The verdicts on the new Broadway musical-comedy “Shucked” are in, and the critics have asked you to lend them your ears — so to speak — as they’ve cobbled together their reactions to the possible sleeper hit. (Sorry, but once you’ve seen the production, it may take you six months or longer to stop speaking in puns.) Variety’s critic wrote that “with its exuberance, heart and non-stop yucks, ‘Shucked’ is the surprise delight of the Broadway season.” The New York Post’s notice trumpeted it as “Broadway’s best and funniest new musical.” Time Out said the show leaves theatergoers “gorged to satisfaction on a big, tasty bag of Broadway puff.” Entertainment Weekly wrote that “its refreshing embrace of diversity and unapologetically corny sincerity can definitely put a smile on your face.” Even one of the minority that was harder on it, the New York Times’ Jesse Green, begrudgingly admitted of the torrent of laughs: “Forced into submission,” he wrote, “you eventually give in.”
Without knowing how “Shucked” will ultimately fare at the Broadway b.o., these notices — along with the roaring full houses that have filled the Nederlander Theatre during previews — are providing a happy ending to a show that has often stood in danger of having its flame snuffed out through a dozen years of development. Yes, 12 years… epic even by normal, painfully elongated Broadway standards. But beating longshot odds seems to have been standard practice so far for a show that has brought together two of New York theater’s finest Tony-winning talents, director Jack O’Brien (“Hairspray”) and book writer Robert Horn (“Tootsie”), with two of the best songwriters to come out of Nashville in the last couple of decades, or maybe ever, Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark (Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow”).
“My experience has taught me, if you can’t do it quickly, it doesn’t want to happen,” says O’Brien, who has always believed that “fast and fresh is best. And this has proved me wrong!” He laughs. “Clearly I’m eating that crow. You think it’s going to be all overworked and self-conscious and painful. And none of that is true. Because this has just gotten steadily better as we worked on it. As you well know, to sit with comedy is to begin to resent it, because you’ve heard the jokes and you think, ‘Jesus, I can’t hear that again.’” But, he avows, “We’re still laughing at this shit.”
In a separate interview in the production’s rehearsal space, McAnally asks a reporter, “When did you start hearing about it? The ‘80s?” Says Clark: “We’ve been working on it since junior high school. Seriously.”
That’s not serious. (Very little about “Shucked” is, until it starts hitting more notes about inclusiveness toward the end of the second act, anyway.) But you can understand the exaggeration. Clark and McAnally remember doing the first reading of an early version of the show slightly more than a decade ago. “Jack inspired us to keep going” when he came aboard as director three years ago, McAnally says. “Because there have been mulitple times where it’s like, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ Brandy and I have our own respective careers going on, and families, and changes in life. But she said something recently that has stuck with me, and that I’ve repeated to people when they’re like, ‘Oh my God. How did you guys do this this long?’ And she said, ‘It’s like that saying about marriage: Neither of us gave up at the same time.’”
More on that backstory in a minute. But in the present, the battle still isn’t completely won, even after Tuesday night’s premiere-goers exited to see on their smartphones a raft of mostly positive, sometimes gushy reviews, some of them bound to be excerpted as blurbs posted on the theater exterior within hours. A month of previews ran at about 99% capacity for the last month, partly due to a campaign that had tickets selling at the lower price points that Broadway previews used to go for, in the era before producers jacked everything into the hundreds from the first tryout day. It could still be a tough sell, into the long run, if reviews or that word-of-mouth from initial delighted audiences doesn’t carry all the way through to the vast masses that still have no idea what the hell this show is. (The title “Shucked” is an attention-getter, to be sure, but the old jelly advertising tagline may also apply here: “With a name like Smuckers, it’s got to be good.”)
Jason Owen is an artist manager for Kacey Musgraves and, as head of Sandbox Entertainment, the closest thing Nashville has right now to a true multi-media mogul. He came on board as a producer about a year ago and would be among the first to acknowledge the hurdles as well as strengths of a wholly original Broadway musical where the director and writers are bigger marquee names than the cast.
“I’ve been a big fan of musicals my whole life,” Owen says, “and you don’t really think about all the years that go into them, before it sort of all comes down to really the first three weeks of shows to see if it’s gonna work.” Those kind of quick box-office verdicts are party why “everything else is existing IP that people know what they’re going to see, whether it’s the Michael Jackson musical or ‘Moulin Rouge’ or ‘Life of Pi.’ No one knows what ‘Shucked’ is — which is the best part,” he believes, if they make it through this first round. “It’s the same thing as discovering artists,” Owen adds, bringing it back to his primary music-industry world. “When the audience can actually discover something on their own, to me it means it has more impact, versus us telling them what it is. You’re discovering something and having an opinion for yourself versus someone telling you what you should see or how you should feel about it. And the same goes for the cast — I think you’re discovering these actors on your own that will go on to be household names one day.”
