Keep Your Hands On It

We finished blocking Hands on a Hardbody last night, but I'm not entirely satisfied with the way I staged the last song, "Keep Your Hands On It." It's partly a wrap-up for each character, รก la Animal House and Spelling Bee, but it's also a thematic epilogue, a philosophical summation of the evenings. Like the show's opening song, the finale addresses the audience directly. The writers have used contemporary musical theatre conventions to bookend this unusual documentary form they created, to give the audience a more familiar way in and out of the story.

Hardbody's opening, "It's a Human Drama Thing," is a textbook example of contemporary, 21st-century musical theatre writing, the kind of opening that evolved out of the opening numbers of Sondheim and Prince, and Tommy Tune. It's both a concept musical opening and a book musical opening at the same time. Just like "The Last Real Record Store on Earth" in High Fidelity.

But this finale stymied me. I staged it last night but I didn't like it. So I talked to Dowdy after rehearsal and went through my usual routine – what is this song about at its core, what's the point of it, why is it the finale, and how does it relate to the central theme of the show? I wrote about some of this in a past blog post, but there I think I was getting more at the cultural, political context, rather than the show's real core.

After one of the contestants (I'm not telling who) wins the contest, the show ends with "Keep Your Hands On It," at first a fairly literal statement from JD about almost being stupid enough to let his wife go. But it becomes everyone's anthem by the time the song is over. What does that title phrase mean for the rest of them? Don't give up. Don't quit trying. Yes, but more than that, more specific, more meaningful, more insightful. There's something in there I wasn't seeing.

I re-read the lyric. JD sings:
If you want something,
Keep your hands on it.
Cling with all your soul
When you find your fit.

I kept re-reading it and I realized it's not about holding on tightly or desperately; it's about nurturing and caring for and protecting what we value, a very timely topic in these tough times. Hugging it to us not out of fear but out of love. Meaningful connection.

Every one of these contestants thought this truck was incredibly important, their salvation, their only hope. In the first two songs in the show, they tell us how high the stakes are for them, how desperately they need to win, how it will change or even save their lives. In terms of the classic Hero Myth structure, the truck is everyone's magic amulet, like Luke's light saber or Dorothy's ruby slippers. But then all but one of them lose, and we find out in this last song that they're all still doing just fine. They were wrong about the truck.

By the end, they all learn what to value and how to nurture that, how to keep their hands on what counts.

The truck wasn't the point after all, they discover. It was the journey, not the destination, the ordeal, the striving, that taught them all what they needed to learn. On the other hand, many of them wouldn't have taken that journey (ironically enough, with a truck that never goes anywhere), if not for this contest. In a way, they all needed the truck (the magic amulet) to find what they were missing. The contest shows them that they were on the wrong path. They were valuing things and by the end, they've all learned that people – human connections – matter more. Benny was right after all, it is a human drama thing. It's Into the Woods, except they're standing still for 94 hours.

So at its core, "Keep Your Hands on It" is about learning what to value and being faithful to that – people, dreams, the future.
If you want something,
Let your purpose show.
Hold it close to you,
Don't you let it go.
Let it be your guide,
Star of Bethlehem.
If you want something ...
Don't let go.

In other words, don't be distracted by the zero-sum, stuff-centric cultures that teaches us to be consumers and economic combatants, rather than members of the human family. Know what you value and hold it close. After all, this contest is really just a PR promotion, a way to sell trucks, an entirely commercial enterprise. But these people need something beyond that.

So does this lead us to any revelations about how to stage the finale? It has started to. I had considered making the truck a big part of the focus at the end, but after Dowdy and I talked about it, I saw that the whole point of the end of the show is that it's really not about the truck. With a direct-address song like this, my first instinct was to line the cast up across the stage, like "Seasons of Love." That staging is so honest, no pretense, no suspension of disbelief. We're just talking to you. I subverted that instinct because I didn't think musical theatre conventions apply to this show, but Dowdy suggested I reconsider my subversion. And I think he may be right.

In this song, every character directly tells the audience how they're doing and what they learned, and then the whole cast gives the audience a final summation. As I wrote earlier, the form of the song is sort of a modern musical theatre convention now, so maybe a modern musical theatre staging convention is exactly right, after all. Maybe the simplicity and directness of a "Seasons of Love" line is exactly what's called for here.

The more I ponder it, the more that seems right to me.

So I think we'll restage the finale and then live with it for a while and see how it feels. If it doesn't feel right, we'll keep pondering. There are no "right" answers when you're making theatre, but there are choices that make the story more clear and choices that make it less clear. Clarity is always the goal. Sondheim has said he cares less about whether an audience "likes" his show, since that's so subjective; what he cares most about is whether his show is clear, whether the narrative and themes of the show are as clear to the audience as possible. Because storytelling is his job, and clarity is a prerequisite for good storytelling.

We've still got four weeks till we open, so there's plenty of time to explore.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!