Hands on a Hardbody

When I first heard about Hands on a Hardbody, my initial impression was that it didn't sound like a very good premise for a musical. Then again, neither does the life of Charles Bukowski. Or a zombie movie. Or a spelling bee.

And really, the structure of Hardbody is essentially the same as Spelling Bee, and so is the dramatic content. It's endless suspense, as we wait for each character to be "out," getting invested in one or more of them and rooting for them. While Spelling Bee fills out that structure with wacky comedy, it also creates rich, nuanced characters, with complex, "adult" psychologies. Musicals are about emotion and that means they are about people, not ideas, not concepts, not issues, not jokes. Despite its wackiness, Spelling Bee works on a whole other level when it's cast with actors rather than comedians. Honesty is the key to Spelling Bee, not bits.

Likewise, Hardbody is an actor's show. Its structure-by-elimination only works if we care who stays and who goes each time it happens. It's about emotion, universal emotions like despair, weariness, joy, hope, fear, love, friendship; and honest emotion onstage comes only from really great actors.

Luckily for us, we have a cast full of great actors who also have amazing voices.

I think Hands on a Hardbody is a show that never should have run on Broadway. It's not "a Broadway musical" by today's standards. It's more an off Broadway show, emotionally intimate, nuanced, and by definition, physically stagnant. Like High Fidelity and Cry-Baby, I think Hardbody would have fared better in an off Broadway house, where no one would have expected the truck to spin and dance, where no one would have expected choreography or scenic eye candy. Though there are laughs, this is a serious story about serious people in serious times. It's physically about people standing still, but it's also about the metaphor of standing still for a long time, being trapped in life, being tired, being scared; but also conversely, about endurance, about standing up, about surviving. The narratives here are interior ones. This isn't a show that needs dance to tell its story, or the emotional expansion that dance provides; I really thought the choreography in the original production felt imposed on the story, rather than coming from it organically, like they thought the audience needed "a Broadway musical."

But the truth is the audience just needs a great story, great characters, and honest emotion. Look at The Fantasticks. Look at Passing Strange or Rent.

When I found out Amanda Green was co-writing the Hardbody score (with Trey Anastasio, frontman for the rock band Phish), then I was interested. She wrote the wonderful, funny, adult lyrics for High Fidelity, which I have to admit, has edged out Bat Boy to become my all-time favorite musical. I think it's genuinely brilliant. And then I found out that in addition to writing the lyrics, she was writing some of the music as well. I'd never heard her music before.

And then I finally heard the score, and instantly fell in love with every single song as it played. I wanted to sing along to all of them. I wanted to sing back-up. I wanted to swim in those vocal harmonies. Most of the songs have choral back-up and the arrangements are superb. And then I started listening to the lyrics and they're so strong – smart, clever, honest, raw, insightful, powerful, subtle, rowdy, aching, and most of all, deeply emotional. Amanda just keeps getting better and better as a lyricist. There are masterful, playful turns of phrase, like "Leave the judging to the judge who'll judge us all on Judgment Day," or the wistful "...but I can almost feel the ocean breeze, when I read a label labeled overseas..." or Norma's "...till the day that I go to my proper reward." That one phrase, the use of that word proper, says so much about Norma and her faith, and her relationship with God. There's so much information in Amanda's lyrics, but also jokes, and interior rhymes, and at the same time, the lyrics are always fully in the voice of the character. Just as an actor has to keep acting when she sings, so too Doug Wright's dialogue and Amanda's lyrics have to be seamlessly merged, so that the audience never catches a false moment that pulls them out of the story.

After watching the documentary the show is based on, it's also fun to catch all the lyrics that come directly from things the real contestants said in the film. I think that using so much of these folks' actual language helped Amanda live inside their voices so fully; and even if you haven't seen the film, I think it gives the show even more authenticity.

And then there's the incredible music, written by both Amanda and Trey – some songs have music by both, some songs are by one or the other. It's a big basket of different musical styles, rock, pop, Latin, country, gospel, funk, but it's unified by its story. These are the musical sounds of Texas. Just as the High Fidelity score exists fully inside its story (each song in the style of one of Rob's rock gods), so does the Hardbody score. While the original documentary can show us Texas, the stage musical has to deliver that through our ears. Texas is real to us onstage because these people sound like Texans, or more to the point, they sing like Texans. And all that gives this very eclectic score a single voice.

When I first read the High Fidelity stage script, I was bowled over by it. Later, I saw a bootleg video of the Broadway production and I was horrified. Hi-Fi is a serious, often sad story, even though it also has a lot of laughs. On Broadway it had been directed like it was a 60s musical comedy (it was truly the fastest paced musical I've ever seen in my life), and it was designed like it was Wicked.

In contract to that, I thought the original production of Hands on a Hardbody was really good. But I do feel like they tried too hard in certain ways to make it into "a Broadway musical," rather than embrace what it is. It's closer to August: Osage County or Book of Days than it is to any musical on Broadway right now. But that's its strength, not something to be compensated for.

New Line's production will be the first since Broadway, and we all feel very lucky to get to work on this piece. I know the writers don't make much money when New Line produces a show, but I do like to think that special shows like this one have a safe haven here, where they'll be respected and loved for what they are; and I hope that feels good to the people who create the beautiful, brilliant shows we produce. We can't offer them tours or film versions, but we can love their baby with all our heart.

And that's something, right?

A new adventure begins. Hands on!

Long Live the Musical