Editor’s note: This story originally published on Nov. 10, 2022. It has been updated.
No road to Broadway is paved, but if you’re going to attempt the drive, there is one route that’s a little less gravelly than the rest.
“Find a brand name and hang some music on it,” said Broadway veteran Jack O’Brien, the Tony Award-winning director behind “Hairspray.”
Theatergoers seem to flock to the familiar. In an age of remakes, reboots and adaptations, it’s common for people to already know the full story before they see it unfold on stage. It can be harder for newer stories to cut through.
But Robert Horn likes a challenge. And as Broadway struggles to bounce back after an 18-month shutdown, with myriad shows vying for the same theaters, and productions getting shuttered left and right, the playwright has completely thrown himself into an original musical comedy … about corn.
“Shucked” is new, but there are familiar names behind it: Horn, who wrote the story, won a Tony for his work on “Tootsie”; O’Brien, who is the director, has also won Tonys for his direction of “Henry IV” and “The Coast of Utopia”; and then there’s the Nashville duo behind the songs — singer Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, who have written for some of the biggest stars in the music industry, including Kasey Musgraves, Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson.
This ragtag but decorated group has now brought “Shucked” to Broadway, where it began previews on March 8 and will have its official opening night on April 4 at the Nederlander Theater. It’s a definite gamble — “Shucked” doesn’t have “overwhelming bells and whistles” to cover up the story in case it flops, O’Brien said.
But they all believe the story speaks for itself. And the first place they tested that theory was the Pioneer Memorial Theatre in Salt Lake City.
What is the musical ‘Shucked’ about?
On the surface, “Shucked” is strictly about corn.
Shielded from the outside world by a tall wall of prosperous corn, the people of Cobb County have everything they need. They have zero interest in interacting with anyone beyond their golden ears of corn. But when an unknown source threatens that livelihood, the townspeople begrudgingly accept they may have to reach out for help.
This March, Broadway gets SHUCKED. 🌽 The new musical comedy with a book by Tony Award winner @rhorn1, score by Grammy Award winners @ShaneMcAnally & @TheBrandyClark, & direction by Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien begins performances 3/8. Presale tickets on sale now! #getshucked pic.twitter.com/twfwf3yLwc— Shucked (@Shucked_Musical) November 14, 2022
Out of this quandary emerges Maizy, the story’s unlikely heroine who travels to the big, awe-inspiring city of Tampa, Florida, in search of a corn doctor, who she finds in a podiatrist/ineffectual con-man named Gordy Jackson.
“Shucked” is described as a fable from the outset, driven by two storytellers who frequently break the fourth wall and engage with the audience. But while the story is a fable, Horn didn’t want the moral to come down on the audience like a hammer.
“I think people don’t want to be lectured about humanity,” he said. “They want to see stories about humanity.”
So instead, through a script that rapidly delivers puns and folksy non sequiturs, and through traditional theater music that has a country music twist, “Shucked” explores a number of themes, including the clash of values between a small town and big city, the importance of keeping an open mind, and working through division to achieve unity.
“The story is simple, but in a sneaky way,” actor John Behlmann, who plays Gordy, said. “If you want your dog to eat the medicine, you’ve got to put it into peanut butter. Very few people want to go to a show that feels like homework. And I think this show really goes down easy and people will get a lot out of it.”
Horn doesn’t like comparing one work to another, but if he had to provide theatergoers with a frame of reference, he would say “Shucked”— which he describes as “unabashedly corny and yet very progressive at the same time” — falls somewhere on the spectrum between “The Book of Mormon” and “Oklahoma!”
“I really wanted to use this sort of classic American humor to explore an American problem, which is division,” he said. “When you look back at a certain time in history, the art will always tell you what was going on at that moment in history. Even if it’s art that lasts for centuries, it will always tell you what’s going on at that moment. And so I think where we are culturally, just in the zeitgeist right now, we wanted the story to reflect that. But we also wanted it to be timeless. And we wanted it to be funny.
“If we can’t laugh, then we have no hope.”
‘Shucked,’ a musical years in the making
Horn didn’t always know the story he wanted to tell.
The origin of “Shucked” goes back several years. The musical, initially inspired by the variety show “Hee Haw,” had a brief run in Dallas in 2015. It didn’t take off, and Horn moved on to other projects — including writing the book for the 2018 musical comedy “Tootsie,” which earned him a Tony Award.
But “Shucked” — and specifically his collaboration with songwriters Clark and McAnally — stayed with him. There was a small seed from the story that lingered in his mind, and when he reconnected with Clark and McAnally, he learned they felt the same way.
So they got to work revamping the production. They scrapped songs, tweaked jokes, and updated the plot to create a story that culturally mirrors a world where division has been amplified by heated election cycles and a pandemic.
“The interesting thing about this show is that it never went away,” Horn said. “Everybody that’s doing it right now, it has lived in our lives, in our hearts and in our minds. We can’t shake it. There’s something in it that just feels like it wants to be told.”
As “Shucked” unfolded at the Pioneer Theatre, Horn continued to rewrite — although he couldn’t make any official changes to the production until after the Salt Lake run concluded on Nov. 12. He’s never been particularly attached to anything in his work — “If it needs to change, I change it,” he said.
“You never finish writing until they slap the pen out of your hand.”
It’s this openness to change — a theme that coincidentally plays out in “Shucked” — that drew Behlmann to the production. The actor met Horn when he starred in “Tootsie,” and instantly connected with the writer’s humor. As he got to know Horn more, Behlmann came to especially appreciate his flexibility. And he feels the same way about O’Brien, who has a more hands-off approach in directing “Shucked,” letting the performers bring their own interpretations to their roles.
“By all rights they could just tell us to shut up and do the lines as they wrote them, but that’s been the exact opposite of everything,” Behlmann said. “And it’s really, I think, shaped the story beautifully. You don’t really get a lot of chances to work on shows that feel kind of as special and as welcoming and as just all around warm as this is.”
‘Shucked’ goes from Salt Lake City to Broadway
As “Shucked” had its Salt Lake City run last fall, Horn watched attentively. But he wasn’t looking at the stage; he was eyeing his audience.
He studied the responses — to see what worked consistently, the jokes that hit and the ones that fell flat. Much of the humor throughout is suggestive, and Horn had no idea what to expect from Salt Lake City audiences. But he was “pleasantly surprised” by how “willing” the theatergoers were in going along for the ride.
“I think everybody’s been locked away for so long because of COVID that people just want to laugh,” he said. “That’s the sense you get when you watch the show. They really just want to have a good time.”
Horn felt confident “Shucked” would make it to Broadway, saying he was “optimistic” during the production’s Salt Lake City run.
“The reviews have been really lovely, and Salt Lake has been very kind to us,” he said. “So I think there’s definitely wind in our sail.”
But he’s no stranger to Broadway. He knows it can be a fickle business. Large, splashy musicals crash and burn, and smaller productions you think will never see the light of day become a massive success.
So in the meantime, Horn is relishing the Salt Lake run of “Shucked,” savoring those moments when people from different walks of life sat shoulder to shoulder in a dark theater and laughed at the same thing. He never tires of it.
“There’s this misconception that art is only wonderful if it’s on 10 square blocks in New York City,” Horn said. “But there are theaters all over the country and all over the world that are doing incredible work that is Broadway worthy but never goes to Broadway.”
He’s hopeful “Shucked” will find success on Broadway, though. At the very least, he would like his story to become familiar to the point that he doesn’t have to couch it between other musicals when describing it.
“Hopefully, maybe sometime a few years from now, people will be saying, ‘My show is something like ‘Shucked.’”