Do You Feel the Power?

Now shit gets real.

We have a pretty leisurely rehearsal schedule, and lots of run-throughs, but everything speeds up now. Yesterday we had our lighting cue-to-cue, today we had our sitzprobe (in which we run through the whole score with the band for the first time), then the next three days we have full run-throughs with the band and all the tech. We preview Thursday and open Friday.

I'm not at all worried – we're in great shape. By this point in our process, most of my notes for the actors are really subtle, nitpicky stuff, but as we all know, the reality is in the detail.

It was so wonderful finally hearing the band play the Hands on a Hardbody score today. We've got seven musicians, the biggest band we've ever had – Sue Goldford conducting and on piano, Joel Hackbarth (who also acts in a lot of our shows) on second keyboard, Mike Bauer as always on guitar, Clancy Newell on percussion, Nikki Glenn (who also acts with us) on violin, and two new New Liners, Emily Ebrecht on cello, and Andrew Gurney on bass. Trey Anastasio's instrumental arrangements and the vocal arrangements by Carmel Dean are just extraordinary, and today we got to hear it all together for the first time. Now I love this music even more.

Tomorrow night will probably be the hardest for the actors. We've had a lot of run-throughs, but all at once, they get lights, costumes, props, mics, and the band added to the work they've already done. By definition, all that changes their performances. Sometimes it bums them out because they feel like they took a step backward, but that's not what it is – it's just about getting their sea legs. It's a step we have to go through.

Because we block fairly quickly, we don't focus a whole lot on character, motivation, backstory, etc., in blocking rehearsals. But then we put the pieces together and run the whole show usually nine times, And as they settle into it, get comfortable with it, see the big arcs, understand how they fit into the larger whole, then the acting gets deeper and more subtle. Actors start making really interesting, unexpected choices that delight the rest of us. I start to see the characters' interior lives come alive. I see relationships develop and change. It's the time when the actors start noticing single words in lyrics that change or expand their understanding of the character or the moment.

As I've often written here, I love actors. I love to watch them work and create and explore and play. I was in shows in high school and college, but the last time I played a character onstage was my dream role, Cornelius Hackl, back in 1988. Yes, I know some of you reading this weren't born yet. Shut up.

I know the incomparable high of acting in a musical with an audience that's tuned in. I know the ridiculous amount of work spent memorizing and practicing. I also know the magic of getting truly inside the character, really living as that character onstage, even though the style may be big and exaggerated.

It has been a real pleasure the last couple weeks to watch this cast work. Every rehearsal the acting gets better, the characters richer, everything realer and more honest. Everyone is doing such a good job. Everyone is really inhabiting these wonderful, complicated, flawed, beautiful people.

The show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green is flying in during the run to see us, and I'm so glad. I know she was very happy with the original Broadway production, but I think she'll really love ours too. I think the show is pretty different now, maybe mostly in subtle ways, just because we're in a 210-seat house. When no one is more than seven rows from the stage, the actors can't cheat and they can't phone it in. But they also don't need to show us anything; they just have to live honestly in this imaginary world, and this close-up, the audience will believe them and go for the ride.

We've had writers come to see us before – Mark Savage (The Ballad of Little Mikey), Annie Kessler (Woman with Pocketbook), Adam Schlesinger (Cry-Baby), Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green (Bukowsical), and Amanda Green back in 2008, when we were bringing High Fidelity back from the grave, with a production light years away from the original. I think, more than anything, Amanda wanted to know if that show worked, if the problem in New York was the material or the original production. I'm happy to report it was the original production. She loved our Hi-Fi. And now companies across the country are producing it.

As Hardbody has taken shape, we've all been talking about how audiences are going to react to the show. I can't count the number of times I've heard one of us say, "I think people are going to fall in love with this show." I think so too. There's an honesty and fearlessness about the emotion in this show that really knocks you back in your seat. It's going to be yet another New Line show after which we'll always hear, "It's not at all what I expected!" (We hear that a lot.) But let's be honest, what could you expect? A show about a contest where everybody just stands around? And it's a musical? How the fuck you gonna do that?

Come find out. Ticket sales are pretty decent already, but I think this show will be like High Fidelity and Cry-Baby. Once we get through the first weekend, word-of-mouth will be incredible and we may start selling out. Wouldn't that be nice? Our bank account would be so happy.

Even though our show seems on the surface like it could be kind of a downer – desperate people in desperate times put themselves through hell – it's really a joyful, life-affirming piece of theatre. But it's also a very adult, realistic piece of theatre too. No candy-coating, no spoonful of sugar. In Judy Newmark's preview piece about our show, Amanda Green says, “I love these characters, who are based on real people. They need a truck for work, to take their kids to school, to start a new life someplace else. They are all too human, with their fears and insecurities, but they put the best face on things. They are determined to find a niche where they can survive and even thrive. There is something heroic about that. Even if the contest is silly, their needs are real and serious. That spoke to me in small ways and big ones.”

I think the miracle of this show is that it confronts our tough times head on, and at the same time, suggests that tough times can still be full of joy, if you choose to be joyful. Like another of my favorite shows, Zorbá, Hands on a Hardbody argues that you can't just embrace the good parts of life; you have to embrace it all. It's all beautiful. It's all worth it.

I used to think "If I Had This Truck" was the show's anthem, its statement of purpose. But maybe it's really "Joy of the Lord." Norma chooses to see good. She chooses joy. And so do Doug Wright, Amanda Green, and Trey Anastasio. And we're mighty thankful to 'em.

I knew this show was gonna turn out cool. I didn't know it was gonna turn out this cool. Come see us.

Long Live the Musical!