This is Not a Child's Game

We take our musicals seriously at New Line. And this musical, Hands on a Hardbody, takes its characters seriously.

One of the things I mentioned in my last post, almost as an aside really, was my belief that anytime I'm having a problem staging a scene or song, it's probably not the fault of the material; it's probably because I don't fully understand the material yet. And related to that, anytime an actor is having a problem, it's probably because there's something he's not seeing in the material, and it's my job to help him find it.

When you work on a good show (which we get to do all the time), you'll get in trouble the minute you start thinking you can "fix flaws" in the show. That mindset places you above the writing and it distorts how you relate to it. I see myself as a servant to the writers but also their collaborator – and sometimes that's a tough tightrope to walk. While it's true that this is their story and not mine, it's also true that it's not theatre on the page. The actors, designers, musicians, and I are necessary collaborators in making this script and score into a piece of theatre, but we must always remember our place. I'm an important part of the process, but not the most important. Not even the second most important.

But it's easy to humble myself before material as rich and well crafted as Hands on a Hardbody.

Like High Fidelity, Hardbody has a pitch-perfect opening number (both openings should be studied by musical theatre composers, writers, directors, and actors). It follows the Sondheim Ten-Minute Rule, that you can do anything in a piece of theatre, as long as you establish the rules for the evening in the first ten minutes. All the great shows do this. Think Cabaret, Company, Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Into the Woods, Passing Strange, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys, bare, Songs for a New World, Fiddler on the Roof...

In this one song that opens Hardbody, the writers introduce us to setting, the show's musical voice, all the characters and their backstories and motivations, the show's premise, the hurdles ahead, the social and cultural content, and the style and tone of the storytelling. I don't know if I'll ever find another opening as masterful or as close to my heart as Hi-Fi's "Last Real Record Store on Earth" (lyrics by Amanda Green, music by Tom Kitt), but the opening of Hardbody also does a shit-ton of narrative heavy lifting. It takes up eight pages in the script and twenty-six pages in the piano score. And by the end of it, everything is established, something that might take lesser writers half of Act I to accomplish.

And there's an energy to it all that's genuinely thrilling, like the show is coming at the audience like a rocket. Both these openings, from Hi-Fi and Hardbody, start with a single actor talking to the audience, nice and casual, almost confessional. And then before you know it, the stage is filled with people and the music is pounding, and before the song ends, we feel like we know them all. I remember both times we produced High Fidelity, every night that first number would end and the audience wouldn't just applaud, they'd cheer and whistle, sometimes for a long time. It felt like we'd just put them through an entire musical in one ten-minute song. It was a roller coaster ride and they loved it. I think the six-minute opening to Hardbody will have the same effect.

It will thrill people.

The opening song starts with Benny speaking directly to us, "Stand here, simple as that. Stand here with your hand on the truck. Last one to take his hand off wins it. Sounds absurd, don't it? Some kind of sideshow. Maybe, maybe not." And from those few sentences, we know everything important about this story. Then music creeps in underneath...
Everything you thought you knew,
Leave that all behind.
Just keep one hand on the truck
And try not to lose your mind.
This is not a child's game –
This is not a game of chance –
It's a sharp honed skill,
It's a test of will,
It's keepin' still,
When the Devil tells you, "Dance!"

What a great way to start a show! Essentially saying, "This will not be the kind of musical you expect. This will not be a show about dancing and production numbers. This is something else. Everything you thought you knew about musicals, everything you assumed about the show tonight, leave that all behind."

This is a great lyric to start with because the first thing it asks of the audience is to take all this seriously. The stakes are high here and the challenges are massive. (Just now as I typed that, it occurred to me that these ten lines are also really good advice for anybody directing this show. In fact, it sort of describes the modern American musical theatre as it continues to evolve today. Did Amanda Green intend that meta-layer? Or could she have put that double meaning in there subconsciously? Who knows? But I love it. )

And notice the triple-rhyme (skill, will, still); Amanda uses triple rhymes all over this score. It's a nice cultural touch in this score that uses musical triple-time in its country waltzes and its rockabilly.

But Benny also shares with us here in these first few lines the same kind of Texas wisdom and insight the real Benny shares with us throughout the film (if you haven't seen the film, you should see it). The way to win this contest is focus and will power. This is not easy, and it's not about luck. It's about refusing to give an inch. All that is in these ten lines. But we also get a hint that this is a religious community; if this were set in New York, you probably wouldn't get a reference to the Devil. And it's also the first clue that faith and God will play a big part in this story.

Then we meet the contestants and get that iconic line, "It's a human drama kind of thing," which encapsulates the whole story in one simple but meaningful sentence. In the film, the real Benny says only "It's a human drama thing," which is the title of this opening song. But for rhythmic purposes Amanda added the "kind of" and I'm glad she did; it scans beautifully. But the message of that sentence (and Benny's insight) is important – this isn't really a story about strategy or competition, or even about this contest; this is a story about human emotions, fears, needs, connections, limits. All musicals are about emotion, but this show is about deep, primal, fundamental human emotion. The social and political context is just background here; the focus is on these characters' humanity. It really is a human drama thing.

After that line, which will provide a kind of structure for this lengthy song, we meet Frank Nugent, the radio DJ, who will share narrator duties with Benny throughout the show. Frank is the audience's surrogate, our way in, the outsider, the only character not involved in the contest. And through Frank, we meet Mike, who owns the dealership.

Next, the contestants tell us about themselves collectively. We meet the community.
Some are on vacation,
Some are unemployed,
Someone will drive home elated,
Someone will walk home destroyed.
Everybody's broke here,
Trying to make ends meet,
Pay a debt back,
Had a set back,
Got to get back
On our feet.
So don't make any judgments;
Let the players play.
Leave the judging to the Judge
Who'll judge us all on Judgment Day.

