Dallas — Hee Haw, the television show that ran from 1969 into the mid-1980s (most of those years were in syndication), the illegitimate half-sibling of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, has gone down in television lore. Its take on the Laugh-In style variety show was goofy skits and recurring characters that all poked fun at hillbilly-isms. Created in Canada, the show was meant to be a parody of small-town life. It was never critically favored, and the humor could be super-corny, but that was kind of the point. What Hee Haw handled especially well was music: many famous country musicians played the show, including Loretta Lynn, its first musical guest. Country and western greats Roy Clark, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and Buck Owens were among the regular pickers and grinners.
What’s not to love?
Perhaps that’s a secret the Dallas Theater Center knows, as it launches its 2015-16 season with Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, touted in the national press as Broadway bound. While this announcement might have had some theatergoers scratching their heads and wondering “a Hee Haw musical?”—Moonshine, which is currently in previews and officially opens Sept. 18, might just end up showing them that Hee Haw deserves another look.
With music written by double Grammy nominee Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the bones of Hee Haw remain buried in the heart of Moonshine. It wisely draws upon the parts of the show that worked best: the quirkiness and community of small town life.
Clark’s excellent debut album 12 Stories focuses on her interest in “eccentric personalities,” as well as drawing from her love of country dames Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn (see video below for her terrific song "Stripes"). Clark is a perfect fit for this fictional world of Moonshine. Her music and writing are sharp and witty, perfectly accessing the narrative nature of country music while tapping into a universal truth: everyone has a story to tell.
McAnally has written songs for Kacey Musgraves, Kelly Clarkson, Sam Hunt, Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan, The Band Perry, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and others.
Their combined talents give Moonshine the potential to be something really great.
Back in 2013, Broadway alum Rose Hemingway (who plays Misty Mae, the lead in Moonshine) was called in for a reading for a “Hee Haw musical.” She immediately became attached to the role and kept her eyes on it. That ended up being the only audition she would need.
“This was the first original role I had ever been a part of,” Hemingway says about the character who leaves a small town for the big city—of Tampa. “To have the chance to go out of town and workshop it—and God willing bring it back to New York—really get into the nitty-gritty of it was really exciting for me.”
Hemingway’s co-star Justin Guarini, of American Idol fame—he was runner-up to Burleson’s Kelly Clarkson in the first seson—is on the same page.
“Honestly, a pop musical can be a kiss of death,” he says. “The narrative style of country musical makes this a real story. People think of Hee Haw and wonder ‘why?’ but what [the writers] have done is take the flavor of that world and transported it to give it a modern retelling.”
“The humor is irreverent and funny, but there is an honesty to it,” adds Hemingway. “The characters aren’t trying to be funny. Misty is saying what she believes. People might expect a hokey show but they will love the heart of the story.”
The co-stars gush together about the show, the creative team and the Dallas Theater Center. “[The Wyly] is the most technologically advanced theater I have ever been to. It’s like a Broadway house outside of New York,” Guarini begins, “And this is the most generous creative team I’ve ever worked with. They have a Nashville work ethic—clock in and clock out. If a song needs to be changed or rewritten it’s done in a day. They listen to us and they are kind enough to consider us. It really feels like we are working to create these characters together.”
Guarini holds his hands up in the shape of a box to describe the amount of creative freedom he was given to operate from during a run of Wicked, “Do what you want to do, but do it in this amount of space. With Moonshine we really get to be artists.”
“That’s the wonderful thing about originating a role,” adds Hemingway, “you really are a part of the creative side of it.”
Both actors bring up “community.” Community in the cast—they all really, really get along—and community within the story. The goofball rednecks meant to be the butt of the joke on Hee Haw are not the punchline in Moonshine’s Kornfield Kounty. They are quirky but they are honest. The show has “sitcom pacing” according to Guarini and will surprise the audience.
The cast also includes Broadway vets Ken Clark and Ryah Nixon, as well as Dallas' performers John Campione and Julie Johnson.
MORE THAN CORNPONE
Director Gary Griffin and choreographer Denis Jones described creating the show and bringing it to Dallas. The pair had already partnered on Griffin’s Broadway production of Jason Robert Brown’s Honeymoon in Vegas and the duo were actually still working on that show when the call for “that Hee Haw musical” came in. Griffin was brought in to discuss the project and watch a reading. He was drawn by its originality and freshness.
