'Shucked': A Broadway musical that doubles down on the corn

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'Shucked': A Broadway musical that doubles down on the corn
The cast of the new musical comedy “Shucked” which includes, from left: Caroline Innerbichler, Andrew Durand, Kevin Cahoon, Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson, Alex Newell and John Behlmann at the Nederlander Theater in New York on March 8, 2023. For their debut, the country-music songwriting team Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark embraced puns, heartfelt songs and campy performances. (Adam Powell/The New York Times)

by Rob Tannenbaum

NEW YORK, NY.- Shane McAnally’s boffo songwriting career got off to a slow start, but by 2013 he and his frequent writing partner Brandy Clark were finally having success. The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” and Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” both cowritten by McAnally and Clark, reached No. 1 and No. 2 on the Billboard country chart.

The songs were hits, sure, but they were also unique, especially in the vivid imagery of their lyrics, which found new ways to describe jealousy and heartache. People in Nashville, Tennessee, took notice, including singer Jake Owen, who offered his opinion of “Better Dig Two” and “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

“He said to me, ‘Those sound like songs from musicals,’” McAnally recalled recently, sitting in a second-floor room of the Nederlander Theatre in Manhattan. He viewed the comment as a backhanded compliment, and remembered thinking, “I wouldn’t even know how to write songs for a musical.”

Fast-forward 10 years, and McAnally and Clark are days away from the April 4 opening of their new Broadway musical at the Nederlander. The show, “Shucked,” is about a plucky small-town woman who leaves home in search of someone who can figure out why all the corn in the county keeps dying. She meets a big-city con man who’s pretending to be a podiatrist — “Corn doctor,” the sign outside his office says — who then concocts a plan to swindle the desperate farmers.

McAnally and Clark, who composed the show’s music and wrote the lyrics, are two of Nashville’s most successful musicians. He has cowritten or produced 39 songs that reached No. 1 on the Billboard country chart, and she has 11 Grammy nominations. New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica called them “two of the most in-demand and disruptive songwriters” in Nashville and “convention-tweakers in a town in thrall to its conventions.”

They began writing songs about a decade ago for a different iteration of the musical, which book writer Robert Horn had been working on since 2011. Horn, who won a Tony Award in 2019 for writing the stage adaptation of “Tootsie,” unabashedly filled “Shucked” with corn puns — the leading lady is named Maizy, she hails from Cob County, and that’s just the start of it.

The show is both about corn, and corny in an audacious way.

‘A show about outliers’

Maybe every Broadway show takes a Mr. Magoo path to opening night, but the backstory to “Shucked” features more flat tires and head-on collisions than most.

It began with a brand extension. Executives at Opry Entertainment Group, which owns the rights to “Hee Haw,” thought the TV show’s mix of music and cornpone comedy might adapt well to the stage. The person first tasked with creating the adaptation was Horn, who’d written and produced lots of television shows, as well as the book (with Dan Elish) for the Broadway musical “13.”

After making progress with the story, Horn traveled to Nashville in 2013 to meet the city’s top songwriters, including McAnally and Clark. He’d prepared a lengthy outline, but they didn’t even read it.

“We want to do this,” he recalled them saying.

Clark, who moved to Nashville in 1997, was just starting a career as a highly acclaimed solo artist. Growing up in Washington state, she was in a community production of “The Music Man,” another show about a slick con man trying to bilk small towners. (“We have some Harold Hill going on,” she acknowledged with a laugh.)

“Writing a musical was always on my bucket list,” she said. “But I thought you had to have a music pedigree to be a Broadway composer.”

McAnally had recently become a musical theater convert after seeing his first Broadway show, “The Book of Mormon.”

“It blew my mind,” he said. “I said to my husband, ‘I want to do that. But I don’t know what it is or how you do it.’”

When Horn met McAnally and Clark, “it was love at first sight,” Horn said in a phone interview. “They have the same sense of humor that I do. The fact that they were proud, gay, out country artists was appealing to me, because I knew I wanted this to be a show about outliers.”

Horn, who gets credit (or blame) for the randy puns and dad jokes in “Shucked,” comes to his comedy honestly. His mother was Ed Sullivan’s secretary, and his grandfather, a Bell Telephone engineer who in his off hours was a vaudeville dancer, introduced him to borscht belt comedy.

When Horn was a baby, his father skipped town. His mother struggled with depression; at the age of 9, he was sent to an orphanage, where he found that making jokes sometimes kept him from being beaten up.

The first version of the show was called “Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical,” and in 2015, it ventured to Dallas. A local critic called it “cartoonish,” and Variety predicted that the musical-comedy would succeed only “far from the Great White Way.”

“Moonshine” was foundering, “so we had to let it go,” Horn said.

Rebuilding a show

While making “Moonshine,” Horn had grown so close to the two songwriters that after his sister died, Clark called him and said, “I’m your sister now.” None of them were ready to give up on the idea of the show, so Horn got the band back together.

