Country Music…al Theater

As a self-proclaimed “adopted” southerner, I was entirely way too excited when I heard about Rob Ashford’s 2015 Broadway revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Seriously, is there anything better than big hair and southern camp?

The answer is no, no there is not.

The musical by Carol Hall with a book by Larry L. King and Pete Masterson was adapted into a film in 1982 starring the incomparable Dolly Parton as Chicken Ranch owner, Miss Mona Stangley and Burt Reynolds as her love interest, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. It’s a sunny, optimistic show that takes its Texas roots seriously. The work owes its musical charm to the influence of country music, a style that is blooming yet still somewhat under-appreciated in musical theatre today.

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Country music itself can be somewhat polarizing. There are of course exceptions, but in my own personal experience, I’ve found people tend to either love it or really dislike it. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Granted, life is too short to listen to music you don’t like, but I encourage musical theatre enthusiasts to give country a chance. It may just surprise you.

First off, country music is not all that different from musical theatre. (Say what?!) At its core, country music has always been about telling stories that intimately connect with audiences. Sometimes these stories are long and complicated, such as the alcohol-fueled failed romance in “Whiskey Lullaby” performed by Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss. Other times they’re short and silly, as in “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” performed by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Just like in theatre, there is a wealth of characters and stories to explore.

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How can performers embrace this style, or a least begin to get their feet wet? Think outside the box! If an audition lends itself stylistically, bring in a country song. This is situational, of course, but helpful. If you’re performing a show with music that has a country/western/bluegrass/rockabilly feel, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the nuances of those styles.

Oklahoma! is of course a juggernaut evergreen in this country-western-inspired category. Bass-baritones looking at the surly character of Jud will find lots of inspiration in country music. (Personally, I think Jud would really relate to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Anyone?) Shows such as Smoke on the Mountain, Cowgirls, and 9 to 5 all fall into this category of musical as well.

Contemporary country music, like contemporary musical theatre, is a malleable entity. Songwriters aren’t just writing about getting drunk on Friday nights and tractors. They’re exploring all kind of different themes. Look at Sam Hunt’s edgy, but totally relatable, “Ex to See,” and Kacey Musgraves’ unapologetic anthem of acceptance, “Follow Your Arrow.”

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We see the same trend in musical theatre. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a rock musical that definitely leans into the country genre on more than one occasion. The song “The Great Compromise” twists the polite ballad form into an outright expression of anger.

The duet “You Love Who You Love” from 2009‘s Bonnie and Clyde totally reminds me of “I Hope You’re the End of My Story” by country girl group the Pistol Annies. “Freedom” from The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown has the two girls careening towards Nashville, a.k.a. “Music City.” The list goes on.

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What will you be listening to? I may have some ideas, but that’s for another post…

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