They are not exactly the von Trapps singing about edelweiss, but the Robertson family of the reality series “Duck Dynasty” wants to sing to you about faith and food, duck calls and swamp moss.
And they have commissioned a team from Broadway to bring their story to the stage, in Las Vegas for starters.
Undertaking one of the more audacious theater projects in recent years, the Robertsons - known for their long beards, duck-hunting merchandise and occasional inflammatory remark - are moving to expand their Louisiana-based multimedia franchise with “The Duck Commander Family Musical.” The 90-minute show, with actors playing the family members from A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” as they celebrate their rags-to-riches saga, is aiming to open in February at the Rio hotel and casino, where the Chippendales show and Penn & Teller are now running.
Yet even before rehearsals begin, the musical is courting controversy. Several Broadway producers, many of whom are liberal, gay, or both, are aghast that colleagues would work with a family whose patriarch, Phil Robertson, has compared homosexuality to bestiality.
Gay rights leaders are also eyeing the show with concern, while evangelical Christians - many of whom admire the Robertsons - will have to grapple with going to a Las Vegas casino and seeing if New York artists have fairly rendered the family.
“The show will end up challenging the views and assumptions of people across the political spectrum, more than most theater does,” said Michael David, the Broadway producer who is developing the show and has mounted Broadway hits like “Jersey Boys” and flops like “Good Vibrations.”
“The Robertsons are so unusual, their story so juicy, and theater shouldn’t be limited to telling stories about people you resemble or revere,” added David, whose long gray beard could make him an honorary Robertson.
Willie Robertson, chief executive of the Duck Commander company, which had $40 million in revenue in 2012 (a fraction of the sales of “Duck Dynasty” merchandise), said in a statement that the show had been “a great ride so far” for the family, which has approval rights over the script and casting.
“We’ve enjoyed the process of making a musical alongside the team who is interested in telling the Robertson family story from an outside perspective,” said Willie Robertson, whose 2012 book about the family, written with his wife, Korie, is the basis for the musical and the source of its title.
If the project sounds too highbrow-lowbrow to be believed, too bayou for Broadway, remember that theater is a wholly unpredictable hit factory.
The musical “Avenue Q,” which looked like “Sesame Street” with foul-mouthed puppets, won the Tony Award for best musical and made millions. And no one could have guessed 17 years ago that a show with actors dressed as animals, “The Lion King,” would achieve a record-breaking global gross of $6.2 billion this fall.
Yet the challenge for the creators of “The Duck Commander Family Musical” is not simply to create a widely appealing show from idiosyncratic material.
Unlike movie-to-musical adaptations that now dominate Broadway (“Aladdin,” “Kinky Boots,” “Once” and many others in addition to “The Lion King”), television has proved tricky to adapt to the stage. Past attempts have been mostly satirical sendups based on series like “Saved by the Bell” and “The Golden Girls.” A big test will come next fall with “The Honeymooners,” a musical based on that 1950s CBS series.
Steven Morris, one of the composers of the “Duck Commander” show, said that he believed “the specificity and the strangeness of the family’s lives and home are a great fit for a compelling musical.”
The show is expected to feature video of the real Robertsons and duck hunting, interspersed among family anecdotes and a 14-song score that mixes country, blues and show tunes. The likely opening number is “Faith, Food, and Family.”
“I think the expectation is that it'll be all chicken-pickin' stuff and banjos, but what we’re trying to do is pull out as much heart, humor and sincerity as we can to keep people surprised,” Morris said.
His previous best-known work with his “Duck” collaborators, his brother Robert Morris and Joe Shane, was the musical “White Noise,” a satire about white supremacists. (The artistic team, which includes the book writer Asa Somers, was recruited by the Robertsons’ agents at William Morris Endeavor and is not satirizing the Robertsons.)
Minting a Las Vegas success is another gamble. Only two Broadway musicals have been major successes there, “Jersey Boys” and “Mamma Mia!” which both featured pretested hit songs. Plenty of others struggled, like “The Producers” and “Hairspray.” More typical is a recently announced musical revue featuring Broadway numbers, “ShowStoppers,” which casino magnate Steve Wynn is developing.
David said the success of “Jersey Boys” convinced him that a show with a familiar brand that appeals strongly to men can do well in Las Vegas. (He said he expected the show to cost a relatively modest low seven figures.)
And Morris predicted that the fan base for “Duck Dynasty” - which has had as many as 11 million viewers, but only 4 million for its season finale in August - would create a sizable audience for the show. (The series’ seventh season is to begin next Wednesday.)
David said he had given no thought yet to bringing the show to New York, where its reception would probably be mixed if the reactions of several Broadway producers is any measure.
“It’s pretty disgusting, but it’s also a reminder that Broadway is mostly about making entertainment today - not art - even if it means getting involved with a family whose members say things that offend a lot of people working on Broadway,” said Emanuel Azenberg, a veteran producer whose current musical is “The Last Ship.”
The comments by Phil Robertson, in an article published in GQ, led the A&E network to suspend him last December. Like several family members, Phil Robertson is a self-described evangelical Christian who says his opinions come from Scripture. After an outcry from fans of the show, including some who accused A&E of anti-Christian bigotry, the suspension was lifted nine days later.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a gay rights group that monitors depictions of gay characters in culture, said the musical would inevitably face scrutiny.
“The family has become symbolic of a much larger and somewhat dangerous problem of what we’re seeing in America - this issue of homophobia being masked as a religious value,” she said.
Both David and the musical’s director, Jeff Calhoun (“Newsies”), said they were offended by Phil Robertson’s remarks, but they were already involved with the project by then, and decided to deal with the remarks by addressing them in the musical. (Morris said this was still being figured out.)
Calhoun is gay and was married three years ago to his longtime partner. He said that his husband’s family members, who are from Florida and Texas, are “very much from this world” of the Robertsons, and that he made peace a long time ago with their differing outlooks.
“We’ve agreed to disagree on some things, but we’re family and we love and respect each other,” Calhoun said. “I like to think that this musical could bridge some gaps, too.