Owen wasn’t brought onto the project just because of this kind of faith. Although he has been friends with McAnally (with whom he heads a small label, Monument) and Clark for many years, he was just an interested observer in the development of “Shucked” from afar. That was until he got a call from one of the show’s primary producers, Mike Bosner (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”), looking for his help in getting financing and marketing help from the music-biz side. It resulted in AEG, one of the industry’s foremost concert promoters, getting involved in Broadway for the first time.
“Mike, who obviously has an amazing reputation in Broadway with the success of ‘Beautiful,’ was leaning on me to have a big say in marketing and PR, and also to help raise the money, to be quite frank,” says Owen. “There are obviously your sort of go-to people that invest in Broadway continuously and hedge their bets on what’s gonna work and what’s not. I looked at it a little differently because I felt that the show could really use a broader appeal to middle America, and into the world, which is why I went to Jay Marciano (COO/chairman and CEO at AEG) to do something they had never done before, and just said, ‘Look, I want you to come’” to a reading that happened about two and a half years ago. When Marciano — joined by Gary Gersh — agreed, “I think there was probably a lot of hesitation, going into the first thing he saw, until he saw it. He was on the ground laughing so hard, just like a little kid of full of excitement. And he literally looked at me in intermission and said, ‘Whatever you want with this. This is a no-brainer.’
“It’s not a world they’ve really stepped into, and why not try it here with something that Jay obviously really believes in? Then after we figured out the deal with AEG, we really leaned into non-traditional marketing with them. We appealed to a lot of the ticket buyers that we knew would be audiences for the show. We leaned into (AEG’s) digital and social media teams, just like we would a tour. It’s been all hands on deck for pretty much the whole company. And I think that’s really had a big impact on these first weeks of previews.” Although Owen says AEG’s interest is in making the Broadway run successful and not thinking too far ahead to possible tours, he says Marciano “realized also that it was a show that could travel very well.”
The history of iterations of “Shucked” is an interesting one, since it bears close to no resemblance to the show that McAnally and Clark started working on more than 10 years ago and that Horn goes back on a full 12 years. That first conception of the production did depend on existing IP, albeit in not much more than name: It was called “Hee Haw: The Musical” (later amended to “Moonshine: A Hee Haw Musical”), loosely tied in to the long-running sketch-comedy TV series “Hee Haw,” even though that 1969-83 show had absolutely no narrative elements from which to draw upon. Opry Entertainment had hired Horn to develop that property, and it got put up in Dallas in 2015, to mixed, largely lukewarm reviews. Interest petered out well short of the Great White Way.
Then, says Clark, “Robert ended up winning a Tony for ‘Tootsie,’ and so there became this renewed interest in him. He picked the ball back up, and we started running with it and got a new producer in Mike Bosner and new director in Jack, with a whole new team around.” Says Bosner, “Ironically, when the writers approached me about taking over the show, one of the first questions I asked was: Why did you guys move away from ‘Hee Haw’? That’s a great title. It tells you exactly what the show is and it sets you directly into that mind frame and it’s just catchy. But it very quickly became clear that the show they wanted to do and what it was becoming was not ‘Hee Haw.’”
There are differing perceptions about whether “Shucked” is an evolution of “Hee Haw” or an entirely new show. All that’s left from that show are two songs, a character being named Lulu (a la Lulu Roman from the TV show), and a slight bit of a thread in the narrative trajectory. Clark and McAnally say they never got censored when it came to working with the generally family-friendly Opry Entertainment, but they also agree they probably never could have gotten in a song as openly bawdy as “Plowed,” something that was a part of the “Shucked” previews. O’Brien says of the version that climaxed in Dallas in 2015 that “apparently it was painful. And I can’t understand, nor do I wish to, the nature of the pain — I don’t ask too many questions.” But Opry Entertainment gave the principals their blessing, with Bosner making sure there were no issues in the transition as he took it over.
“They wished us well,” says Horn. “They loved us; they loved the show. We had a great working relationship. We were honest and said, ‘The show we’re developing has nothing to do with that franchise. We want to write an original book musical,’ and they were like, ‘Go with God.’ To this day, we get texts from Steve Buchanan (former president of the Gaylord Entertainment Group) and all the people that were involved saying, ‘Can’t wait to see it, know it’s gonna be a success.’ Everything has always been — not to oversentimentalize it — supportive and loving. And the truth of it is, even though it had the moniker of ‘Hee Haw at the time, it had nothing to do with it because ‘Hee Haw’ had no story. It was really just about the tone of the comedy, that vaudeville-esque style.”
