If sales of Nissan pickup trucks tick up in the next few months, there may be an unlikely source: a Broadway musical.
“Hands on a Hardbody,” a seemingly far-fetched stage show based on a documentary that features songs co-written by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, stars a modified Aztec red Nissan. By the end of the show, you’ll swear that truck can dance.
You might, too. Anastasio and Broadway veteran Amanda Green have written a soundtrack of mostly fine songs in a nice mix of styles — blues, gospel, country and honky-tonk — that will fire you right up.
Playwright Doug Wright has had some fun himself, the cast is committed and realistic, and the whole thing is a pleasing, tuneful, heart-filled ode to small towns and American dreams.
The musical that opened Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, following a stop at the La Jolla Playhouse, is based on S.R. Binder’s 1997 documentary about an endurance contest at an east Texas car dealership that offered a free pickup to whoever could keep a hand on it the longest.
The creative team behind the musical has taken some liberties with the story but has been faithful about the vehicle — it’s an engine-less Nissan truck frame.
Weighing 1,400 pounds, the truck rests on 16 casters and the 10 actors who play contestants whip the thing around using only elbow grease. The reluctance to use any Broadway trickery — yes, that’s you, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — is commendable, keeping the story and actors true to their gritty roots.
Director Neil Pepe and Sergio Trujillo, who did musical staging, get full credit for making this show move delightfully despite the subject matter being an exhausting test of endurance — the show’s winner stood for 91 hours — and a hunk of metal in the middle of the stage.
How do they do it? Trujillo has his actors duck under each other’s arms, jump and dance on the spinning truck, make it the object of a tug-of-war and even bring the house down in a “Stomp”-like song in which the actors knock out a beat on the Nissan itself, turning it into a big drum.
The 15-character cast includes the nervous owners of the truck dealership and 10 down-on-their-luck guys and gals for whom the $22,000 truck represents a new chance. Or, as the somewhat clumsy first number argues, “It’s more than a contest/It’s more than dumb luck/It’s more than extra cash/It is much more than a truck!”
One contestant is a devout Latina, another a muscled war veteran and a third is a good ol’ boy whose wife has come along for support. There’s a pretty redhead and a flirtatious blonde. There’s also a “tough old bird with sun-burnished skin and missing teeth,” as the script suggests. By the end, you care about all of them.
Wright, who was born 120 miles from the site of the actual Texas contest in Longview, has written colorful, recognizable characters but finds their core decency. He also slips in some funny pop culture references to “Highlander” and “Friday Night Lights.”
Anastasio and Green thankfully haven’t given all 10 their own song to sing about their history and miseries. What they’ve done is pen 16 tunes that are nicely nestled in the story, which is, by definition, a sort of thriller.
The ostensible hero is played with hangdog appeal by Keith Carradine, but some of the other outstanding performances are by Keala Settle, who plays a woman whose infectious laugh in one scene lifts the show and who belts out “The Joy of the Lord” with a divine talent.
There’s also John Rua, playing a misunderstood Mexican-American who sings “Born in Laredo,” and Jacob Ming-Trent as a cocky but sweet guy whose “My Problem Right Here” is soulfully groovy. Even the evil guy in the bunch — Hunter Foster, taking a walk on the racist, slimy side — gets to strut with “Hunt With the Big Dog.”
Fans of Phish will hear the familiar twang and blues from their beloved jam band, but they’ll also get a surprisingly good smattering of gospel, soul and Broadway belting.
Green, also in charge of lyrics, has some that stick — “You’re fighting for your breath/Right from the moment of your birth!” — and some that don’t — “Like the great Ali did/When he changed his name from Cassius/Everybody’s hoping to rise/Once more from the ashes!”
When Anastasio and Green are cooking, you get the standouts “Used to Be,” a paean to mom-and-pop America, the sexy “Burn That Bridge” and the rousing ensemble number “If I Had This Truck.” But even when they don’t — the thin “I’m Gone” — it’s better than a lot of songs in other theaters right now.
