In 1974 Texas writer Larry L. King wrote an article about the notorious "Chicken Ranch," an illegal but tolerated brothel in La Grange, Fayette County, Texas. The establishment operated from 1905 until 1973, when consumer-affairs reporter Marvin Zindler from KTRK-TV in Houston, ran an exposé on the ranch, which resulted in authorities closing it down.
King and Texas-born singer and songwriter Carol Hall met by chance at the Cellar Door in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., where King was based at the time. The idea for a musical was born at this meeting, and in 1976 another Texan, Peter Masterson, an experienced Broadway actor, was brought in, and the idea was further developed. King and Masterson wrote the book, and Hall wrote the songs. The musical was performed as a workshop project at the Actors Studio in New York in October 1977.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was subsequently produced at the Entermedia Theatre, New York, in April 1978. This production was directed by Peter Masterson and fellow Texan Tommy Tune, with choreography by Tune, and featured Carlin Glynn as "Miss Mona" and Henderson Forsythe as "Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd." In June 1978 the musical moved to the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway. Over 3,000 hopefuls auditioned for the production, which ran for 1, 584 performances before closing in March 1982. Larry L. King made his first and last Broadway appearance when he took the stage, playing Sheriff Dodd for a two-week stint during the Broadway run.
The show was described as “reasonably good, if raunchy…” and “offered the added attraction of a country-and-western style score” according to the Oxford Companion to American Theatre, while The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was a success “thanks to earthy Texan dialogue, skillfully etched characters” and “songs that combined Nashville with Broadway,” stated Andrew Lamb in his book 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre.
The show won a number of awards: Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical—Henderson Forsythe (1979); Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical—Carlin Glynn (1979); Theatre World Award—Carlin Glynn (1978–79); Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical—Peter Masterson and Tommy Tune (1978); Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics—Carol Hall (1978); and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music—Carol Hall (1978). The “Aggie Song" was performed on the Tony Awards broadcast but was heavily censored because of the saucy nature of the lyrics and choreography.
In 1979 The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas opened in Houston at the Tower and was the first Broadway musical to have an open-ended season in Texas. In 1982 Glynn and Hall were cast in "a return engagement." After nine previews, this production opened on May 31 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and ran for sixty-three performances. The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, a short-lived sequel, was staged on Broadway in 1994. Ann-Margret starred in a national touring production in 2001.
In 1982 a movie version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, filmed in Austin, was released by Universal, with a cast that included Dolly Parton, Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning, Jim Nabors, Lois Nettleton, Noah Beery, Jr., and Barry Corbin. The movie was directed by Colin Higgins. Dolly Parton was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), and the movie was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy). Charles Durning was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.