One hangup some people have with musicals is that they can feel unnatural —“people breaking into song over coffee,” as playwright Janece Shaffer puts it. Perhaps the best approach to clearing that hurdle is to not set out to write a musical in the first place, but to let one emerge organically.
That’s what Shaffer did with Troubadour, which enjoys its world premiere run at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater from January 18 through February 12. She initially envisioned Troubadour as a straight play about a 1950s era country music star nearing the end of his career, and a son coming to terms with whether to continue that legacy. Shaffer sensed a need for the elder statesman to perform one song to establish his character, and emailed an appeal for assistance to Kristian Bush, of Georgia’s multi-platinum powerhouse Sugarland. One minor hitch—she had never met Bush.
Remarkably, Bush took the bait. “I was drawn to her as a storyteller,” he tells me. “The way she painted the characters was so vivid and complete that it felt like she was asking me to write for artists that were actually alive and not fictional.”
Shaffer is no stranger to the Alliance stage, having premiered five plays there. But this is her first musical—as it is for Bush as well. “I write for film and TV when I get the chance, but I’ve never been asked to write for theater before,” he explains. “Jennifer (Nettles, his Sugarland partner) and I always tried to imagine the stories that permeated or connected the songs on our Sugarland albums, but that was after the songs were written, not before.”
Bush and Shaffer began to engage in those same sorts of exercises, and the project quickly changed shape. “It was a very organic conversation that just kept going as we kept exploring. As I asked Janece more questions about the characters, she started asking me more questions about the life and psychology of being a country star, on the way up, and on top.” The narrative kept suggesting new songs, and before you knew it Bush had contributed sixteen original compositions. “I think the gravity of the situation appeared when Susan (Booth, Troubador’s director) and Janece asked if I would write a curtain call. I think that’s when I knew I was in full speed musical land,” he jokes.
The story’s three main characters—father Billy Mason (played by acclaimed Americana musician Radney Foster), son Joe (Atlanta’s Zach Seabaugh, a finalist from NBC’s The Voice) and Joe’s love interest Inez Miller (Sylvie Davidson)—are all songwriters. This afforded Bush and Shaffer air cover to avoid the dreaded spontaneous eruption into song. “The characters sing songs because that’s who they are, not because they’re in a musical. They’ve actually written these songs, many in their past, some only days before, and in a few cases, on stage while we watch.” At times we see these characters conducting radio interviews, for instance, providing a natural reason to perform.
The main non-musician character, Izzy Weiss (played by Atlanta stage mainstay Andrew Benator), is a Russian-born “rodeo tailor” with his own ideas of how a country musician should look. He’s modeled after Nudie Cohn, the legendary real-life designer who decked out country icons like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and another genre-bending Georgia original, Waycross’ own Gram Parsons. Sewing for both father and son, Weiss serves as sounding board for a family struggle that mirrors the sea change in country music taking place in 1950s Nashville, where Troubadour is set.
Although he doesn’t claim to be a musicologist, Bush particularly relished the challenge of writing Billy Mason’s 20-year song catalog, starting with an apocryphal 1935 hit and working through his evolution. “I’ve learned how important it is to know what your favorite artists stand for, and the importance of the first few hits to a band’s narrative. Janece explained Billy’s backstory, his strained relationship with his evangelical preacher father, and his journey to get to the top of country music. I just had to start making his albums for him.” Brandon Bush (Kristian’s brother) leads a three-piece band including Atlanta musicians Scott Glazer and Benji Shanks, who are entrusted with bringing those songs to life on stage, using bass, guitar/lap steel , piano, and accordion at various times.
Kristian, who grew up in Knoxville but has lived in Atlanta for more than two decades, channeled his own musical evolution into the songs. Beloved indie rocker and dB’s/Continental Drifters frontman Peter Holsapple once told me, “People forget that before Sugarland, Kristian was in a really rockin’ duo called Billy Pilgrim.” Bush recently revisited those roots with longtime partner Andrew Hyra on Decatur’s venerable Eddie’s Attic stage. With Sugarland still on hiatus, and with one solo album (2015’s well-received Southern Gravity) already in the books, expect Bush to continue to challenge himself by looking forward and back- and by taking on new adventures like Troubadour.