Robert Horn On Growing a Broadway Musical, ‘Shucked,’ From the Ground Up

The playwright explains how the new musical 'Shucked' started as a spoof of 'Hee-Haw' and blossomed into a corn-fed 'Brigadoon.'

The case of ‘Shucked’ at the Nederlander Theatre. Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimnmerman

It might surprise you to learn that Robert Horn—who won a Tony in 2019 for his side-splitting adaptation of the gender-bending Tootsie and will surely be a frontrunner this year for his unapologetically corny, from-the-ground-up original, Shucked—hails from a grim, grinding, achingly humorless childhood only Charles Dickens could do justice to.

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After the exit of an indifferent deadbeat dad, the upbringing of Horn, his twin sister and an older brother fell to their stressed, depressed single mom. Overwhelmed, she surrendered them to foster homes, and they grew up separately—and differently.  The brother drifted into drugs and died in 2019 in prison of pancreatic cancer, which, months later, claimed the sister.

“I think, because I had the upbringing I had, I was fearless” is how Horn rationalizes his late-blooming success. “I didn’t believe for a moment that I couldn’t do it. I just had to figure out how. When we get older in life, we become more fearful, more afraid of rejection, but, at a young age, you know no fear. I felt like ‘Other people can do it—why not me?’ I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. I truly believe success has always been this serendipitous meeting of ability and opportunity. I just had to master the ability the best I could and hope I’d get the opportunity.”

Robert Horn Emilio Madrid

Barely out of his teens, Horn got his ability in working order by writing two monologues as his audition to NYU Tisch School of the Arts and gaining a full scholarship there. While he pursued a playwriting career he worked comedy clubs around town to hone his style and make connections. Gradually, his sad, dark history started taking on some Technicolor hues.

In the mid-‘80s, he went to Los Angeles, ostensibly to visit his mother and sister, and he stayed 30-plus years, carving out a place for himself in film and television. His flair for falling in with the right crowd got him an ideal career-starter: he produced (and provided much of the sass for) CBS’s Designing Women. That was followed by more of the same for Fox’s Living Single and the short-lived High Society, starring Designing Women’s Jean Smart. Horn went on to write the pilots for scores of television shows—and even that didn’t diminish his desire for theatrical legitimacy in New York. To that end—a dozen years ago, well before he began his Tony-winning work on TootsieShucked started taking shape. 

Initially, it was known as Moonshine: The Hee Haw Story. Opry Entertainment commissioned him to write the book for a musical spoof of the long-running country-music variety show Hee Haw. To supply the songs, Horn went to Nashville and interviewed a bunch of C&W songwriters, eventually settling on the team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, who collectively have amassed three Grammy Awards and 18 Grammy nominations. “They have the exact same sense of humor that I have,” Horn admits. “They were out, proud country artists, they were outliers, and I knew that’s what I wanted our show to be about. The chemistry was perfect.”

But the trio, despite their awards, couldn’t get the show off the ground. “I didn’t know Hee Haw was a brand that didn’t translate well into the current zeitgeist,” Horn explains. “There’s a certain misogyny, a certain homophobia, to that brand because it existed at the time it existed. We did the show, and, to be honest, we never quite figured it out. It became a cartoon of itself instead of being grounded in a reality. It just didn’t feel right to us. Everyone involved in it was fine, but it didn’t work. We just couldn’t make it work, so we let it go.”

Fast-forward a few years. “We all went on to do other things. I did Tootsie, and Shane went on to win gobs of more Grammy nominations. I called up one day after I started watching the way that the world was changing and said, ‘I miss you, and I loved our collaboration. We were really onto something. We just didn’t get it right. What do you say to starting over, writing an original musical that talks about things that are bothering us?’ They were all for it, so here we are.”

This time out, Horn came up with a fable about corn—“a fable for your table,” as it were—and pinned the country-western tunes to it accordingly. “It’s about a small, fictional heartland farming community somewhere in the middle of America, and they grow corn,” proffers Horn. “Corn is their commerce, their livelihood, and it grows on every property line—huge stalks of corn within this town in Cobb County”—so huge the residents are isolated from the outside world. No one gets out, no one gets in. Sort of a corn-fed Brigadoon. “They’re afraid of anybody from the outside, anyone who’s different from them that could threaten their way of life.”

When the corn starts to die, threatening everything and everyone, the play’s spunky heroine steps up and goes for help, because everyone else is terrified of the outside. Unfortunately, the community savior that she returns with is a charlatan anxious to bilk the local yokels.

“There’s a twist at the end that you don’t see coming,” Horn says. “The story is guided by two storytellers who present this twist at the end of the play that is so beautiful, and the audience just gasps.”

The play’s overall message came from Horn’s private life: When he (a certifiable semi-neurotic Jew) married a fella from small-town Georgia, both of the grooms sensed disaster ahead, dreading the response of their respective in-laws. “Once we broke bread together,” says Horn, “we learned to focus on things that we love and share and not focus on things that would divide us and become vitriolic. What happened was: we became family. That’s what our play’s about.”

Jack O’Brien, the Tony-winning director who’s equally adept at musical comedy (Hairspray) and drama (Henry V and The Coast of Utopia) fell in love with the show when he caught it at Utah’s Pioneer Theater Company last spring and decided it was already Broadway-ready. “He saw the message we were trying to get across,” Horn says. “It was always a wonderful project, but he brought a truth and a reality to it and encouraged us to push ourselves as hard as we could to get the result we got.”

According to Horn, another key player is Mike Bosner, who, at 35, “is of a new wave of producers who understand you can’t sell shows the way you used to sell shows. How do you sell a completely original musical with no box-office stars? How does one sell that in this environment? Bosner understood how: by creating a brand, a mystique. We started off with an ad campaign with fake quotes pulled from famous people. It went viral. Then, he plastered the subway and the city with corn posters. All you saw was corn, and we became the corn musical, and, when that happens, you become a brand. Mike understood that and made the most of it.”That’s putting it mildly. Shucked is now previewing to capacity crowds at the Nederlander for an April 4 opening. It started with a 98% full house. By week two, that had risen a couple of notches to 100.00%.

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Robert Horn On Growing a Broadway Musical, ‘Shucked,’ From the Ground Up