Dallas Theater Center is betting that the gay creative team of its new musical will revive kitchy variety show ‘Hee Haw’ with doses of camp and sincerity
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Cards on the table: When most theaterfolk I know heard that the Dallas Theater Center was launching its 2015–16 season with a world premiere musical based on the long-cancelled variety show Hee Haw, the collective response was a gasped “WTF?!” Who would be the market for post-Vaudeville cornpone jokefest of buck-toothed, banjo-playing hillbillies ogling brainless girls in Daisy Dukes?
But then details began to emerge about the creative team, including out country music stars Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, and scriptwriter Robert Horn. Was it possible that Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical could be saved by a sensibility that is both savvy about contemporary country music and a facility with camp?
“It’s my favorite project I’ve ever worked on,” says Horn, a quick-witted writer with experience both on Broadway and television (Designing Women, Living Single). “I knew what I didn’t want to do — a variety sit-down show from Branson, Mo. I loved this franchise, but it was somewhat dated. I wanted to do an homage to an iconic brand, so I thought, ‘How can I redefine it and make it contemporary?’”
“There was very political humor on Hee Haw, but it was subversive. We actually face those things head-on from the very first song that is hit-you-in-the-face funny. It lives in this world of spitting up a lung laughing and the next there are tears in your eyes.”
Horn relied on McAnally and Clark to bring the pathos and the comedy to the music, and the team impressed him from the get-go.
“Brandy has become like my sister in this process. If nothing else happens [with this show], I’m still grateful for that,” he says. “[As an out woman] in country music, she shouldn’t be as successful as she is, which is a testament to her talent. When she teams up with Shane, who has a very contemporary-country style [it’s magical]. They grasped that concept of storytelling music very quickly and really took to the medium shockingly fast.”
Kevin Cahoon, an out cast member in the show, was equally impressed by the music.
“Brandy and Shane are brilliant songwriters, which is evident, but the songs are filled with such humor,” he says. “If our director says, ‘I think we need a song that does XYZ,’ they will go off into a room and come back an hour later with a brilliant song. Their songs move the plot along, as they should in musicals. They are very astute.”
Cahoon, for his part, always felt the show had promise. As a proud native Texan, he felt a strong connection to the material. As soon as he heard word that Hee Haw was being made into a musical, he sought it out.
“It really does feel like a homecoming. I grew up in a rodeo family in Houston — my dad was a calf roper and I spent my youth as a rodeo clown,” he says. “Anything to do with the western sensibility has been ingrained in me since a small child. I grew up watching the TV show and had a nostalgic affection for it — it takes you back to your childhood. I thought there’s probably a place for me. When I heard Robert Horn wrote the show I thought this was another sign that the universe brought this show to me in the most amazing way.”
The show, narrated by two mountain men, is “about a young girl from a small town who goes out to the big world and brings back a boy. But he’s up to no good with mischief on his mind. Cahoon plays Jr. Jr., the brother of the show’s hero, Bucky Jr.
“Jr. Jr. is a sweet, simple guy who you would never expect to be intelligent, but he’s sort of an important piece of the puzzle,” Cahoon says.
Don’t confuse his character, though, with the similarly named Junior Samples from the TV show — the characters here are ancestors of their TV brethren, not reproductions. Horn was intent that he make a funny show, but also one with sincere emotional resonance.
“The biggest surprise for me has been the heart,” Cahoon says of the script. “You think of a TV variety show with roots in burlesque but Brandy and Shane and Bob have a show that leads with its heart. You go in expecting one thing and you’re touched and moved.”
Moonshine has an unusually long preview period for Dallas shows (more than two weeks), which suggests the attention and seriousness that the Dallas Theater Center is taking with it. Clearly, DTC hopes the show has legs beyond its run at the Wyly. So what’s the next step for these folks?
“First of all, I’m praying we get through this step,” Horn laughs. “There really is no direct path — every show is different. Assuming we do well here, we’ll wait for a theater to become available in New York, go there, regroup … using what we learn in Dallas as a litmus test. We’ll keep what works, lose what didn’t work, and start over. It’s a never-ending process.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 11, 2015.