A famous country songwriter credits ‘Book of Mormon’ as inspiration behind signing onto Broadway-bound musical, opening in Utah

Songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally talk about making “Shucked,” opening Friday at Pioneer Theatre.

(BW Productions) Nashville-based songwriters Shane McAnally, left, and Brandy Clark, center, with playwright Robert Horn, the creators of the new musical "Shucked," which will premiere Oct. 28, 2022, at Pioneer Theatre Company. McAnally and Clark are collaborating on the songs, and Horn is writing the musical's book.

As Nashville musicians and songwriters, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally said they had a lot to learn about making a Broadway musical.

“We come from a world where you’ve got to tell the whole story in three-and-a-half minutes,” Clark said in a recent interview. “To just tell pieces of a story, that’s been a really great challenge.”

They’ve spent nearly the last decade learning that and other lessons, as they worked on writing the music and lyrics for “Shucked,” a new musical that’s being prepared for a Broadway run. Part of that preparation is the production opening Friday at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company. The show will run through Nov. 12.

Clark and McAnally are, as a team and separately, two of the most prolific songwriters in Nashville, writing songs for country music stars such as Reba McEntire, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban. McAnally has won three Grammys, for songs he co-wrote for Kacey Musgraves, and as one of the producers on her debut album “Same Trailer Different Park” (for which he and Clark collaborated with Musgraves on the songs “Follow Your Arrow” and “Dandelion”).

The makers and Pioneer Theatre have been tight-lipped about what “Shucked” is about. The theater company’s synopsis says the story pairs “a semi-neurotic New York comedy writer with two music superstars from Nashville.” The theater also calls it “a hilarious and audacious farm-to-table musical about the one thing Americans everywhere can’t get enough of: Corn.”

(BW Productions) Caroline Innerbichler, seen here at a media preview in front of the Pioneer Theatre, plays Maizy in Pioneer Theatre's production of the new musical "Shucked," set to be performed Oct. 28-Nov. 12, 2022. The ensemble for the musical sings behind her.

Pioneer Theatre is developing a reputation as a place to workshop productions that have an eye toward New York. Actor/co-writer Robert Creighton brought his musical biography of James Cagney to PTC in 2019. And Ellen Simon, daughter of the stage legend Neil Simon, premiered her comic play “Ass” at Pioneer last year, working with her longtime friend, PTC’s artistic director, Karen Azenberg.

There have been Broadway musicals set in the heartland before — “Oklahoma!,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Li’l Abner” among them — but they were usually written by New York theater people. Country singer Roger Miller co-wrote “Big River,” a mid-’80s hit based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” So a musical filled with country songs, written by Nashville songwriters, isn’t unprecedented, but it is a rarity.

The perception of country music may work in their favor, Clark said, because people who underestimate “Shucked” will be shocked.

McAnally said the songs he and Clark have written for “Shucked” are “timeless and classic, melodically speaking,” and “will transcend the idea of country music.”

Audiences may come into “Shucked” with the same pessimism he felt when he first heard about “The Book of Mormon,” McAnally said.

“Thinking that I’m going to hear somebody speaking on religion or possibly making fun of religion, none of that appeals to me,” he said. But he found there was a lot more to “The Book of Mormon” — and credits that musical as what “inspired him and set it in motion” to sign on to “Shucked.”

(BW Productions) Andrew Durand, seen here at a media preview in front of the Pioneer Theatre, plays Beau in Pioneer Theatre's production of the new musical "Shucked," set to be performed Oct. 28-Nov. 12, 2022.

Recruited to write a musical

Both songwriters, McAnally said, were hitting their “commercial stride” in Nashville when playwright Robert Horn — who won a Tony for the book (Broadway talk for script) of the Broadway musical version of “Tootsie” — approached them with a “loose” script for a country-themed musical.

Horn, McAnally said, “wanted to find authentic Nashville songwriters that hopefully would write songs in the voice that he was writing, so that it was a seamless transition between songs and dialogue.”

Within five minutes of their first meeting, both songwriters were on board. “There was something in Horn’s character descriptions, the way he spoke, that really sounded like his mother and aunts,” McAnally said.

The people Horn described, McAnally said, sounded like people McAnally grew up around — even though Horn is Jewish and from New York, and McAnally is originally from Texas. (Clark grew up in a small town in Washington state.)

Clark noted that she and McAnally are fans of musicals, but needed to learn the mechanics behind them. “Robert really helped us learn what an opening number needed to do and what an 11 o’clock number was,” Clark said. (An “11 o’clock number” is a showstopper near the end of the musical, usually when a major character has an epiphany of some sort. “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy,” “Memory” from “Cats” and “For Good” from “Wicked” are considered among the best 11 o’clock numbers in stage history.)

(BW Productions) Actor John Behlmann enjoys an elote (Mexican grilled corn on the cob) during a media preview of "Shucked" at Pioneer Theatre Company. Behlmann plays Gordy in the musical, debuting at PTC on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, with an eye toward a Broadway run.

“There are times where it can be frustrating,” McAnally said, to write a song for a specific passage in the story. “We might come up with the most incredible rhyme or perfect line, but Robert or Jack [O’Brien, the director] will be like, ‘We don’t know that yet. We can’t say that yet.’”

O’Brien has three Tonys: For directing “Hairspray” in 2002, directing a 2004 revival of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” with Kevin Kline as Falstaff and Ethan Hawke as Hotspur, and directing Tom Stoppard’s 2007 play “The Coast of Utopia,” starring Hawke, Billy Crudup and Martha Plimpton.

Clark said O’Brien is an “inspiring leader that knows how to bring out the best in everybody.”

When O’Brien came on board, Clark and McAnally had written two songs. In the end, they wrote between 50 or 60 — and 11 of them made it into the final show.

It’s been hard, they said, to let go of “their children,” as McAnally described the rejected songs. But, Clark said, the “Shucked” team — particularly music director Jason Howland — has been “delicate” with their music.

“Everybody involved in the process, and it really does start with Jack, does a great job of protecting the musical integrity of what we do,” Clark said.

(BW Productions) Caroline Innerbichler, seen here at a media preview in front of the Pioneer Theatre, plays Maizy in Pioneer Theatre's production of the new musical "Shucked," set to be performed Oct. 28-Nov. 12, 2022.

Trusting the process

And the process has been ongoing, McAnally said, noting that they were rewriting the end of the first act just nine days before the production opens at Pioneer Theatre.

The actors are part of that process, McAnally said. “We did something we had never done before, which was sit in the room with the actors and we wrote a big piece of the song,” he said. They were trying to create a “musical reason” for actors to stay on the stage after receiving feedback from them.

“I used to have this idea about musicals before I got involved,” McAnally said, “which was I don’t want a character to just start singing. That feels so inauthentic to me.”

Between now and getting the show to Broadway, Clark and McAnally said the remaining work involves getting it in front of audiences, and hearing their feedback. Clark said they have become more attuned to people on the “outside,” especially because “this show is about outsiders.”

It takes a certain level of confidence to create a Broadway-bound musical — and McAnally said he and Clark, as two openly gay singer-songwriters building successful careers in Nashville, are just the right amount of confident.

Overall, the aim of “Shucked” is to touch “places in the heart and in the funny bone,” Clark said. Hopefully, McAnally added, “the show [is] wrapped up in a lot of fun, a lot of laughs and a lot of good music.”

(BW Productions) Singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, seen here at a media preview in front of the Pioneer Theatre, is one of the writers of the music and lyrics for the new musical "Shucked," set to be performed Oct. 28-Nov. 12, 2022, by Pioneer Theatre Company.

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