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Nashville Scene Playing By Ear

Tunesmith takes country music to the theatrical stage

By Beverly Keel

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  Some of Music Row's heaviest hitters made the short trek up to Belmont University recently to see a Nashville songwriter's attempts at bringing a little bit of Broadway to Nashville. Jerry Taylor, whose songs have been cut by Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and George Jones, unveiled a musical entitled Play It By Heart: A Grand New Opry that he wrote with David Spangler and Randy Hugill. The actors included Grand Ole Opry Stars Bill Anderson and Jean Shephard, as well as Sen. Fred Thompson and Broadway performer Cass Morgan.

Play It By Heart is the story of Jeannine Jasper, country music's top female star, who battles substance abuse, a controlling mother, and radio programmers leery of traditional country music by older artists. The production explores in-depth the makeup of Music Row, from the slick young Harvard-educated corporate A&R man to the sympathetic record producer. "It's the quintessential story of a family in country music," Taylor says. "What happens in this show happens every day. If we can present that with name artists and great music, then I think we can bring in people who never in their lives would go to a theater to see a musical. They would see Grand Ole Opry stars and recording artists in a genre that they've never seen them in before."

In the audience were nearly 15 Gaylord representatives, Sony/ATV Tree president Donna Hilley, Asylum Records president Evelyn Shriver, and Atlanta-based entertainment attorney Joel Katz. Held in an attempt to find a producer for the show, the performance was a scaled-down, 90-minute staged reading of the two-and-a-half-hour musical. Taylor, along with music publisher Hilley, is hoping that Gaylord will produce the show either at the Ryman or the Roy Acuff theater. "We don't care if it ever goes to Broadway," he says. "We think we have something that could play year-round in Nashville, Myrtle Beach, and Branson, and that's the crowd we want to attract."

Hilley, who serves as publisher of the musical's songs, believes it could become a showcase for established and new performers. Country singers could temporarily assume the show's lead roles and perform their own songs rather than fictional hits written for the characters. "We're lacking in entertainment for tourists, and this could be the ideal conduit between us and Gaylord to make that happen," she says. "That's my dream. There's a lot of aspiring talent already signed to labels who would love to have the experience of showcasing there. It would be a wonderful way for Nashville to help introduce talent to tourists."

Taylor, who is also a record producer, began working with cowriter David Spangler in the late 1980s after he moved to the Florida Keys. When Spangler created the musical, then called The Country Show, with dialogue writer R.T. Robinson, Taylor suggested that they use true country singers for the show's initial reading and even arranged for Lorrie Morgan, Jean Shephard, and Jeannie Seely to participate in its New Jersey debut.

When Robinson died, Taylor was asked to step in and rework the music so that it would sound like authentic country music. "We threw out about 15 songs and started completely over," he says. Randy Hugill was enlisted to rewrite virtually all of the dialogue. The results were finally unveiled on Aug. 16, the anniversary of Taylor's move to Nashville in 1977.

Because of union rules, only a staged reading was allowed, which meant that no sets or choreography could be used, and the actors had to hold onto their scripts at all times. The next step would be a workshop, and then the full production. Even at this germinal stage, the preliminary staging cost about $55,000, which was funded through a grant by the Lifeworks Foundation. "This can sometimes be a 10-year process, because it's so expensive to do," Taylor says.

"It would cost about $500,000 to just get the show up and going," he adds, noting that this figure is less than a tenth of the $6.5 million average cost of a Broadway musical. "The workshop alone will cost $200,000, because you rehearse and rewrite for six weeks. All of the actors and musicians have to be paid."

This reading was the first time the authors truly viewed their finished product--or at least something close to it. Since an hour was deleted, Bill Anderson was brought in as a narrator to carry the audience along. The full show will have seven more songs and no narrator.

"We know things we want to change already, where scenes can be improved and the songs can be better," Taylor says. "That is why you do those readings. Once we get the producers on board, we know how to fix the show."

At this point, the musical's strengths are its songs, which could stand on their own merits, and its casting. Shephard was flawless in her wickedly sharp delivery as the controlling hillbilly matriarch, and Thompson was impressive as the strong and reassuring good guy.

The dialogue, however, needs a bit of work. While there are several great one-liners, some of the references are a bit too inside Music Row to be understood by the average audience member. Some viewers, for instance, may be unaware of the friction between the traditional and new country camps. And yet it was often these very lines that made the industry-slanted audience roar the most.

For his part, Taylor thinks the show's dialogue isn't too inaccessible, but he admits it's an important consideration. "We go by the audience's reaction," he says. "We got laughs in places that we'd never thought we'd get [them]. My mother is 70 years old and had never heard anything about the show, and she got every single thing we were trying to say. I think what we have to do is make sure that all of this is very clear and easily understood.

"This is a musical, and what carries a musical is the music. If you got songs in there and [the audience] can go out humming, you have a successful show. Where most shows have one song you can remember, we have about 10. Our job is to just make that as good as we can."

Gaylord executives, who attended yet another reading of a musical later in the week, are still mulling the project over. Meanwhile, other avenues are appearing for Play It By Heart. "Since the reading, we've had another offer from private investors who would like to keep that show at Belmont," Taylor says. "They are trying to get Music Row to think about the Massey Performing Arts Center for showcases and artist presentations. They could open it during Fan Fair and include a ticket to the show as part of Fan Fair."

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