Set designer Christine Jones has got dreary used-car lot down, including the sad plastic fringe. The highlight of her set is that big steel pickup, with its heft and bulk. It never looks adorable, especially with Kevin Adams’ appropriately harsh summer Texas lighting.
The funny thing? Nissan hasn’t advertised in the show’s Playbill. Just Lincoln and Lexus.
Hold on. That’s sound advice in a pinch and especially apt when the going gets really rough. So it’s a fitting, if obvious, rallying cry driving the new musical “Hands on a Hardbody.”
Loaded with a cabful of fine performers, this song-laced lament about surviving hard times offers a decent ride. So much so that you wish it were better, tighter and carried a more affecting payoff. As is, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
Collaborators Doug Wright (book), Amanda Green (lyrics and music) and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio (music) based their show on a 1997 documentary by S.R. Bindler about an endurance competition in Longview, Tex. The contestant who keeps a hand on a truck for the longest time wins the vehicle. Hold on, like we said.
Liberally tweaking real-life characters from the cinematic source material, the creative team parcels out diverse cash-strapped contestants, each with a reason for entering the mind- and body-mauling marathon. The pickup is a vehicle leading to church, college, marital harmony and other all-purpose American dreams.
With its collection of desperate competitors, “Hardbody” has been likened to “A Chorus Line” and its “God, I hope I get it” dancers. Unlike that game-changing musical, Broadway’s new arrival from the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego lacks the efficient yet incisive psychology and soul-searching. “Chorus Line” not only hit universal themes, but gave us characters to relate to and cheer for.
Here, there are 10 contestants, including ones played by Tony nominees Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster. Spouses and car-dealership employees are on the sidelines. But that all-important emotional connection doesn’t cross the footlights in “Hardbody” in stories or the score.
Wright, the whip-smart author of the Pulitzer-winning “I Am My Own Wife,” doesn’t dig deep enough to get beyond outlines: Flirty blond, God-loving Latina, UPS drone, misunderstood Mexican, to name a few.
Songs by Broadway rookie Anastasio and Green (“High Fidelity,” “Bring It On”) lend pleasant diversions as they run the gamut from twangy country-Western to rousing gospel to soulful blues. Exuberant choral work stands out. Ditto the wistful “If I Had This Truck” and nostalgic “Used to Be,” which find the competitors looking forward and backward on their lives.
Running 2 1/2 hours, the show’s pattern becomes who sings next and who falls next. For a story about the last man (or is it woman?) standing, there’s zero tension.
Director Neil Pepe, lighting designer Kevin Adams and Sergio Truillo, who handled the musical staging, keep the action as dynamic as possible. There’s little scenery, save for a billboard and berry-red pickup. The truck is jumped on, caressed and constantly spun in circles.
If only the makers had gotten under the characters’ hoods, where their emotions rev. Instead of tuning out, I would have been more inclined to buckle up and, well, hold on.
You can’t help but root for the likable people on the Brooks Atkinson Theatre’s stage — both the actors and their characters.
It’s harder to muster similar enthusiasm for “Hands on a Hardbody,” the middling musical they’re stuck in. Rarely has so much goodwill been so squandered.
Boasting a score by Phish guitarist-mastermind Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, the show is based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, about a Texas contest in which hardscrabble no-hopers must keep one hand on a flatbed truck at all times to win it. As in a stationary, Lone Star-fried version of the 1930s marathon-dancing events, the last one left standing gets the reward.
Those simple rules are explained in the opening number, “Human Drama Kind of Thing,” whose title also lays out the show’s M.O.
Indeed, rather than milk the suspenseful possibilities of the elimination process — something the movie did very well — Doug Wright’s book consists of a succession of vignettes giving each contestant a turn in the spotlight.
Surrounding the pickup positioned center stage on Derek McLane’s skimpy set, they all take turns singing about their dreams, disappointments and, of course, endearing quirks.
