If you come to Shucked, you might be treated to a rare sight: the mid-show standing ovation. When Tony nominee Alex Newell performs the anthem, “Independently Owned,” about how she is single and proud of it, describing herself with a bevy of finger-snapping, triple-rhymed adjectives—“Operating, modulating, celebrating/Liberated, calculated, educated/Underrated, motivated, advocated,”—the crowd regularly leaps to their feet after she belts her final note. For the show’s songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, it’s all a bit surreal. “When I'm sitting in the theatre, I forget that we wrote those songs,” says Clark.
It’s also a vindication of the 10 years that Clark and McAnally have spent on Shucked. Though the duo have won Grammy Awards and are now Tony nominated for composing Shucked, it hasn’t been an easy road. “There were many times where I thought, is this thing ever gonna see the light of day?” says Clark. “And the truth is, it was really my love of both [book writer Robert Horn] and Shane. That made it worthwhile for me.”
McAnally agrees, saying, “I run a record label and a publishing company and Brandy is promoting records. And I think [Shucked] just gave us a reason to block out the rest of the world. And we love each other…every six months, we would get some weeks together and nobody else could bother us. We had each other.”
Shucked is nominated for nine Tony Awards. It’s a funny and heartfelt musical about a corn-growing Midwestern community, which is thrown into turmoil when the corn crops begin to die. Its heroine Maizy leaves the town to find a corn doctor, who turns out to be a con man posing as a podiatrist.
But Shucked started out as an entirely different musical. In 2011, Robert Horn was asked by the Opry Entertainment Group, who owned the rights, to write a musical based on the ’60s comedy TV show Hee Haw that was set in the fictional Kornfield Kounty. Horn then heard a song called “Pray to Jesus,” by two up-and-coming country songwriters: Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. He reached out to those songwriters who, coincidentally, had always wanted to write a musical. They signed onto the project in 2013.
The original version of Shucked was called Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical and was about a young woman who flees her country home in Kornfield Kounty for the big city of Tampa. The 2015 world premiere in Dallas starred Justin Guarini (now in Once Upon a One More Time). But after the show received negative local reviews, the Opry Entertainment Group pulled their backing.
The musical team found themselves at an impasse. But because they enjoyed each other's company, they wanted to keep working together. The 2016 Presidential Election provided a wake-up call for what the show needed: a heart.
“In the beginning of our show, we were just trying to write a show in a cornfield,” explains McAnally. But after Trump’s election, they realized that the show they were writing was no longer funny. “Basically, we were making fun of the South, about being close-minded or all white. Those were jokes that no longer had relevance…When Trump got elected, we found our country to be so divided. And there was dangerous racism and dangerous homophobia. And our show seemed very out of touch at that point.” The 20-something-odd songs that the duo had written for Moonshine were scrapped, replaced with new creations (they estimate that in total, they’ve written around 40 songs for the musical in the past decade).
Perhaps no song showcases the transition from Moonshine to Shucked more than “Independently Owned.” In the show, it is sung by Lulu, Maizy’s cousin, who owns her own whiskey business. The team knew that Lulu needed a character song that would establish her as a brassy woman, while also hinting that she would be getting her own romantic storyline. But what kind of song should she sing?
Lulu’s song underwent multiple metamorphosis. It was initially a bawdy number called “Treasure in My Chest” which was “just tons of sexual innuendo,” remarks McAnally, with a dose of sheepishness. “‘Treasure In My Chest’ was basically about her breasts.” Then they scrapped that for “I Need a Man”—the conceit was in the title. That didn’t feel right, either.
“Lulu was always over sexualized,” says Clark. “And the actresses who were playing her were getting real tired of that. It just felt one-note.”
The inspiration for “Independently Owned” came courtesy of Horn, who remarked, “You know, Lulu is a business woman. She's independently owned and operated,” recalls Clark. “And I said, ‘Can we take that? Can that be the song?’” She and McAnally started off on the piano, with their sonic inspiration being “Here You Come Again” by Dolly Parton.
Then when Newell was cast, music director Jason Howland arranged “Independently Owned” to take advantage of their formidable vocal range, making it twangier, adding key changes and high notes. But what the song also did was take Shucked away from traditional musical comedy and traditional country tropes into a more contemporary, feminist space—such as in the lines, “And no disrespect to Miss Tammy Wynette/I can't stand by my man, he'll have to stand by me.”
But it's not a polemic tune. It's clever and ribald, such as the lines: "Don't need a man for flatteries/Got a corn cob and some batteries."
The development of Lulu from a man-hungry woman to an independent woman reflects the development of Shucked itself—from a simple country comedy to something that more comfortably wears its message of diversity and inclusivity on its sleeve.
On the surface, and with its marketing, Shucked does still seem like a musical set in a cornfield. But when you peel back its husk, it’s also a musical about embracing differences and accepting people for who they are. The residents of Cobb County may initially disapprove of Maizy leaving the town and bringing a big-city stranger back who looks down on them. But at the end of the day, the town folks and the city folk have something to teach each other.
“The first few years we wrote this show, we did not want there to be political innuendo,” explains McAnally. “Our country when we started wasn't in the place it is now. We've learned so much about people that are marginalized and people that feel left out.”
The journey that Shucked has taken also reflects the personal journey of its two creators. As country music songwriters who are also queer, McAnally and Clark did not always feel comfortable talking about their sexuality in Nashville. But since then, as more country artists have come out, and with the success of Shucked, the two now feel freer to be their authentic selves. “Most of my songwriting career, I've been writing songs for women to sing about men,” says Clark. “I definitely feel a different freedom now to not do that.” She then adds, chuckling, “I remember when we got this gig, Shane and I thought that we were so different because we were gay. And then we get up here [to New York City], and everybody’s gay in theatre! We found out we weren't so special.”
The two may not be special in NYC but they have created something special on Broadway: a community of people of all races and gender (Newell is non-binary) singing country music. And McAnally hopes that the show, especially if it tours, will reach people who may be afraid of change and show them it’s not so scary.
“By bringing country music to theatre, maybe we’re shedding a new light for people who have been close-minded or who haven’t seen a trans or non-binary actor. I mean, these are big moves!” exclaims McAnally. “And I hope that the same stereotypes that go the other way, which is, ‘I don't like country music, they're too red, they're close-minded.’ Hopefully they hear the songs and go, ‘Oh, this is country music. Maybe I'll go check it out.’” He then adds, pensively, but proudly, “If we had a little hand in both sides looking at the other, that would just be more than we could ever have hoped for with our little show.”