By Andrew Leahey
Over the past decade, Broadway has seen its share of musicals based on the country songbook.
The short-lived Ring of Fire wove its story around the hits of Johnny Cash. Million Dollar Quartet focused on songs by Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Those productions revolved around music that was originally recorded during the Fifties and Sixties, though, which makes Somewhere With You — a coming-of-age show stacked with songs popularized by the likes of Kenny Chesney, Uncle Kracker and Jake Owen — the first musical to ever hit Manhattan with a score of modern country tunes.
JT Harding is the composer for the off-Broadway show, which launches in two weeks as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival.
A Nashville-based songwriter with recent cuts by Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and Billy Currington, Harding wrote the bulk of the show's songs after taking a trip to the Middle East with his own band, JTX. The group had been hired to play for American troops, an opportunity that put Harding in direct contact with several soldiers.
"I can't believe the things they shared with me," he tells Rolling Stone Country. "It was incredible. I can't even describe it to you."
He could, however, set those soldiers' stories to music. After returning home to Tennessee, Harding whipped up a new batch of songs about the people he'd met overseas. Months later, those songs caught the ear of director Peter Zinn, an old friend from grade school.
Inspired by the music, Zinn wrote a script based on Harding's songs, mixing the newer material with well-known hits like "Alone With You" (a chart-topper for Jake Owen) and "Smile" (Uncle Kracker's 2009 "comeback" single). Sprinkled throughout Zinn's story, Harding's songs help tell the tale of a young country singer who falls in love with a recovering meth addict during the early 2000s, while the Iraq war rages overseas.
"I saw Jersey Boys the other night," Harding explains, "and it struck me like lightning: there's a Green Day musical, a Tupac musical, Spiderman by U2... It's time for a modern country musical! This is a story about our generation, with songs from our generation."
The timing is right, too.
Somewhere With You arrives one year after the launch of Nash FM, New York City's first country radio station in nearly two decades, and several weeks after the announcement of Luke Bryan's upcoming show at the Barclay Center, marking the first-ever country show at the Brooklyn venue.
"We've got something incredibly young and edgy," Harding says of the show, which enjoyed low-profile runs in New York and Pennsylvania before being selected for the July festival. "I don't know if I'd compare it to the story of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley — I've got a big ego, but not that big — but I do know it's special. People can sit in the audience and sing along. They'll recognize the music, and I think they'll relate to the script, too."
Somewhere With You runs July 8th through 13th.