Pioneer Theatre Company Debuts New Musical ‘Shucked’

It’s corn! At Pioneer Theatre Company, a brand-new musical comedy follows a town surrounded in the “big lump with knobs” we all know and love. “Shucked is about a town that is surrounded [by corn,]” explains the score’s co-writer Brandy Clark. “No one’s ever left and no one’s ever come in, and the corn starts dying.” Local couple Beau (Andrew Durand) and Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) are determined to save the town from this existential threat, but they don’t realize that big-city con artist Gordy (John Behlmann) is taking advantage of the closed-off Corn Cob County.

Shucked, which premieres on Friday, Oct. 28, is a collaboration between Clark and her frequent collaborator Shane McAnally along with book writer Robert Horn. While there are no guarantees in the theater world, Shucked’s high-pedigree creative team expects the production to transfer to the Great White Way as early as this spring.

If Shucked does make it to New York, it would be the Broadway debut for Clark and McAnally.  The two, who made their career in country music, met in the late 2000s, and McAnally says they quickly recognized each other as musical soulmates. “I feel like we were meant to find each other,” he says. They connected over their musical influences—country storytellers like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson—similar upbringings and their shared identities as gay artists in a genre often known for its conservatism. “He and I can kind of finish each other’s sentences a lot of the time, so it’s a really great collaboration. I feel so lucky that I’ve gotten to do this with him,” Clark says. 

The two had a breakout hit in 2011 co-writing “Mama’s Broken Heart” with Miranda Lambert, and over the 2010s they have worked with many of country music’s biggest names. Perhaps their signature work is with the artist Kacey Musgraves. Their songs with Musgraves, like the politically outspoken gay rights anthem “Follow Your Arrow” and the winkingly retro “Biscuits,” were quietly revolutionary in Nashville—whip-smart, unapologetically progressive yet rooted in tradition. Just as the duo became some of the industry’s most in-demand songwriters, Clark launched her own solo career, starting with the critically acclaimed 2013 album 12 Stories

For both Clark and McAnally, writing Shucked was the realization of a lifelong dream. Clark grew up loving musicals like The Phantom of the Opera, and as a child she performed as Amaryllis in a local production of The Music Man. (Her mom taught her the required piano part overnight before she booked the role.) McAnally, meanwhile, came to his theater fandom later in life. On a trip to New York City with his now-husband, he saw his first musical, The Book of Mormon, and was immediately hooked. “​​I knew right then that I was gonna write a musical,” he says. 

McAnally’s opportunity came a few years later, when Horn, who was at the time best known for the musical 13, approached him and Clark with a new project that would feature a country score. That initial musical, Moonshine, based on the TV show Hee Haw, premiered in Dallas in 2015 but never reached a New York stage. Their work was shelved—Clark and McAnally continued their “day jobs” in Nashville and Horn wrote the book for Tootsie, which won him a Tony Award. After Tootsie’s success, Horn decided to return to the collaboration. “There was something in all of us that just couldn’t let it die,” Clark explains.

At this point, director Jack O’Brien—a stage veteran who helmed the Broadway productions of Hairspray, The Full Monty and The Coast of Utopia—joined the production, and Clark and McAnally agree that his presence reinvigorated the show. With O’Brien’s encouragement, the musical evolved from a rewrite to a total overhaul—Shucked is a completely different work from Moonshine. “Before we knew it, we had 15 new songs,” Clark says. 

While Clark and McAnally were both Broadway rookies, their background in country provided some preparation for the unique challenges of writing a musical. Country is a genre that prizes detailed storytelling and imagery-rich lyrics, and Clark and McAnally’s music has always featured memorable characters, snappy humor and fully-contained narratives. “I’ve always loved a story song, and although they are not necessarily the trend, Brandy and I specifically kept writing them,” McAnally says. The two are also accustomed to writing for a range of different performers, each with distinct vocal ranges, personas and perspectives. “I started out as a staff songwriter writing for the market, and that definitely has helped,” Clark said. The songwriters’ portfolio was, unintentionally, an ideal training ground for writing a Broadway score, which requires a knack for embodying a wide range of characters.

Still, Clark and McAnally had to learn how to write in new ways to create Shucked. After Horn chose them as collaborators, he made them a mixtape that served as a crash course on Broadway structure, with examples of iconic opening songs, Act I closers and 11 o’clock numbers. “Those are things we didn’t know, so he really gave us a musical theater education,” Clark says. “We are lucky for that.” In separate conversations, Clark and McAnally both observed that they had to adjust their usual instincts, which often resulted in economical short stories, to build a larger narrative. In country, “the beginning, the middle and the end had to happen in three minutes,” McAnally says. “With musical theater, you can’t tell the whole story in one song or it’s over,” Clark says. “I’ve really enjoyed that challenge.” 

Both Clark and McAnally say that they want Shucked to feel timeless. As musical inspirations, Clark cites Golden Age favorites like The Music Man, Oklahoma! and West Side Story, while McAnally drew from the irreverent 21st century comedies Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. While a few other musicals draw from Americana and bluegrass, Shucked still feels stylistically distinct from the current Broadway landscape, and McAnally and Clark say this was intentional.  McAnally wanted the score to recall country radio of a different era, when artists like Parton and The Judds dominated the airwaves and the genre remained almost totally distinct from pop and hip hop. Despite their Broadway education, the writers say that it was important for them to stay true to their country roots. “When we start trying to be something we’re not, it’s real obvious,” Clark says. 

It’s been nearly a decade since Clark and McAnally started working on a musical together. Though Utah audiences will be the first to see Shucked, the writers feel that the musical’s world premiere is the culmination of a long journey. “I’m glad that I really didn’t know what it would take,” Clark admits. “I was naive to the demands of a musical.” For McAnally, the musical’s lengthy development was a necessary part of the creative process. The first five years of writing, McAnally says, “it felt like a sweater that every time we would pull a string, the whole thing would come apart.” Looking back, he calls Shucked “the greatest experience of [his] life.” Now, the musicians finally get to share their work with the audience at Pioneer Theatre Company. “I could not speak enough about how excited this team is to get this show to Salt Lake,” McAnally says.

Shucked will be at Pioneer Theatre Company from Oct. 28-Nov. 12. For tickets and more information, visit PTC’s website.

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Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen is the former Digital Editor of Salt Lake magazine, where he covered local art, food, culture and, most importantly, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. He previously worked at Utah Style & Design and is a graduate of the University of Utah.

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