The endearing, motley crew with a paw on the Nissan includes the underdog older man with knee problems (Keith Carradine), a blustery former winner (Hunter Foster), a cheery guy who just eats Snickers (Jacob Ming-Trent), a crotchety woman cheered by her devoted husband (Dale Soules, William Youmans), and a religious devotee supported by her church’s prayer chain (the show’s breakout, Keala Settle).
Why are they willing to stand for up to 91 sleepless hours? Because “ev’ry Texan needs a ride/And this truck is bona fide,” as Green puts it in one of her many hapless rhymes.
The lyricist (“Bring It On: The Musical”) comes up with so many inane doozies that’s it’s hard to pick the worst, but this is a strong contender: “I can almost feel the ocean breeze,” UPS employee Kelli (Allison Case) sings, “when I read a label labeled overseas.”
Anastasio is better-known for his improvisational picking than for his words, but he couldn’t have done worse than this. At least he brings to the table an array of country- and folk-tinged melodies, gently chugging boogie and the genuinely elegiac finale, “Keep Your Hands on It.”
Like the songs torn between good music and terrible lyrics, Neil Pepe’s production constantly pulls us in then pushes us away.
On the one hand, the appealing cast humanizes characters that could easily have been caricatures. On the other, even the evening’s highlight, “Joy of the Lord,” gets short shrift.
In that inventive set piece, choreographer Sergio Trujillo (“Memphis”) punctuates the pious Norma’s rousing gospel anthem with percussive movement (think “Stomp”).
But there’s no time to bask in the number’s energy, which is abruptly annihilated by a bummer song from the Marine contestant (David Larsen). You’d think a show about endurance would have better timing.
You can hear the sound of America singing in “Hands on a Hardbody,” the daring new musical that opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Thursday night. With a bravado to match the gumption of its characters, a hard-pressed bunch of Texans hoping to beat the odds and win a truck in a grueling contest, this new show drives onto the Broadway lot without the high-gloss blandishments that adorn most big musicals: glittering sets and costumes, high-kicking chorines, megawatt star turns. Instead it concentrates its energies on giving voice to a story of average people fighting to hold onto hope in the face of fierce economic headwinds and bad breaks, not to mention buckling knees.
Of splashy song and dance there isn’t much. The skillful score, by Trey Anastasio of the indie jam-band Phish (music) and Amanda Green (music and lyrics), locks into a bluesy country-rock vibe early and hugs it tight. The characters’ hearts may yearn to dance free, but they are forced by circumstances to stand still. The rules of the competition they have entered dictate that if they remove a hand from the truck that gleams at center stage, they’ll lose their chance at the big prize.
Don’t expect a surge of synthetic feel-good emotion either. “Hands on a Hardbody” wants you to feel for its characters, but you know from the get-go that only one will go home a winner.
Although it’s far from fully loaded in a conventional sense, this scrappy, sincere new musical brings a fresh, handmade feeling to Broadway, which mostly traffics in the machine tooled. (Last year’s Tony winner “Once” was a notable exception.) Burrowing into the troubled hearts of its characters, it draws a cleareyed portrait of an America that’s a far cry from the fantasyland of most commercial musicals. “Hands on a Hardbody” simply sings forth a story of endurance, hardship and the dimming American dream, which increasingly seems to hover on the distant horizon like some last-ditch motel whose neon lights are blinking out one by one.
The show, directed by Neil Pepe and featuring a book by the Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”), does find its roots in a movie, like many a Broadway musical these days. It’s based on a documentary about a contest that took place annually at a Nissan dealership in the small Texas city of Longview in the 1990s. A retooled version of the marathon dance battles of the Depression, the competition required entrants to stand with a hand affixed to a truck for hours, ultimately days at a stretch. The hardy survivor staggered off with the keys.
The contestants (mostly drawn from the movie) don’t have a lot in common except an urgent need for the financial boon that winning would represent. Each is grabbing at a chance to make a quick U-turn in a life that has somehow been headed in the wrong direction.
