In a Broadway season filled with provocative dramas and splashy revivals featuring starry casts, few could have predicted that a musical about corn — with a score of country songs, no less — would emerge as the year’s surprise hit.
But that’s exactly what happened when “Shucked” opened at New York’s Nederlander Theatre in April. The “farm-to-fable” show is a raucous, pun-filled comedy that takes place in fictional Cobb County and follows a bright-eyed Midwesterner, Maizy (played by Caroline Innerbichler), who is determined to save her hometown from ruin after its corn crop is blighted and wed her childhood sweetheart, Beau (Andrew Durand), in the process.
Cobb County’s locals have other hijinks in store too — notably, Maizy’s whiskey distiller cousin, Lulu (Alex Newell, who gives a dynamite performance), and a mysterious con man named Gordy (John Behlmann), who drops in from Florida and hatches a questionable plan to resurrect the town’s crops.
Broadway's "Shucked" is now playing at New York's Nederlander Theatre.
“I don’t know that this show could’ve worked four years ago,” said playwright Robert Horn, who worked on “Shucked” with songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally for more than a decade. “I think it works right now because of where we are as a nation, post-COVID. People don’t want to be lectured right now — they want to laugh. You are watching people open their hearts in a way you didn’t expect through comedy.”
“Shucked” is set to transfer to London next year. At Sunday’s Tony Awards, the show is nominated in nine categories, including Best Musical, and the nods mark a historic acting honor for Newell, who is nonbinary. Meanwhile, a nomination for Best Book of a Musical went to Horn, already a Tony winner for 2019’s “Tootsie.”
Ahead of the Tonys, HuffPost spoke with Horn about his real-life inspirations for “Shucked,” working with Clark and McAnally, and how the musical pays tribute to his late sister, Nancy.
Congratulations on the success of “Shucked.” Tell me about the genesis of the show.
I got asked by the Grand Ole Opry sometime around 2011 if I’d be interested in writing a musical based on “Hee Haw” [a CBS variety show that aired from 1969 to 1971]. I love variety and I love vaudeville, but I wanted to do a book musical.
I went to Nashville [the Tennessee home of the Grand Ole Opry] and met Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, and it was a love fest. They were proud queer artists in a world that didn’t necessarily celebrate that, at that time especially. So we worked on the show and ended up doing it in Dallas in 2015, but it never found what it was about or its voice. We were locked into a brand that didn’t match the show we wanted to do, in many ways.
“I don’t know that this show could’ve worked four years ago,” said playwright Robert Horn (center, with "Shucked" actors Alex Newell and Kevin Cahoon).
My husband, John Leverett, is a Southern boy from Georgia whose parents are Southern Baptist. I’m a gay Jew from New York. We’ve been together 24 years and our families have learned to love each other. I wanted to write about that.
So I called Shane and Brandy and said, “Let’s start over.” And we came up with a story about a small town that was isolated from the outside world. The corn is sort of an analogy for life and growth. Corn dies. And when you open your heart to people who are different than you, you grow and the corn comes back to life.
The show really taps into the discourse around urban versus rural, left versus right.
I wanted to make sure that we never judged any of the characters. We have fun with both sides of it and never judge them, because that’s where the problems lie. Their fears aren’t based on race or gender. Their fear is based on a sense of community, and they live by their laws and their rules. The diversity of the people in the town is varied both in terms of gender and ethnicity.
You’ve said that the show is a tribute to your twin sister, Nancy.
She passed from pancreatic cancer right as COVID-19 happened. Everything I do is a tribute to her. We’d have many conversations about cultural differences and what that means. So when I was writing it, her spirit was guiding my pen in many ways. As agnostic as I am, I do believe that her spirit is around me.
"Shucked" star Andrew Durand (upper right) performs on NBC's "Today" last month.
You opted for an unconventional, almost grassroots marketing campaign for the show. What was the thought process there?
I think that how you market a Broadway show has changed post-COVID. It’s changed in terms of finances and in terms of how you reach people. How do you separate yourself in a congested season?
Our producer Mike Bosner understood that we are this little mom and pop show. Nobody knew what it was about other than corn. I would say to him: “Get people to laugh. Give them the experience of the humor of the show, and bring them in that way.”
So we created this mystique around the show. We started doing these fake quotes, like a [U.S. Rep.] George Santos one. I’ll be honest — before our first preview, there weren’t a lot of ticket sales. Literally by our second preview, the show was selling out. And then people started to come dressed up like corn and bringing cans of corn. Word-of-mouth had started to spread.
What are you most hopeful that audiences take away from “Shucked”?
I hope they walk away laughing, and I hope they walk away looking at the world a little differently, looking at people who are different than them a little differently. One of the things we said while working on “Shucked” was: We’re never going to fix the world. But if we can heal it a little, we’re very happy.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Horn (center) with "Shucked" composers Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark.