The songs of The Pitch, the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's series for new works in progress, aren't usually the kind that sound familiar.
But those of "Music City, USA" might.
The show, with a book by Peter Zinn and songs by JT Harding, opens the fifth season of the festival's Theater Mack series tonight. It tells the story of two Nashville songwriters, one of whom racks up debt selling drugs in order to support his music career. To pay it off, he enrolls in the National Guard.
The show originated from songs Harding wrote after a series of concerts he performed for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Detroit native's name might not be a household one, but he's behind several No. 1 songs, including Uncle Kracker's "Smile," "Kenny Chesney's "Somewhere With You," Blake Shelton's "Sangria" and Keith Urban's "Somewhere in My Car."
As troops overseas heard Harding's hit songs, he'd often hear their stories, too. Those stories, he said Wednesday, would form the foundation of "Music City, USA." "How Did I Get Here" was inspired by troops who recounted the way their one-weekend-a-month National Guard duty became desert tours in what felt like an instant.
"Some soldiers told me they joined the National Guard just to be away from home for a little while, then they got called and were in Afghanistan," he said. "It's very scary for some of them."
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AUBURN | The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival comes full circle with The Pitch.
Peter Zinn, whom Harding knew from grade school, took those songs and wrote a theatrical story around them and Harding's more prolific singles a few years ago. Harding explained that he retains the rights to the latter songs and licenses them to stars to record — so they can still be included in his and Zinn's show.
"Music City, USA" then made its off-Broadway debut at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and notched another run in Pennsylvania, Harding said.
"As I'm learning, you just have to keep working on these things," he said.
This weekend in Auburn, when Zinn, Harding and director Mary Kate Burke turn Theater Mack into a Nashville Honky Tonk called the Wicked Tickle, "Music City, USA" could near the end of its completion. Harding will perform it with Sarah Nicole Deaver, and hopes the three nights produce the feedback he and Zinn need to take the next step with their show.
Among other things, Harding is wondering whether his latest hit country song, Dierks Bentley's "Different for Girls," also has a place in "Music City, USA."
"We're looking for honest feedback," he said. "We hope it's getting very close."