J D Drew, portrayed by Keith Carradine with his trademark laid-back amiability, recently got fired after falling off an oil rig. His wife, Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray), doesn’t think J D and his injured leg will stand a chance against some of the hardier contestants, but he refuses to countenance the idea of his wife’s working for peanuts at a Walmart.
The most fearsome competitor — self-proclaimed as such — is Benny Perkins, played with cocky good-old-boy charm by Hunter Foster. His participation stirs resentment all around because Benny’s already won the contest once. But as he wryly notes, his wife drove off with his first haul, and he thinks he’s got the experience and the strategy to outsmart the rest of the bunch.
These include Norma Valverde (a winning, big-voiced Keala Settle), who believes her strong faith will shore her up when the going gets grim (“Joy of the Lord,” her a cappella gospel hootenanny, is one of the show’s few out-and-out upbeat songs); Greg Wilhote (Jay Armstrong Johnston), a would-be Hollywood stuntman who soon falls for another contestant, the U.P.S. worker Kelli Mangrum (Allison Case); Jesus Peña (Jon Rua), Texas-born but of Mexican descent and an aspiring veterinarian; the jovial Ronald McCowan (Jacob Ming-Trent), who unwisely believes that a steady supply of Snickers will see him through; and the raspy-voiced, middle-aged but steel-willed Janis Curtis (Dale Soules).
As the hours drag on — changes in the expert lighting design, by Kevin Adams, help keep us aware of just how high the ferocious Texas sun is in the sky — Janis begins to suspect some funny business between the vivacious young blond competitor, Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), and the proprietor of the dealership, Mike Ferris (Jim Newman).
Mike, it turns out, is angling for a telegenic winner to parade before the cameras. He’s no less desperate than some of the contestants. The dealership hasn’t been moving merchandise lately, as his employee Cindy Barnes (an appealing Connie Ray) keeps doggedly reminding him.
The biggest challenge the musical faces is the inevitably static nature of the story line. It’s not a problem the show really overcomes. The narrative remains stuck in a groove as we wait for the contestants to begin wilting in the heat, one by one. Although new choreography, by Sergio Trujillo, has been added since the show’s premiere last year at La Jolla Playhouse in California, “Hands on a Hardbody” can’t always surmount the energy drain resulting from the characters’ inability to move for long stretches.
I wish too that the musical’s authors were not quite so thorough in canvassing the headline-making troubles of Americans today. With its references to the moribund job market, the ailing health care system, the prejudice faced by illegal immigrants and even the difficult re-entry into society of returning military veterans, the show sometimes seems to be singing the platform of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.
But if the writing occasionally wears its social concerns on its sleeve, the score cuts loose. Mr. Anastasio and Ms. Green have taken care to scrub the music — and the orchestrations — of the canned sound that blasts from the speakers at most Broadway musicals. Employing a variety of instruments not usually found in an orchestra pit in these precincts, including the dobro, various acoustic guitars and even a couple of mandolins, the composers and the musical director, Carmel Dean, bring an authentic and appealing roots-rock vibe to the show.
This is a Broadway musical that has its ear attuned to the specific kinds of music each of its characters might listen to, so the score ranges from gospel to blues to country to slightly rougher-edged rock. None of it sounds like traditional show music: think of Mumford and Sons, not Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The finale is one of the few numbers with a soaring melody and an upbeat chorus, but a few words from a verse sung by Benny are more in keeping with the show’s overall spirit. “You’re fighting for your life,” he sings, “right from the moment of your birth.”
"Hands on a Hardbody" may well be the best musical ever written about 10 people holding onto a parked truck. But if you go into the show wondering why a gifted creative team would want to adapt the 1997 documentary about poor Texans in an endurance contest for a red Nissan pickup, you are likely to leave wondering the same thing.
This is not to deny a few nice moments, touching scenes and trenchant music in the two-and-a-half-hour festival of earnest, inspirational banality. Clearly, Pulitzer-winning author Doug Wright (the boundary-pushing "I Am My Own Wife"), lyricist/co-composer Amanda Green (the endearing "Bring It On") and co-composer/orchestrator Trey Anastasio (founding member of the alt-rock jam band Phish) were after something a little different for Broadway.
