bosner asks. “That’ll be amazing, right? But let’s get the show open on Broadway first.”