Opry Entertainment Group had bowed out, so they threw away the title and all but three songs. And there was a new addition to the team: director Jack O’Brien, who fell in love with country music in the 1980s thanks to his then-boyfriend. Catching the show on the rebound, O’Brien, the only person to win Tonys for directing “Henry IV” and “Hairspray,” knew “Shucked” needed some weight.

“It’s so campy it would float away,” he said.

He urged the songwriters to throw out their opening number, which they loved. He proposed a new song that celebrates corn, one in which the word corn sounded “like a foghorn,” Clark recalled. The songwriters were delighted when they realized the giddy, tone-setting result was better.

When it came time to see what audiences thought, the show’s producers booked the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., with a plan to open there in late 2020. But then the pandemic arrived.

“It was an ill wind, in the classic sense, that brought us some good,” O’Brien said.

While the creative team continued to hone the show, some of the actors, with Broadway mostly shut down, had nothing to do.

“This show is what pulled me through the pandemic,” said Broadway veteran Andrew Durand, who plays Beau, the dim and stubborn male lead, and coincidentally spent the first 10 years of his life in Cobb County, Georgia. “This is what I had to look forward to any time I got down.”

For the second attempt at an out-of-town run, the producers picked the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, though Horn feared that red-state residents would flinch at his jokes. One local reviewer said the show delivered laughs “at a staggering clip,” though another critic warned that the jokes were “a little smutty.” The Salt Lake City audiences “had some difficulty with it,” O’Brien admitted. “They pursed their lips, but I’ve never heard an audience laugh longer.”

“Shucked” would not be as good, he added, if not for the delay.

“We have sat, as colleagues and friends, with nothing to do for three years while we turned these tender leaves over and over in our hands, thinking, ‘Maybe we can do better than that.’ We found values that it’s worthwhile to put out there.”

‘Key to Humanity’

The good songs and jokes in “Shucked” are so plentiful that secondary characters all have a spotlight or two. During rehearsals last month, no one got more laughs than Storyteller 2 (Grey Henson, a Tony nominee for “Mean Girls”) and Beau’s brother Peanut (Kevin Cahoon, the cast’s lone holdover from “Moonshine”), whose punchlines are nearly Dada-esque.

And the showstopping number “Independently Owned” isn’t sung by one of the two lead characters but by Maizy’s cousin Lulu (Alex Newell of “Once on This Island” and TV’s “Glee”), who shows off a remarkable range while nailing multiple tricky modulations in the song.

“Alex got a standing ovation last night,” McAnally said the day after the first preview performance.

It’s no spoiler to say that in Cob County, the women are smarter than the men. (“True to life, really,” Durand quipped.) Maizy (played by Caroline Innerbichler, who is making her Broadway debut) is gullible but determined and openhearted, while the worldlier Lulu is skeptical about big-city grifter Gordy (John Behlmann of “Tootsie”), whose arrival unsettles the equilibrium in Cob County.

The storyline in “Shucked” is partly a corollary to the real-life relationship between Horn’s Yankee family and his husband’s Southern kinfolk. Since they learned to love one another, he says, maybe others can too.

In February, after U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia proposed a “national divorce” between red and blue states, O’Brien told the cast: “There has never been a more important moment for this show.”

During a later interview, he got specific about the musical’s worthwhile values.

“Laughter is God’s miracle,” he said. “You sit in the dark with people you don’t know, and don’t want to know, and you all voluntarily expel the air out of your lungs at the exact same time. If that isn’t the key to humanity, I don’t know what is.

“We don’t have a lot to laugh about right now. Sometimes I cannot look at the news anymore. It breaks my heart. So if there is surcease from sorrow, and my name is attached to it, thank God.”

Broadway musicals rise or fall mostly on the strength of jokes, songs, performances and stagecraft. Apart from one good joke at the expense of Christopher Columbus, the show’s politics are not overt.

“People may see it as a funny little fable, but I hope it’s more than that,” Horn said. “I’m watching laws go into effect for the gay and trans community, my brethren, and watching antisemitism grow in this country.”

A big part of the show’s message is tolerance and love on both sides of a divide, though it’s not a #bothsides play. He hopes audiences recognize that the show has “a message of unity,” he said. “Unless you can open your heart to people who are different than you, you will never grow.”

Behind the rat-a-tat pace of the jokes, “Shucked” is the work of outliers who worry that the victories for tolerance they’ve seen in their lifetimes are being reversed.

The trick to songwriting in Nashville, Clark said once, was “to find your group of misfit toys.” Even through their success, she and McAnally felt as if they were censoring themselves by removing jokes and political themes to blend in on country radio.

In New York, the two best friends joined an enclave where misfit toys are the rule, not the exception.

“Our songwriter friends say, ‘You’re going to be Broadway rich!’ Well, I’m already Broadway rich,” McAnally said with a laugh. The payoff wasn’t the pay but the freedom to write songs without restrictions. “Why would we go back to Nashville?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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