Bosner says moving on was “not complicated at all, because the rights had actually lapsed. I recontacted them, and we have an arrangement with them because I wanted to acknowledge the fact that the show they started (existed prior) and not have any legal issues, even if their show has nothing to do with this show. So we have a deal in place with them, but they’re very happy that the show has gone on and is having a life.”
O’Brien had actually put in his bid to direct “Hee Haw,” back in the mid-2010s. “They sent me three or four songs that were as good as anything I’d ever heard,” he remembers. “I sent one song out to a half-a-dozen people, saying, ‘You’ve gotta hear this, this is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’” Meeting with Horn, Clark and McAnally, “I really did one of the best pitches I’ve ever done in my life! I was really proud of myself. And Brandy was singing at the Beacon that night, and I joined them and went. I thought, ‘I’ve got this fucking job. I know we’re having a wonderful time.’ They didn’t hire me!” He laughs. “I didn’t get the gig.”
But there may have been a lot of cooks in that decision at the time. When Bosner got excited about coming on board about four years ago to produce, he almost immediately called O’Brien to potentially direct, and before long, they were meeting with the songwriters, who were cautiously enthusiastic about starting the whole process anew after an extended bout of burnout. “We just had a wonderful time” at their first fresh meeting in L.A., O’Brien says. “And it sounds a little silly, but I’m a great believer in that. I want people at their happiest, at their most relaxed, at their most inclusive, so that no one is cut off, so that you hear everything all the time. And as a result, I think they were able to reassess their own enthusiasm for it in that respect.”
Sitting in a backstage room during pre-preview rehearsals, McAnally says, “We wrote four songs last week. I mean, that’s after we’ve written 40? 50? Maybe more?” Within the last couple of days, prior a run-through for a few selected press and VIP types, hey had just written a whole new musical ending to Act 1 that was basically a song suite built around a tune called “Holy Shit.” Within a few more days, that would be gone and replaced again with still fresher work, underscoring just how many changes were still being made for “Shucked” in the final hour after 12 years, and after everyone who came to that unstaged reading in mid-February came away raving.
Clark and McAnally said it was unlike any writing they’d ever done in their careers as hit songwriters (or, in Clark’s case, as a critically acclaimed record-maker in her own right). Because every time they wrote a new song that changed the narrative or emotional trajectory of the show a bit, they felt compelled to adjust a lot of the songs that followed.
Plus, says Clark, “We have some tough rhymes, like Tampa and corn. There’s only so many ways you can rhyme those, and make it feel natural.” (The show takes place mostly in middle America, but there is a section where the heroine ventures to Tampa to find someone who can help her rural town deal with its failing corn crop, at which point she falls in love with a huckster.)
“Shucked” has a witty song score throughout, but on a more emotional level, it has three numbers that clearly count as show-stoppers — two of which, bravely, come in the middle of the first act. At the run-through we witnessed, the final ballad, about a friendship between two female characters, had a member of the ensemble cast watching the duet weeping by the end of the number. “One of the things that we are trying to navigate and do well,” says Horn, “is having you just laugh one moment and then the next moment we’re sort of tugging on your heartstrings and saying, Let’s look at ourselves. Let’s hold a mirror up to our, to society, to our culture, to who we are. And it gets very emotional on the turn of a dime. One of the things that Shand and Brandy are so phenomenal at is saying so much with so little, and I think we’re all moved by that on a daily basis.”
The show was set to have its first out-of-town run in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2020, before the pandemic squashed that. Instead, it ended up having its trial engagement in Salt Lake City this past October. Everyone involved says it changed considerably over the course of the pandemic, and deepened, notwithstanding the reviews that mostly focus on its nonstop farcical nature.
“It’s been frustrating, but also a gift, that it’s taken so long to get this show to where we’re finally going forward with it,” says Horn. “Because we’ve had a chance to keep working on it and let it grow and change as the zeitgeist changes, as the country changes, as politics change, as community changes — the show has been able to reflect that. On the surface, it’s a fun, bawdy, somewhat irreverent musical comedy. But the message of the show is a very simple one, which is about if you vcan’t accept people who are different than you, you never grow. And the show never resonated as much over the 10 years that we’ve been doing it as it does right now with where we are in the current cultural climate of our country. It was really important was that we never hit you over the head with it, because I always feel that if you can get people to laugh at something, you can open their hearts to it.”
