What I learned from last week’s American Idol finals.

Last week’s American Idol finals put two singers chosen by the “American people” downfront and center.

And both of them were country singers.

And if you think that’s some strange coincidence, you better saddle up, cowboy, because you’re about to get ridden out of town with a brand on your butt that says, “I (heart) Country!”

Some surveys state that 60% of the US population listens to country music, and another whopping 24% listens exclusively to country music.

So why haven’t we seen a country music hit?  Well, for one, the ideas for our shows usually originate with the authors, and I’d bet that if you did a demographic study of musical writers . . . you’d find that most would not be fans of country music.  Sondheim, yes.  Hank Williams?  Not so much.  I’d also bet that most grew up in the Northeast, far from the steel guitar-filled South.

Still, I couldn’t help but find last week’s premature closing of the Off-Broadway country musical Lucky Guy ironic, as America was crowning a country idol in Scotty McCreery.

There’s gold in them thar hills.  We just haven’t found it yet.

We had Whorehouse years ago (revival anyone?).  And there was the flop Ring of Fire.  But I don’t know of any pure country musical that has taken advantage of the incredible popularity of this musical genre.  (There’s actually a musical called Pure Country that has been kicking around for awhile, and their domain name is PureCountryOnBroadway.com so they obviously have hopes, but I haven’t heard any news, have you?).

I tried to get Garth Brooks to write a musical years ago, but his reps said “he wasn’t there yet.”  Huh, maybe that’s it too.  If one of the reasons that we don’t have a country musical is that our writers didn’t grow up on country, of course the opposite is probably true.  I’d bet that most country musicians didn’t grow up with a Broadway influence.

But it’s a shame.  Because country songs are known for being story songs, filled with drama, emotion, and great hooks.

A great country musical would seem to be a marriage made in Texas.


(Got a comment?  I love ’em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here, then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • dan says:

    Ken- here in the radio world, I can tell you that the Country music format is on fire, with huge ratings increases in most markets over the last year. The crossover success of Taylor Swift has now paved the way for someone like Blake Shelton on “The Voice”, and we are seeing more country artists get airplay among the Lady Gaga’s in the top 40 world. The downside? It’s cyclical. Last time country was hot was the 1998-2001 time period when Shania Twain and Faith Hill were all the rage. A broadway producer looking to capitalize with a Whorehouse revival would be best served doing it now than shooting for 2013, when a different music genre is likely to get hot and country takes a backseat.
    I would also agree that the country audience isn’t necessarily eager to attend a broadway show. While “9 to 5” was not a country score, Dolly Parton was a prominent part of the marketing and certainly the source material was familiar to her fans. It never translated into box office.

  • The easy answer seems to be to develop a smart, country music musical, with a great story that the audience can relate to and also realize that Bway isn’t interested. Take the show and market it to its demographic WHERE THEY LIVE. Broadway is magic, but it ain’t the only market around. Back when I was a younger actor and did a little outdoor drama, I used to be amazed at the audiences that would show up for poorly written historical dramas/musicals. Mostly southern/Midwestern, mostly from suburban/rural families. Anywhere from 600-1600 butts in the seats on any given night, all paying top dollar. When the money is there, and Broadway doesn’t want it, why not bring it to other markets.

  • Ed Reggi says:

    In the radio broadcasting world, I once had a 50-year veteran of radio tell me that when country music spikes, it doesn’t mean anything more than the music world is ready for a change.
    He used to say, “think of country music as toast, it cleanses the palate.” And he was right. Country music tips off the music industry heads that there is massive change coning. And this is incredibly true in the music word right now. Pop, Hip-Hop, Rap, Blues, R&B, Jazz and Rock are all taking their shots on the Billboard charts again, fighting for the sound that determines a decade.
    Country music spiked in the mid-80’s, and right behind it was an Euro-Rock-Pop sound that put Duran-Duran, Culture Club, Eurasure and many others on the map. Even groups like Genesis and the Rolling Stones morphed their sounds to follow the synth Euro-style.
    The late 90’s and early 00’s we saw country music spike again, this time what followed was a new Latino Hip Hop orchestrated pop sound that took Aguilera, Martin and Lopez for a mucho ride. They also influenced other “American” solo acts into this new style, including Brittany Spears, Madonna, and Beyonce.
    I always think that country music is the barometer to something on the horizon in the music scene — a fundamental change in music styles for mostly a younger listening audience. Country music is a rock solid genre, but take it as a temporary shake up.

