Justin Guarini and Rose Hemingway Head to Texas for Hee Haw-Inspired Musical Moonshine
It seems the most unlikely property to turn into a full-fledged musical: Hee Haw, the countrified, Laugh-In-style variety series that ran on CBS for two years before spending a whopping two decades in syndication. But that hasn't stopped book writer Robert Horn and noted country-music songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally from taking up the challenge posed by turning a series of sketches into a musical. The trio have written an original story and new songs as they created Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, currently playing a pre-Broadway engagement at the Dallas Theater Center under the direction of Gary Griffin.
In the leading roles of the wide-eyed Misty Mae and the conniving huckster Gordy are two longtime Broadway favorites, Rose Hemingway (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and Justin Guarini (Wicked). Before the show's opening in Dallas, the pair chatted with TheaterMania about creating these two characters, watching the old Hee Haw series, and trying out a brand-new musical in the Lone Star State.
How did you both come to be involved with Moonshine?
Justin Guarini: I auditioned six months ago, and they liked what I did, but they went in a different direction with the character. A few months later, they called me back in and said, "Let's try this again. We'd love to have you for a reading." I was in the middle of doing Company, playing Bobby, at Bucks County Playhouse. When I read the [Moonshine] script, I fell absolutely in love with it. I never got to hear a stitch of music until the reading. If I wasn't already convinced, I was completely convinced at that point.
Rose Hemingway: I've been involved since the second reading that they did back in 2013. My agents got a call from [casting director] Tara Rubin, offering me the role of Misty Mae. When I first saw it was a Hee Haw musical — at that point, it was still called Hee Haw — I thought, "Well, that sounds terrible, but sure, I'll do it. I have nothing else to do." [laughs] Then I got the script and some demos, and I immediately fell in love. I was blown away. That feeling increased as we got into rehearsals. I fell in love with the character and the show. I was a quick convert.
Had you seen episodes of the original Hee Haw television series before starting work on the show?
Justin: I caught the tail end of it when I was little. I just remember Johnny Cash being on it and thinking that was the coolest thing ever.
Rose: I knew what it was, but I had never actually seen it when I got the first call. During that reading, we watched the DVDs and got a sense of it. Since being involved, I have YouTubed quite a bit of Hee Haw.
Given that Hee Haw was a variety series, how have the writers turned that into a full two-act musical?
Justin: [Book writer] Robert Horn and [songwriters] Brandy [Clark] and Shane [McAnally] took the flavor of Hee-Haw, a few of the character names, and that world, and transported it into 2015, with an original plot and original characters and 2015 humor.
Rose: There are definitely nods to the old Hee Haw throughout, little Easter Eggs. There's still the iconic cornfield, which plays a big part in the show. It's taking the essence of what Hee Haw was meant [to do] for people: to let yourself go and laugh at this very irreverent comedy, [while] listen[ing] to the best country music of the time. It's that same sort of comedy, modernized, but that irreverence and ridiculousness is still there.
Can you tell us a little bit about the premise?
Rose: It's about a girl who grew up in a small town, this beautiful community that really loves each other, and she decides she wants to see what else is out there. She has this open heart and she's taken pretty easily by this con man, played by Justin, who wants to swindle her and her grandpa [out of] these precious stones that are under her house in Kornfield Kounty. Through that process, she realizes that the thing she was looking for all along was in that town. It's a story about home and community. And it's a love story.
How are Brandy and Shane adapting to the world of musical theater?
Rose: They are truly some of the best storytellers I've ever known. They know how to find the truth in their songs in a way that makes it really easy to sing. More importantly, it's wonderful to act each song. Country music translates to musical theater in a beautiful way.
Justin: One of the greatest things about this process is that the creative [team] really takes our thoughts into account…in order to develop these characters.
Is it easier to create a new musical in a place like Dallas than it is in New York City?
Justin: When you're in New York, at the end of the day, some people go to Queens, some people go to Brooklyn. [But here] we are all together. We are hanging out together all day and all night…That creates a community and a bond in your cast. When you're faced with the challenges that come, both good and bad, you're able to rely on one another. That goes a long way with the creative process.
Rose: [The out-of-town tryout] is about…giving yourself freedom to explore step outside of the higher pressure that comes with being in New York. Hopefully once we get back there, we'll have this foundation to help us.