But “Shucked” packs in as many jokes-per-minute as probably any show that ever existed on Broadway. “Do you think it’s too many?” asks Horn, suddenly worried to hear that. “I always wanna be careful that the humor doesn’t drown out the emotion.” At one point, they were testing it as a one-act musical, and found that the audience was so exhausted from laughing in the first half that it died down in the second, which is why O’Brien made the decision to reinstate an intermission, to give attendees a chance to calm down.
Among the creatives, close proximity over many years did not make the heart grow less fond. “Shane and Brandy have become my sister and brother,” Horn says. “When you’re writing a show like this and you’re trying to deeply get into the heart and the psyche of characters, you have to reveal yourself in a room with people and allow yourself to be vulnerable and honest, and doing that with Shane and Brandy for 10 years bonded us. They’re my family for life. Almost nobody knows me as well as those two people, and vice versa, because in the 10 years that we’ve been together, we’ve buried family members together, we’ve celebrated, we’ve mourned, we’ve done so much. I think part of what people are responding to on that stage is the connection that the three of us have formed over these 10 years. I really do believe that.”
Other friendships have intensified, to say the least, like the one between O’Brien and the young producer who brought him back in “He is smart. He supports the art,” says O’Brien. “It’s not about money. I mean, of course it’s about money, but he doesn’t let you think that. He’s in the work all the time, not imposing his judgment on it or his control, but being aware, helping solve problems. I’m really old now and he’s down in the thirties somewhere, and we’ve become like best friends. Over the last two or three years, I think we talk three or four times a day, no matter what’s going on. And it’s nice to know that that’s the generation that’s coming around now to do creative work.”
O’Brien won’t admit to feeling anything like vindicated that he got turned down for the job on a previous iteration of “Shucked” and now has guided it toward what counts as at least preliminary success with audiences and critics. He knows he may have an identity crisis amid even the Broadway insider community, and it doesn’t bother him. “If you saw ‘The Invention of Love’ or ‘The Coast of Utopia,’ I don’t know that you would have called me up for this. But then there’s also ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ and ‘The Full Monty’” on top of “Hairspray.” “I’ve had this wonderful time, playing in every conceivable playground. So I don’t get it” — why he sometimes gets hired and sometimes doesn’t — “but I don’t have to. You know, I’m at a point in my life where I don’t give a shit. I’m just so grateful to be sitting upright, and taking nourishment,” he laughs, “that I don’t know what to say, except you gain something with a lot of experience. You just do. You blow a lot of carbon out or you don’t last.”
Clark finds herself dreading a little bit the show becoming locked, despite the sometimes tortuous nature of having waited a decade for it to come to fruition. “It’s like when you’re on tour and your bus becomes your world and everybody on that bus is your family. It’s a little bittersweet,” she says, “because we won’t have this thing…”
Will audiences continue to greet the show like family? The elephant in the room is how “Shucked” might navigate the red-state/blue-state divide, on stage and with the crowds coming in. The setting, obviously, is very rural, and some of the humor and sensibility might be described as, well, very gay — although no topical issues are too overtly addressed, and conservative viewers might be laughing too hard to wage any “woke” campaigns on Twitter. The cornpone and progressive elements actually work together, in a marriage that doesn’t even seem forced, let alone likely to seriously put off anyone but the most offend-able. Arguably the most show-stopping roles, of a Black woman, is played by non-binary actor Alex Newell, who identifies by he/him, she/her and they/them pronouns. But the part of the audience that isn’t aware of Newell from “Glee” or “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” likely won’t be thinking about much of anything except giving a standing ovation to a breakout diva moment… or at least might not until a possible Tony nomination puts Newell in the news.
A meeting of socially divided constituencies in the theater at this late date in the cultural divide might seem like an impossible dream. But with “Shucked,” for two and a half hours, it might not be, as it’s easy to imagine different audiences laughing at the same things. Maybe the farmer and the cowman can be friends? “It worked in Salt Lake,” in last October’s run, McAnally says. “There were a lot of Mormons and a lot of gay people. And they sat together nicely. It’ll be fun to see how that unfolds. We just gotta get people in those seats.”
Says O’Brien: “Comedy gets a bad rap. I mean, it’s not as distinguished as I think it deserves to be. You can be moved many different ways in the theater, from tears to just thoughtfulness. But you can only laugh one way: It’s the involuntary expulsion of all the air in your fucking body that you can’t do anything about. And you’re laughing with people who you not only don’t know, but don’t want to know! That you have nothing in common with. There’s something kind of wonderfully humane about that, and reductive in the best sense. And I really think this little show is a dose of goodwill that we badly need.”
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