Perhaps they and director Neil Pepe were challenged by the limitations of the improbable setup, which, except for the occasional rest break and reveries, requires contestants to keep at least one gloved hand on the prize. And it is likely that everyone recognized timeliness in desperate tales of foreclosures, unemployment and soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead of originality, alas, the show is a combination of "A Chorus Line," the musical based on Studs Terkel's "Working," the marathon-dance movie "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and a TV reality show with an extremely ingratiating country-western twang. All the characters get their "God, I hope I get it" chances in the spotlight, as the lyrics push to convince us this is a "human drama kind of thing," even an "American dream."
Everyone is a stereotype and gets a variation on a dirt-picking song genre. Most impressive is the aging, injured rig worker, played with easygoing, electrified moroseness by Keith Carradine. Hunter Foster growls with unvarnished bigotry as the bitter blowhard. The Hispanic kid (Jon Rua) must not be underestimated. The big black fellow (the irrepressible Jacob Ming-Trent) gets the gospel numbers, along with the ultra-pious woman (Keala Settle) with a line to joy on her headphones.
Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo keep things moving, as much as possible in this context. As people tire, they push the truck around in a slow-motion glow. But each time someone gave up, it was hard not to count the dwindling remainders with something like relief.
It's time, once again, to raise that question that has plagued theater lovers for years: What made them think they could turn that movie into a Broadway musical?
The subject of today's query is a real head-scratcher. The 1997 documentary called Hands on a Hard Body followed an endurance contest held at a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, where two dozen participants vied to win a Hardbody truck. The object was to keep at least one hand on the truck for as long as possible; the competition wound up lasting 77 hours, not counting five- to 15-minute breaks that left no time for sleep and little to answer nature's other call.
If that sounds like the basis of a particularly degrading reality TV show, the film did earn praise with its depiction of everyday folks vying for glory and, ultimately, survival. Among its admirers were the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, musical theater tunesmith Amanda Green and eclectic performer/composer Trey Anastasio, the creative trio behind the somewhat hokey but surprisingly appealing Hands on a Hardbody (*** out of four), which opened Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Their dramatization, mercifully, features fewer contestants, some inspired by people in the film. There are a couple of good ole boys, a flirty blonde, a military veteran, a hard-working immigrant, a pious working mom, a feisty old matron and two fresh-faced youngsters — one male and one female, conveniently.
To their credit, librettist Wright and lyricist Green don't entirely relegate their characters to the stereotypes those descriptions might have invited. The good ole boys, who end up bonding, have divergent backstories: JD Drew is 60 years old and nursing a recent injury and a rough patch in his marriage; Benny Perkins, in his mid-'40s, has seen a lot more trouble than his folksy tough talk suggests.
The truck itself, a shiny red thing that occupies center stage for most of the show, also plays a role, as the elusive object these American dreamers are chasing. Sergio Trujillo's spirited, imaginative musical staging ensures that the truck and the human performers keep moving, while the tunes help make their energy credible.
Indeed, it's seldom the case that an original musical can list its score among its biggest assets; but co-composers Anastasio, a founding member of the genre-bending rock band Phish, and Green have crafted some infectious and even moving numbers. Veering from funk grooves to country twang, from gospel-kissed production numbers to catchy power ballads, the songs can border on the banal, but they rarely bore.
Similarly, while some performances threaten to tip over into mugging, Neil Pepe's affectionate direction emphasizes the humanity of the characters, from the big-voiced Keala Settle's cherubic but beleaguered Norma Valverde (the working mom) to Keith Carradine's weary but determined JD and his concerned wife, Virginia, given a gentle dignity by Mary Gordon Murray.
With all that going for it, Hardbody holds up better than you might expect.
