PLAYWRIGHT JANECE SHAFFER BONDED OVER SCRAMBLED EGGS AND DIET COKES WITH SUGARLAND’S KRISTIAN BUSH, THE SONGWRITER SHE NEEDED FOR ‘TROUBADOUR’
The world premiere musical “Troubadour” debuts at the Alliance Theatre on Jan. 18 and runs through Feb. 12. Details, tickets HERE.
GRAMMY AWARD-WINNING recording artist Kristian Bush has been “secretly writing songs connected to each other forever.” (For him, “forever” means since 1983, when he was 13).
“I just never thought that my songs would go together into one musical,” he says.
But playwright Janece Shaffer came calling. She had an untitled play she wanted to musicalize. That Bush was the right collaborator “came at me from every angle,” Shaffer says. The Atlanta singer, who plays any stringed instrument you can name, had the versatility, sound, style and sensibilities for her script about a turning point in country music.
The songman, who partners with Jennifer Nettles as the country music duo Sugarland, met Shaffer last year at the Flying Biscuit Café in Candler Park. Over breakfast, she shared the story of her new play, set in Nashville in 1951.
“We both had scrambled eggs, biscuits and Diet Cokes,” Shaffer says. “That’s how we knew we were meant to be!”
She gave Bush the lowdown on the piece now titled Troubadour. The musical is the Atlanta native’s seventh play to premiere at the Alliance Theatre. Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth directs. Bush’s younger brother, Brandon, is music-directing and is part of the onstage band.
Troubadour follows the intersecting lives of folks in country music. Billy Mason, an old-school singer, is retiring. Billy’s son, Joe, has always performed by his dad’s side but also in his shadow. Inez is a young woman just off the bus from Tuscaloosa, Ala., with little to her name but a notebook full of original songs. Izzy is a scrappy and ambitious Russian-born tailor who thinks that country music artists should wear sparkly costumes.
Shaffer’s piece so inspired Bush, she says, that “he sat there going ‘I hear it, I hear it,’ and wrote the first song before the end of breakfast.” That song, “Father to the Son,” is the first in the show.
In addition to Sugarland, Bush writes tunes for other recording artists, movies and television. A recent example: “Forever Now,” the theme song for the bridal TV show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
Writing for fictional characters might seem more difficult but not so with Troubadour, Bush says. “Janece’s characters are so well developed, and she creates a world so real, that it was very easy to get lost in that world.”
Shaffer laughs, because Bush even wrote songs for a couple of titles she tossed into the script. She gave Billy a hit she called “White, White Steeple in a Blue, Blue Sky.” That didn’t have to be the song title, but before long, Bush had written the tune.
Most characters in Troubadour sing songs written by their characters. Bush spent a good deal of time thinking about each one, “trying to become them.” When he sat down to write, he says, “Each song took about 20 minutes. Weirdly, melodies are always available to me. It’s marrying them with the right words that can be more challenging.”
The songs Bush delivered, Shaffer says, “feel like the perfect hand in glove in telling the story.”
That story took root for her during a weekend getaway to Nashville with her husband, Bill Nigut. A costume exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum featured such Western-wear tailors as “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein (1893-1985) and Nudie Cohn (1902-84). Both were immigrants who designed for the likes of cowboy singer Roy Rogers. Cohn, in fact, is credited as the first to add rhinestones and fanciful designs to outfits worn by country legends like Hank Williams Sr.
Sometimes a writer just needs to be swept up by an idea, Shaffer says. For The Geller Girls, her 2015 world premiere at the Alliance, she dug deep into the history of Atlanta’s 1895 Cotton States Exposition. For Troubadour, she studied the changing tides of country music in the mid-20th century and the tailors of the moment.
“I started thinking a lot about these immigrants coming to America with an idea of what America was. I was totally obsessed with these men and their stories. I went to [Alliance artistic director] Susan Booth with all this material and she said, ‘That’s an obsession, that’s not a story. Go find your story.’ ”
And she did.