  • Fred says:

    It would be interesting to know how many country music fans saw their first Broadway show when Reba was in Annie Get Your Gun. Even more interesting would be to know if they ever came back to see another show.

  • Rachel says:

    This is a generalization, as I did not grow up in the South, and I’m just judging based on the people from the South whom I have met.
    The country-listening people I have met from the South are generally right wing Christians. Broadway is, well, not. Think of Brokeback Mountain. It was such a hot movie because the idea of cowboys being gay was unheard of. “Lucky Guy”, while I did not see it and don’t really know what is was about, starred two out gay men and one of the few out lesbian actresses on Broadway. The demographic you’re trying to hit may not want to see our demographic (liberal, gay Jews…)

  • Ed from Connecticut says:

    While “Annie Get Your Gun” was a success I’m not sure of the viability of a country musical on Broadway. (Should “9 to 5” or “Ring of Fire” count?)
    Maybe starting to tour on the road would be the best model for a country musical- and then it could come to Broadway. And even though NYC doesn’t have a single over-the-air country music radio station, still, over 60% of Broadway show audiences are tourists so, who knows?
    I am aware of “Pure Country”- Randall Wreghitt was producing it so I am not sure where that stands now, with his recent passing.
    I have also heard a revival of “Best Little Whorehouse” has been in the works for a while now.
    We will see…

  • MomsThoughts says:

    What about:
    -Annie Get your Gun!
    -Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
    Do they count?

  • Rich Mc says:

    Broadway’s Big River was a Big Hit in the 80’s, running over 1000 performances. Music by Roger Miller was terrific. (Revival did not fare well however.)
    Rachael’s comment is probably true- Country Music is often associated with right-wing politics, an anathema to most Broadway producers.

  • Bert says:

    “Great American Trailer Park Musical” might be the closest thing to a successful ‘country music’ musical in recent years. Okay, so its not actual country music, but the songs tell the kind of dramatic, emotional stories that make country music what it is. Don’t forget the success of “Always, Patsy Cline.” I don’t think its ever been done in NYC, but it sure has been a staple of regional and stock theatres in the last ten years or so.

  • Laura Manske says:

    Oh, Ken! Gotta listen to this song, “A Different Cowboy’s Lament,” by David Ippolito.
    It’s about a cowboy…who has a secret! (I won’t give it away here; listen!) So funny!
    Broadway lovers will understand!

  • Michael says:

    Yes, country songs tell stories–and that’s the problem. In the theatre the rule is show, don’t tell.

  • Mary Gannon says:

    I think “Audition Update” brings up a good point from the Chitlin Circuit that propelled Tyler Perry to traditional Christian theater like Sights and Sounds, a whole lot of people are filling a whole lot of seats under the radar of the NYT. You always read about these multi million copy books in Christian publishing and I’ve never heard of them. Why? As you pointed out wouldn’t you rather look at all the possibilities of genre. Would it be so radical to have a touring show from the outset. Time for a major “old paradigm” clean up.

  • Melissa says:

    As someone who grew up on Broadway and country music, I don’t see why the two couldn’t converge successfully. I heard a while back that Laura Bell Bundy was hoping to get a country musical off the ground at some point, has anyone heard anything more about that? Maybe it’s just a pipe dream.

  • Lila Tremaine says:

    Pump Boys and Dinettes is pretty much a pure country musical!
    Interesting that others only sample from the genre… like Big River or Whorehouse…

  • What about a BWay version of one of the many films out there focused around the story of a country singer? Crazy Heart (Jeff Bridges), Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix), Country Song (Gwyneth Paltrow), all come to mind.

  • Hey Ken,
    This is why Amy and I are in the middle of producing a show called ONE RIDE http://www.oneridetheshow.com
    It’s an out of the box, rodeo dance musical based on the music of Champion Bronc rider and Country Music star Chris LeDoux. His fans include: Reba McIntyre, Charlie Daniels, George Strait, Garth Brooks and Toby Keith.(some of whom performed and/or wrote songs with him) We think it’s not for Broadway (at least not yet) but think it could tour the continent for a long time to come. Our experience with it so far has told us that traditional theater-goers love it and now our sights are set on the millions of rodeo fans and Country music lovers who are already part of the late Mr. LeDoux’s fan base.
    Mark Johannes
    MARS THeatricals

  • Bert Silverberg says:

    While I am not a fan of country music per se, I do like various musicals whose scores have a decided country influence. In addition to “Whorehouse,” those include “The Robber Bridegroom,” one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve ever worked on, and “The Spitfire Grill.”

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  • whole of the UK but of course most of our work is in London .

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