Well, Broadway finally got itself an all-American musical in “Hands on a Hardbody.” The question is, will an all-American audience go for it? It’s hard to picture hotel concierges, travel agents and group sales ladies pitching tourists a show about some working-class stiffs from East Texas clinging desperately to a cherry-red pickup truck in a marathon competition to win it. Better to comp New York cabbies and cops to spread the word about this offbeat but totally endearing show. Still, no matter how this dark tuner fares under Gotham’s cold glare, regional bookers should be lining up six deep.
Show opens in the parking lot showroom of the Floyd King Nissan Dealership in Longview, Texas, a dismal place where 10 people have committed themselves to the grueling and humiliating experience of competing in a marathon to win a brand new $22,000 Nissan truck.
Creatives Doug Wright (the Pulitzer-winning scribe who wrote the book), Trey Anastasio (the Phish phenom behind the music and orchestrations) and Amanda Green (the up-and-comer who wrote lyrics and music) waste no time in telling us why any presumably sane person would submit to standing under a broiling Texas sun with one hand on a truck for as long as it takes to outlast the competition and claim this prize.
The first number (“Human Drama Kind of Thing”) says it all: the rest of the country may be in slow recovery from a recession, but here in East Texas, where everybody’s out of work and in debt, they’re still stuck in the depths of a second Great Depression. So while this truck may look like a truck, “It is much more than a truck.” In this part of Texas, it can also define your character, testify to your manhood and affirm your human value.
That point having been made — succinctly, and in a country-rock musical idiom that seems a natural fit for the sentiment — the unusually articulate book and well-integrated score take it deeper by letting the contestants explain how a new truck might turn their sorry lives around.
To JD Drew (Keith Carradine, just perfect), who lost his job and his pension when he fell off an oil rig, it means the money to pay his medical bills and stay out of the poorhouse. Interestingly, when he gets a solo, JD doesn’t vent about the rotten way that big oil companies treat their workers, but sings softly about how he regrets taking out his anger and frustration on his wife.
That happens a lot in this show — characters revealing unexpected aspects of themselves in both song and narrative — which makes it both musically unpredictable and dramatically credible. While a few characters do conform to type, like the sexy airhead played by Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Wright pretty much avoids stereotypes. Having taken his inspiration from an obscure 1997 documentary film by S.R. Bindler, he shows respect for the integrity of these real-life models.
Even as they acknowledge the personal problems that have reduced them to desperation, the determined contestants in this cruel contest also draw on their secret strengths. For the young kids played by Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson, it’s the dream of escaping their dead-end jobs and no-hope futures. For second-generation Americans like the one played by Jon Rua, it’s an education. For the trailer-park-poor mother of six played by Dale Soules, the loving husband played by William Youmans is her strength.
If the show has a weakness, it’s that the music is so consistently all-of-a-piece that some of the songs tend to melt into one another. But in a character-rich show like this, one of them is sure to stand up and make a musical statement that gets you between the eyes.
David Larsen hits his mark with “Stronger,” a soul-baring number from a Marine who shaped up a little too well in the service. So does Hunter Foster, as the tough-talking braggart who confesses how his life was turned upside down after he won last year’s truck contest.
Ensemble piece though it may be, the musical even has a show-stopper. It’s a gospel number, “Joy of the Lord,” sung by Keala Settle with the commitment (and vocal range) to bring down the house. That number also makes the best use of the truck by having the entire cast enthusiastically banging out the rhythms on its chassis.
With 10 people stuck to a truck for much of the show, a choreographer doesn’t have much of a chance to do his stuff. But helmer Neil Pepe and Sergio Trujillo, who did the musical staging, find a lot of ways to push that truck around the stage and make it look interesting.
It actually is interesting, in the sense that watching these characters struggle with this big, heavy brute of a ride makes a strong physical statement about how much this artifact means to the people in this town — and how hard it is to grab it, unless you act as a group.
Because in the end, no matter who wins the damn truck, the people in this contest have made it a group experience, something that a song called “Used to Be” voices as a collective memory of what America lost when it sacrificed its small towns to commerce.