Give My ‘Howdy’ to Broadway: A Texan’s look at Texas on the Great White Way

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Texas, as any proud Texan can tell you, is all about the land: canyons, cactus and wide open skies that stretch for miles above the wind-swept prairies. It’s all about the greatest food in the USA: angus-beef steaks, deep red bowls of chuckwagon chili, bubbling cheese enchiladas with rice and beans, spicy seafood gumbo from the Gulf of Mexico and our culture’s culinary holy grail, that smoked creation called Texas Barbeque.

The most beautiful food in the world

The most beautiful food in the world

The Lone Star State is about the many peoples who tamed this land: tribes of Indians, Spanish explorers, cowboys, Mexican farmers, American settlers, Germans, Cajuns, Africans and freedmen and waves of immigration that continue today from as far away as India and Asia. It was their independence and gumption that made us our own country from 1836 to 1845. It was their long cattle-drives, hard-scrabble farming skills and immigrant dishes that created our trademark cuisine. It was their struggle for a better life that created our stories. And these stories, pardner, are the richest in the world.

Where else can you find cowboys and astronauts, Indians and oilmen, outlaws and rangers all in the same place? Where else can you find the music of Buddy Holly, Usher, Dimebag Darrell and Willie Nelson? Where else do cowboy boots, Dairy Queen and pickup trucks reign supreme? The answer is, in Texas, like nowhere else.

So why should it be any surprise that Texas has finally made it to the Big Apple? In ways large and small, Texas talent has been lighting up the Great White Way for years. Think The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the actor and comedian Steve Martin (Waco), Book of Mormon co-creator Matt Stone (Houston) and the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Horton Foote (Wharton), just to name a few.

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case in "Hands on a Hardbody."

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case in “Hands on a Hardbody.”

A great introduction to Texas can be found in the Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody, which opened on March 21, 2013. The show features Texas talents Jay Armstrong Johnson (Fort Worth) and Scott Wakefield (Fort Worth) in a new show about ten down-on-their-luck Texans competing for a new Nissan truck. The contestants start with their hands on the truck, known as a hardbody, and the last person standing drives away with the win. The music, by Fort Worth, Texas native Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame) is a rocking mix of blues, gospel and Texas twang. Doug Wright, who wrote the book, hails from nearby Dallas, Texas. Together with the creative team and cast they evoke a blazing east Texas parking lot, the ten tough individuals who compete and the reverence all Texans have for their trucks. For a few magical moments I felt right back at home under the charging sky of a Texas summer. The musical is slated to close April 13 so get a taste of this down-home Texas competition while you still can.

Ann

Holland Taylor as Governor Richards in ‘Ann’

Another Lone Star show, about the Texas titan Ann Richards, is also playing on Broadway and has been extended. Ann, a one woman show by Holland Taylor (not a Texan, sorry) about the 45th Governor of Texas, is currently playing at the Lincoln Center Theater. Ann Richards was only the second woman governor of the state and the last Democratic party governor. She was known for her humor, charisma and her outta left-field appearance. The show combines fiery speeches, deep-fried folksy anecdotes and an unabashed love for the governor, who was as compelling as she was complicated. Despite being a political unknown she rose to national prominence, famously stated that George H. W. Bush was born “with a silver foot in his mouth” and lost reelection to his son, George W. Bush. When she died in 2006 a local dive bar near the capitol proclaimed on its outdoor sign, “Ann Richards: A better man than most.” Her family ties, political aspirations and private battles are all explored in this ode to the woman whose character was as large as Texas herself.

Osnes and Jordan in 'Bonnie & Clyde'

Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan in ‘Bonnie & Clyde’

The last two years have seen two other Texas size shows in New York City. In 2011, Bonnie & Clyde, the musical, rode into town to play a short-lived performance. It was an audience hit but critics were unswayed and ticket sales failed to keep the show in business. It opened and closed in the same four weeks but not before the notorious outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow got to ride again. The musical is filled with bluesy rock and country appropriate to the West Texas outlaws who terrorized the state during the Great Depression. If you’re in Dallas or west of there and ask around you might find an older local who remembers the day that Bonnie and Clyde came to town. The couple gained everlasting notoriety by robbing banks and murdering anyone who got in their way but they died as fast as they lived. The story went down in history and they became folk heroes, like a modern day Romeo and Juliet on a robbing spree. A story so rich had to become a musical and Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan (Corpus Christi) sang their hearts out as the dastardly pair of Texas outlaw lovers on the lam.

The cast of 'Giant' the musical

The cast of ‘Giant’ the musical

Giant, a new musical based on the 1952 novel by Edna Ferber, played the Public Theatre in 2012. Made famous by the James Dean film adaptation, the story follows a Texas ranching family as they struggle to compete with the oil development that comes to the state. Not many people know that cotton made Texas an economic powerhouse in the 1800’s, but once the country became hooked on petroleum, oil production made overnight millionaires. With lots of money comes drama and it’s these stories that fuel the musical Giant. The show was a co-production with the Dallas Theatre Center and premiered in Texas before moving Off-Broadway. It was directed by Michael Greif (Rent) and composed by Michael John LaChiusa. Like most Off-Broadway shows it played a limited but successful run and many were talking about a Broadway transfer sometime this year. The talked-about-run has yet to materialize, but here’s hoping. In the meantime, look for the original cast recording which has recently been announced. It looks like Giant will still be a going concern.

Stark Sands as Charlie in 'Kinky Boots'

Stark Sands as Charlie Price in ‘Kinky Boots’

A Texas lone star that is shining bright on Broadway is Dallas’ very own Stark Sands, who is currently starring in the musical Kinky Boots at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Sands’ talent earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor in Journey’s End in 2007. It’s also no surprise that this native Texan played Clyde in the La Jolla production of Bonnie & Clyde, before Jordan took over the role. On his long list of accomplishments is another tangential Texas connection; he starred in American Idiot and when he left, David Larsen, now starring in Hands on a Hardbody, took over the role. No matter where you go on Broadway these days, Texas is well-represented.

Texas stands for rugged individuality and hard work. That reputation has translated into gripping tales and talented performers that have naturally gravitated to Broadway. I predict that this is merely another grand year in a long tradition of Texas imports and that Texas will continue to influence Broadway onstage, behind the scenes and beyond the theater doors.

There used to be a saying back in the 1800’s when Texas opened for settlement: GTT, Gone To Texas. It’s still as true today as it was back then, but I’d like to propose another saying for all the Texans (including me) who want to make it big in the Big Apple: GTBY, Gone To Broadway, Y’all.

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Gone To Texas

What other Texas shows have you seen on Broadway? What Texas shows or actors would you like to see?

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