Interview: Robert Horn on How a Musical Based on Hee Haw Became a Musical Based on Corn

”Shucked” is currently in previews at the Nederlander Theatre.

One of the funniest writers in entertainment, Robert Horn has delighted audiences in every medium for decades, including his scripts for TV’s Designing Women and Broadway’s Tootsie, which earned him the 2019 Tony Award (and Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards) for Best Book of a Musical.

Still, Horn may now be poised for his greatest success with the offbeat Broadway musical Shucked, currently in previews at the Nederlander Theater and featuring a score by famed country music songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally.

TheaterMania recently spoke to Horn about creating this show, which started off in a very different vein, what he wants audiences to take away from it (other than a lot of laughs), and his recent work on the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Hercules.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been working on Shucked for 12 years through all different kinds of incarnations. Tell me how it started and how it’s ended up.
It started as a musical version of the TV show Hee Haw. But I wanted to do a book musical and I also didn’t think it was a brand that worked well even then. Still, I agreed, because I loved the idea of doing fast-paced comedy. For the music, I met with a lot of Nashville-based composers and fell in love with Brandy and Shane, these proud queer songwriters. But we never figured out what that first show was, so we all walked away from it. Then a few years ago, I called them and said let’s start over and write an original musical. We spent a couple of years writing this one, and then Jack O’Brien came on to direct, and that changed everything.

What was the impetus for starting over?
As the world began to change in so many ways, I wanted to look at this country to see what we have in common instead of what separates us. I am a native New Yorker married to a small-town Georgia man, and we weren’t sure at the beginning if our families would get along. I knew there would be cultural differences. But once we broke bread, the things we have in common bubbled to the surface and I’ve grown to love these people for who they are. So, I wanted to write a show about how small-town America deals with intellectual America.

And how does this relate to the plot of Shucked?
The show is about a small town whose entire commerce is corn. But it’s a little like Brigadoon; there are these big walls so no one comes through the town and no one leaves. But when the corn starts to die, they need help, and our heroine leaves town and brings someone from the outside back. Ultimately, the town has to open their hearts to him in order to grow, even if he is a bit of a con-man. Corn becomes a metaphor for everything, which, yes, may be a little corny. But if you get people to laugh, they’ll also listen to what you have to say! There is a message here about community and family, and the show gets you to talk about that afterwards. But during the show, people want to be entertained not lectured.

The show has gained a lot of attention for its social media campaign and unusual marketing. How do you feel about that?
Great. I mean you can’t promote theater the way you did 10 years ago. Our show now has this almost Rocky Horror feel; people bring corn to the theater or dress up in costume. We’re in our own lane on Broadway for better or worse.

You were also working on Hercules at the Paper Mill Playhouse at the same time as Shucked. Do you think there’s a future life for Hercules despite some reviews saying that the show needed a lot of work?
I do think there’s a future life. Disney made it clear to us this production was only the first step. It was all about getting it up, not getting it right. Tom Schumacher [the head of Disney Theatricals] is very smart about creating hit shows. He has great instincts. And he knows the audience loved it and that Disney is a brand people are hungry for. It’s just so challenging to get a show like Hercules right the first time, and Disney knows that.

I know Shucked was very important to your twin sister, Nancy, who passed away in 2019. What do you think she would have thought about this show?
As you might know, we were separated during our childhood and finally came back together as adults. She came to some early readings of the show in Dallas and loved it. She was very spiritual, so – even though I am an atheist — if there is a way for someone to look down from heaven, I believe she is watching it now and laughing. I certainly hope so, because I never had a greater supporter in my life than my sister.

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Closed: January 14, 2024