Producer, songwriter and musician T Bone Burnett has donned a white hat and jumped in to rescue the score to a musical about American icons Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans.
Burnett, known for keeping alive forms of American roots music and who just presented Betty Buckley with the Stephen Bruton Award during the recent Lone Star Film Festival, replaces the previously announced songwriting team of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, who were unable to continue on Happy Trails due to a scheduling conflict.
The composer, who grew up in Fort Worth seeing musicals such as Showboat, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game and Guys and Dolls, said this week that he has never had a chance to flex his musical theater chops.
“I have to say it’s frightening and exciting to come into a world that I think I can never live up to,” Burnett said. “I’m glad I’ve waited this long to even to begin to approach it.”
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Rogers was a star of television, radio and movies, turning out country-music songs, 87 Westerns — 26 of them with Evans —and a 1950s TV series.
For 12 years, from 1943 to 1954, the singing cowboy was the No. 1 Western star at the box office in a magazine poll of theater operators.
With his trusty horse Trigger, Rogers played the straight-shooting good guy who always fought fair — instead of killing the bad guys, he would shoot the gun out of their hands — and always lived to sing about it.
Rogers died in 1998 at age 86; Evans died in 2001 at 88.
Burnett said the musical will have entirely new music that will be influenced by the 1930s, one of his favorite decades.
“There will be some show tunes, and there will be some blues tunes. There will be country tunes and there will be folk tunes,” he said. “There will be all that, and there will be other things, too.”
The new musical will feature a story by Academy Award-winner Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Addams Family) and direction by two-time Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys, Tommy). The lead producer is Larry G. Spangler.
Burnett is best known for the Grammy-winning Robert Plant-Alison Krauss CD Raising Sand and the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
He’s collaborated with a diverse group that includes Buckley, Los Lobos, Elton John, Taylor Swift, Roy Orbison and Jeff Bridges. He’s also worked on the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack and was the music director for the Ghost Brothers of Darkland County cast album.
A first draft of Happy Trails with 16 songs has been written with an eye for Broadway as soon as next year, but Burnett is cautious about jumping into a format that has not always been kind to composers from the rock and pop world.
“I have to say it is daunting to approach this whole thing. I’ve seen many of my friends fly too close to the sun in this area,” he said.
“But, I have to say, this has really been the happiest time of my life.”