Again, what a great lyric! Amanda gives us a quick summary of the community's economics, which of course is at the center of this story, a story in which winning this truck is economic salvation – but just for one person, in this community full of many people in need. Also, notice the acrobatic triple double-rhyme again: debt back, set back, get back. The magic of it is that it makes complete sense, it's fully in the language and diction of these characters, and it further characterizes the high stakes here. These people are in debt. They're losing ground. If they have to "get back on our feet," then they're not on their feet right now. They're down and out.

And then this section ends with more religious language, and one of the coolest trick lyrics in the show: "Leave the judging to the Judge who'll judge us all on Judgment Day." Not only does it just sound great, not only is it impressive in its stunt of language, but it also says something of import – don't judge us for being in debt, for losing a job, for not paying the bills. God is the only one who should judge. It's a sentiment many of these people have probably read in the Bible, in Romans 2:1-6:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will repay each person according to what they have done.

God and faith are a big part of this community's life, and that's explored throughout the show.

Then we meet Cindy Barnes, the PR manager for the dealership. Throughout this number, Frank, Mike, and Cindy will give us all the information we need about how the contest (and therefore, the show) works. Bookwriter Doug Wright uses Frank's radio audience to talk directly to us. These three characters aren't breaking the Fourth Wall, but they are giving us straight exposition. It's a neat trick.

Then we get a series of solos from the contestants about entering the contest, and then all the contestants sing:
And I'll do anything it takes!
I never won nothing;
I came all the same.
I thought I would die
When they called out my name.
I prayed for a change to come
Year after year,
It's here! It's here! It's here!

Earlier in the song Benny was telling us these things about the others; now they're telling us themselves. And Benny caps it with a bit of Texas wisdom:
Like the great Ali did when he changed his name from Cassius,
Everybody's hoping to rise once more from the ashes!

Then we hear from Norma, and after a few lines, the rest of them. These are people of faith, and their suffering is great, so this contest is a big deal. To get through this, they need what their religion offers them. And these lines also return us to the economics of this community – which could be in 1997, when the film was released, or it could be today...
Lord, it's been a real tough year.
Thank you for this chance right here.
I'm shaking and I'm sick with fear,
But can I bend your ear a minute?
Look at all these people in it!
Jesus, I just got to win
This truck
This truck
This truck this truck this truck!

Notice that Amanda almost gives us another triple double-rhyme (minute, in it, win...), but she short-circuits it at the very end. Instead of writing "Jesus, I just got to win it," which would have finished the stunt rhyme exactly like before, she uses the momentum that rhyme gives a lyric and uses that to drive us into the central emotion of the show, "Jesus, I just got to win this truck."

Then Frank, Mike, and Cindy return for the official rules. Again, the writers have separated this necessary exposition into small bites, sprinkled throughout this opening song. It's a smart way to get that done. Spoonful of sugar and all that.

A little later in the song, Amanda comes up with a real comic gem, as the contestants refer to this impending contest as "a laying on of hands." Funny. But it's not just funny. The laying on of hands is about healing and consecration and miracles, and everyone about to put their hands on this truck is hoping for a miracle. It's a funny line, but it's also good storytelling.

As the contestants continue to tell us what this means to them, one couplet really stands out to me:
A body's got to feel his worth,
Reason for his time on earth...

This isn't just about economic salvation; it's also about the salvation of dignity. Many of these people have had their dignity taken away from them, by Reagonomics (in the film) or the 2008 recession (in the show). This is a chance to reclaim that lost dignity. Again, Amanda Green raises the stakes with just a few words.

And the song ends with Mike and Cindy yelling, "Hands on!" and all the contestants put their hands on the truck. And the story has begun. We know the stakes. We know the stakeholders. We even have hints of the events about to unfold in front of us. Because Trey Anastasio, Amanda Green, and Doug Wright (in the picture) really know how to write an opening number. And at the same time, it's really not like any other opening number.

In one of the show's best surprises and jokes, after this high energy opening, the contest starts and the audience has forgotten that the contest is just people standing around. The stage direction reads, "The contestants place their hands on the truck. They size one another up, wanly. No one says a word for a long time. A vast, empty, gaping length of time." My bet is that most nights, after a while of sitting in silence, we'll get growing, scattered giggles from the audience, a kind of meta-moment, when they suddenly realize they're here to see a musical about a contest in which people stand in one place for ninety-one hours.

It's the moment when the hardcore musical theatre fans in the house will realize these writers are further exploding the form. Sondheim and Hal Prince taught us that there are no limits to the content of musicals. Today's writers are teaching us there are no limits to the forms a musical can take, either.

Amanda's father was Adolph Green, one of the giants of the musical theatre, who with his partner Betty Comden wrote lyrics, scripts, and screenplays for a whole bunch of stage and screen musicals, from the 1940s up through The Will Rogers Follies in 1991, perhaps most notably, Singin' in the Rain. And Amanda's mother is actor Phyllis Newman, who appeared in a bunch of Broadway musicals. So she's got good genes.

But despite her "Golden Age" pedigree, Amanda's work is decidedly 21st-century. She follows the Sondheim Commandment that Content Dictates Form. The story tells you how to tell it. High Fidelity had to be in the quirky, one-of-a-kind form Amanda and Tom Kitt created for it, because the content of the story demanded it. Today, all the old rules are being broken in the musical theatre, twisted, discarded, re-imagined, the old forms reinvented. We're in a time of massive transformation in our art form, and that's really exciting. Just look at shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Next to Normal, The Blue Flower, Lizzie, Here Lies Love, and Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812. And of course Hands on a Hardbody.

Everything you thought you knew,
Leave that all behind.

Long Live the Musical!