Country

Country's Neon Lights Are Brighter On Broadway. Yes, THAT Broadway

Ketch Secor
Kit Wood*

Ketch Secor

When country artists talk about playing Broadway, they’ve typically referenced the barroom stages on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. But increasingly, the stages in the genre’s sights are theatrical venues that will lead to Broadway in NYC.

Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor is in discussions to present Hooten Holler at a regional theater in February 2022; Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley owns a production company developing May We All, a musical featuring over two dozen country hits that will premiere at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in June 2022; songwriter Marcus Hummon (“Bless the Broken Road," “Born To Fly") co-wrote American Prophet, a musical about civil-rights pioneer Frederick Douglass that is headed to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., July 15-Aug. 28, 2022; songwriter-producer Wayne Kirkpatrick (“Boondocks," “Little White Church") co-wrote the songs for the musical Mrs. Doubtfire, which begins previews at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Oct. 21; and Kirkpatrick is also working with former Opry Entertainment president Steve Buchanan to develop a production that centers on Nashville’s Bluebird Café. Additionally, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles covers Broadway tunes on her new album, Always Like New.

Sugarland’s Kristian Bush ups the theatrical ante even further: He wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics to Darlin’ Cory, a production that runs at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Sept. 8-Oct. 3, and worked on a musical about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh that will likely debut in Miami in February. Bush is also releasing an album of the songs from the 2017 musical Troubadour — featuring Kristian and Brandon Bush, Levi Lowry and Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, among others — on Sept. 3. The first single, “Hunt Dog Hunt," arrives Aug. 13.

“Songs do a beautiful, magical thing," says Kristian Bush, comparing musicals to traditional country platforms. “The theater honors that in a different way, but to me, it’s the exact same magic that happens when I hear something on the radio and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. My whole life just changed right now.’ "

Country and the theater have had some history: Country Music Hall of Fame member Tex Ritter and K.T. Oslin, for example, appeared on Broadway prior to becoming country stars, while Gary Morris picked up roles in La Boheme and Les Miserables concurrent with his 1980s hits, and Roger Miller was lauded for his work on 1985’s Tony Award-winning Big River.

Still, the interplay between the genres has picked up since the turn of the century, beginning with Reba McEntire’s appearance in a Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Songwriter Don Schlitz (“The Gambler," “On the Other Hand") provided music for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Billy Ray Cyrus and Nettles had roles in a production of Chicago; songwriter Mike Reid (“Stranger in My House," “I Can’t Make You Love Me") launched his second musical, Ballad of Little Jo; and Steve Earle has contributed to several productions, including Coal Country, an off-Broadway production cut short by the pandemic.

Productions featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Urban Cowboy, Sun Records, Dolly Parton and Jimmy Buffett have likewise been part of a bigger trend in which nontraditional music has appeared on  Broadway, such as rap in Hamilton and rock in Rock of Ages. In the process, the theatrical world is increasingly recognizing Nashville’s Music Row as the new version of Tin Pan Alley.

“People are more likely to acknowledge [country] as being more mass appeal and more mainstream," says Buchanan, noting its progress from old stereotypes. “And they’re acknowledging that there is a greater sophistication to the songs that are being written here."

Buchanan has firsthand experience. He was a producer for Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, which debuted in Dallas in 2015 with songs by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally.

“One of the things that was really fascinating for some of our creative team was just how prolific and how quickly Shane and Brandy could turn around a great song," says Buchanan.

Writing new material daily is not a big change from the way songwriting works on Music Row, except that theatrical songs are written for a specific vehicle that is actually more difficult to bring to market than an album.

“This is much more of a molasses drip of patience," says Secor.

Part of the attraction is that the end result has a cultural resonance that potentially lasts for decades and reaches across multiple demographics. Most Americans are familiar with at least some, if not all, of the songs in The Sound of Music and West Side Story. But, as with writing for mainstream country, there are no guarantees.

“You can very easily spend four or five years working on a musical, then it’s released, and then it closes in two months," says Kirkpatrick. “So it’s all a gamble."

Modern country concerts are typically music-centered events with a small amount of talk and varying levels of visual production; they don’t feel particularly related to theater pieces. But the early editions of country’s radio barn dances — including WSM-AM Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and WSM-AM Chicago’s National Barn Dance — balanced music, comedy and dancing in a manner that isn’t that far removed from a Broadway musical.

“The vaudeville roots of country music remain in institutions like the Grand Ole Opry and in institutions like the Old Crow Medicine Show," says Secor. “There’s dance, there’s jokes — you might cry, you’re sure as hell going to laugh, and you’ll probably get drunk. I mean, that sounds like a night of musical theater to me."

One of the benefits of the experience is to see the creative filter that gets applied to songs that may take on new meaning in context with a production’s plot and characters.

“In a jukebox musical, you already know what’s coming," says Bush. “But how you use it is a skill I did not know was real. For instance, when I had to write all this stuff for Troubadour, one of the huge ‘Eurekas!’ from me was watching the director use the songs in ways that they were not intended."

In the end, perhaps the biggest attraction is the very intention of the theater. Composers are not likely to watch a fan consume an entire album, but they can see an entire theater crowd react to their songs, as Kirkpatrick did with the Tony-nominated 2015 production Something Rotten!

“What’s great about the theater experience is you can’t download it," he says. “If you want to experience this, you have to buy a ticket and go inside."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.