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Catch Me in the Country

A high point of Broadway’s “Catch Me if You Can” is the sweet, catchy tune “Seven Wonders.” Aaron Tveit and Kerry Butler are tangled in hospital sheets, and Tveit woos Butler with this jet-setting ballad (jump to 1:50):

Did you catch Tveit’s little intro? “It’s kind of a country tune, if you can imagine that.” There’s a bit of swing, some softhearted lyrics, and a sturdy home fixation. (Beautifully accompanied onstage at the Neil Simon, “Seven Wonders” has even more of that percussive, catchy twang than this tiny YouTube clip.)

We shouldn’t be so surprised: showtunes and country music have a lot in common. For one, they’re scorned cousins of pop music, often mocked for their emotional, narrative content. Also, and unlike contemporary club music, they wear their hearts on their sleeves. (Katy Perry can smirk her way through “California Girls,” but that contempt would quickly wheeze and die in a theater or country song.)

But the ultimate link between showtunes and country music is their mutual sincerity. Artists like Taylor Swift, Stephen Schwartz, Keith Urban, and of course “Catch Me’s” Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman unabashedly aim for the heart. Their big guns — long notes, tear-jerking lyrics, or big key changes — keep their music sharply on target. This is distinctly not the case in horny club beats and hipster ironic-a-thons.

So why isn’t there more country music onstage in New York? Cut from the same cloth as earnest pop shows like “Wicked” or “Legally Blonde,” country’s emotive storytelling would seem like a natural fit. To be fair, there have been musicals like “Million Dollar Quartet,” (Elvis et al), “9 to 5” (Dolly Parton), and “10 Million Miles” (Patty Griffin). And, of course, performers like Laura Bell Bundy and Kristin Chenoweth continue to record country-themed albums.

But the only recent example of a totally original country show that I can think of was “Western Country” at last summer’s Williamstown Theatre Festival. (The music was by Kellys Collins and Ryan Tyndell; the book, Noah Haidle.) As the story of a Russian mail-order bride, it made effective use of beautiful, haunting country music — listen to this example. Here’s hoping that production has a future life.

New York provincialism probably has something to do with this dearth — it seems we’ll only accept a southerner or westerner if we’re laughing at him. But a host of musical storytellers from (gulp) Nashville and country just might have something exciting to say. Twang doesn’t need to sneak around in shows like “Catch Me if You Can” — let’s put it centerstage.

Aaron Tveit and Kerry Butler (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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