“The idea of making it a musical was never something I would have considered, but when I learned it was a book musical I realized the flavor of the TV show was there,” Griffin says. “I think what it does—surprisingly—is find a story in that community. I think it is very contemporary in its comedy. The score feels like modern country music, and there is an irreverent mischief in the story.”
The “bawdy and burlesque” humor of the TV show, as Griffin calls it, didn’t make the cut. The dated stagnancy begged to be updated and never was. The characters that sat, talked, and popped onto stage for corny jokes were hinting at a truth of small town life, but never really hit the nail on the head.
Griffin respects the South; he’s a native Kentuckian he grew not only watching the show, but listening to country music. The jokes of Moonshine are about the experience of living within a tight-knit community.
“The characters are not a satire, they are treated with respect,” says Griffin.
This may be the most surprising difference between the TV show and the musical. The joke is not on the characters; there is no winking at the audience.
There is the question of how this will play in New York, which tends not to cotton to Southern-fried musicals—although there are exceptions, such as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Pump Boys and Dinettes.
“New York loves to be surprised, Griffin says. “There is a pleasure in this story that is not typical. If you love musicals you love the romance. You want to be swept up in the story. And I think that skepticism is good. But there is not one person who this musical isn’t for. There is a life and a spirit here that resonates.”
Griffin’s Southern pride starts to show at this point, “These characters are here to point out absurdity. You need to be very careful if a southerner is being vague. There is a sly smartness that Northerners don’t see sometimes.” He will fit in just fine in Dallas.
Choreographer Denis Jones has “made this show dance” as Griffin describes it—another difference from the original show. Part of what Jones has brought to this production is a vocabulary within the community that includes dance. The dancing is not contrived, however. From the opening number there is a “gesture,” Jones says, that lets the audience know what dance is to the soul of the Kornfield Kounty characters.
Any southerner knows the importance of a good story. The obstacle within that is the often-static nature of storytelling that made Hee Haw a drag for some viewers. Jones describes overcoming that obstacle by importing much needed modernity into that old style while style preserving the importance of conversation to a small town.
“I tried to use dance for that narrative value,” Jones says. “There is a character who’s an outsider and he’s kind of indoctrinated, challenged by the community through dance to see how ‘country’ he is. We felt like it was a good way to continue the story without any dialogue.”
“The music Brandy and Shane have written just begs for movement,” Jones says, “It’s knee-slapping. It feels like a natural expression to add dance to that.”
LAYOVER IN DALLAS
The résumés that Griffin and Jones bring to the production reads “Broadway” all the way down. Griffin and Jones most recently collaborated on the critically lauded Honeymoon in Vegas. Among Griffin’s many other credits, he directed the 2004 Oprah Winfrey produced The Color Purple. Jones earned his chops as a dancer and actor, appearing in Broadway productions of The Full Monty and Dreamgirls, and eventually found his place as a choreographer, where he’s seen great success.
Make no mistake: Moonshine was meant for New York from the onset.
So how did the Dallas Theater Center get Moonshine? Because they’ve done this before, says Lee Trull, DTC Director of New Play Development. DTC gets many submissions for new plays and musicals because they have a reputation of being a regional theater that will take that chance. DTC was offered Moonshine in 2013. The book and much of the music was already in place. They immediately liked it. The producers felt that Dallas would be a good market for the show, and DTC agreed. Once it gets to Dallas, however, it’s treated like any show the theater center would produce.
“We’re not for profit, we’re only concerned with the art of it,” Trull says.
The show is certainly full of art. Tony award winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty has created something beautiful. The set gives the sharp, modern Wyly a warm, earthy feel. The rich wood balances the brightly colored buildings of the town, all of which move on and off stage throughout the show. The many moving components set a story that’s lively and authentic. It feels real. Great care has been taken to bring color and depth to the town with a rich backdrop of paisley interwoven within the set pieces. And yes, the famous cornfields will pop in and out from time to time.
Moonshine is the story of a community, and what it means to come home. Everyone involved in the production came back to this central idea. It is a timeless, human sentiment. The Moonshine team hopes the authenticity in the heart of this fictional town will shine through the paisley curtains. Their earnestness about this show is enough to make you give Hee Haw a chance—no matter your associations with the TV show.
Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical is here to tell a story, to capture the often-complicated feelings of coming home—no matter where home might be.
» Here's video snippets from the first episode in 1969: