You're Hell Bent for Glory

We're finally running the whole show now, and we're onstage with our beautiful hardbody truck! Already so many of the actors have really found their characters, and so many moments are already really powerful. And as often happens at this point in our process, I'm finally able to step back, and that allows me to see so much more in this rich material.

One of the things that's really hit me is how much this show is about God. Throughout the show, there are countless references to God and religion, though interestingly, the word Lord shows up a lot more than God. Both the content and the word choice seems tied to the geography and culture of our story. The language gives us time and place.

I remember in Bill Maher's terrific documentary Religulous one scene in which Maher is talking to a group of truckers, and he admits that it's a luxury to be an atheist. He says:
I think being without faith is something that's a luxury for people who were fortunate enough to have a fortunate life. You know, you go to prison and you hear a guy say, ''You know what, buddy? I got nothing but Jesus in here.'' I completely understand that. I think not having faith is a luxury sometimes. If you're in a foxhole, you probably have a lot of faith, right?

Or in a decades-long economic crisis. The fact that Doug Wright and Amanda Green have put so much religious language into these characters mouths tell us a lot about who they are, their background, their culture, and about the precarious lives they all lead.

In the opening number, the contestants sing:
But only one can grab that ring,
And God alone knows what he'll bring.
It’s a human drama kind of thing.

They are all at the mercy – the whims? – of an omnipotent and capricious God. It's human lives as Greek drama – both the contest and the musical. All the world's a stage and God is a divine Will Shakespeare. Just like Benny's first few lines at the beginning of the show, this last line ("It's a human drama kind of thing.") acknowledges why this story belongs on the musical stage. Musicals are primarily about emotion because the abstract language of music communicates emotion better than words alone can. And the core of Hands on a Hardbody is human emotion.

The spokesperson for God in our story is Norma Valverde, the kind of Christian that even atheists like me can respect, a person who genuinely walks the walk. Norma talks to God a lot. In the opening number, she sings:
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...

Early in the show, Norma says to Ronald, "My husband and I been praying for a truck, and I believe that this is what God wants me to do." She has a monologue soon after that about how many people are praying for her to win, and it offers some real insight into American fundamentalist Christianity:
Oh, I'm not alone. I don't got people with me, but I got their prayers. Over at our church, they made a prayer chain for me. About a hundred families asking God to let me win. My brother in San Antonio, he started a chain at his church, too, so that's another six hundred or so. And my cousin in Waco, she goes to one of them Mega-Churches, they call 'em "Prayer Warriors" down there, must be two thousand. So every day, the Lord's got almost three thousand people prayin' "Give Norma that truck!" So I feel real blessed.

But she and her multitudes don't understand that those prayers are asking for the wrong thing. They're asking for a thing, when a good Christian should be asking for the strength and understanding and courage to lead good and decent lives, for wisdom, to walk the walk. As I wrote about in another blog post, the real prize in this contest isn't the truck; it's self-awareness. Like in every Hero Myth, the prize is never a thing; it's the newfound wisdom the hero learns. There is a moral argument being made here by the show's creators (consciously or not) about how people (particularly Americans) use religion. Only Americans could create "prosperity theology."

In the show's second song, "If I Had This Truck," Norma sings:
When I win this truck,
I'll give thanks to the Lord,
Till the day that I go
To my proper reward.

Norma assumes that if she wins, it will be because God helped her win it. But does God really stick his fingers into truck contests in East Texas? She's asking for the wrong thing, and she'll pay for that later. Norma explains to Chris at one point, "God forgives us, but forgiving Him can take a very long time." It's a lesson she'll have to grapple with herself, when she has her own crisis of faith.

But there's a positive side to her religiosity too. In "Hunt With the Big Dogs," when Benny's at his worst, she sings, "Oh Lord, forgive him." When Chris screams at her and short-circuits her song, "Joy of the Lord," the others are pissed, but Norma is immediately forgiving. She sees what's behind Chris' outburst and she chooses to see the good in him, despite his obvious psychic damage and the wall he's built around himself. One of the reasons Norma wants to win is so she can "drive us all to the Lord's house on Sunday." When Ronald asks her where she gets her strength, she says, "Lord shows me strength I didn't know I had." (Though, as I argued in a recent post, I think it's the ordeal that shows her that.) She's the most empathetic, most decent person in the contest, but she succumbs to covetousness along with the rest of them. As in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, those sins must be paid for.

There are religious references throughout the show, but two songs are overtly religious, Norma's joyful shot of energy, "Joy of the Lord," and Benny's shattering breakdown, "God Answered My Prayers." During "Joy of the Lord," the others join in the fun one by one, but Janis and Benny choose instead to mock Norma in brief bits of counter-melody. Chris is the only contestant who never joins the song.

In "God Answered My Prayers" and the scene before and after it, we see Benny grapple with the idea of God, of sin and punishment, we see him grow into the wise Texas philosopher we met in the documentary, more self-aware than any of the others. He asks Norma, "Yo, Norma. You talk to God a helluva lot. He ever. .. (a vulnerable hitch in his throat) ... he ever talk back?" Norma doesn't answer because as far as she's concerned, you can only understand it if you understand it. Benny's been a religious tourist. But he goes through a powerful transformation in this scene. After mocking religion for the entire show, now Benny sees the hand of God, the humbling hand of God, in his own life. Is that just psychosis from being up for ninety hours, or is it the cleansing physical exhaustion of this ordeal that opens his eyes for the first time?

Or is it Norma's example...?

Interestingly, Ronald uses the word Lord a lot, but never in a religious context, always as just an exclamation. Chris uses the word God several times in "Stronger," but again only as an exclamation. Not everyone here is religious, even though we're in East Texas...

Mike Ferris invokes religious imagery in his raunchy seduction number with Heather, but he's mocking religion, not calling upon it:
Lord knows I'm a sinner,
But something tells me you are too;
And I’ll pay tomorrow for what I pray
We're about to do.

Though I don't really understand why people still believe in 2,000-year-old myths – or perhaps because of that – I find religion endlessly fascinating. I read a lot of books about religion. (One of my favorites is A History of God.) I'm pretty confident that I know more about the Bible than most American Christians. (Another great book is Misquoting Jesus.) And I've actually read the entire Bible, cover to cover, which I bet most Christians have not. Though, like trickle-down economics, it seems to me so obvious that religion has failed us, time after time, that it too often leads to horrific abuses and corruption, and that it's responsible for most of the wars in human history.

When I point out Christians behaving badly, lots of people who claim to be Christians tell me that the "bad" Christians (the bigots, homophones, misogynists, etc.) aren't real Christians. But who gets to decide that? My instinct is to say that Norma is about as "real" a Christian as I've encountered, but the truth is she's strictly a New Testament Christian. Like my good friend (and ace Facebook debater) Rodney Wilson, it seems to me that Norma's Christianity isn't really "pure" Christianity; instead it's an adaptation, preserving all the good stuff (mostly the things Jesus taught) and rejecting all the bad stuff. Norma and Rodney are good and decent people who treat everyone they meet with respect and compassion. But neither of them probably thinks that smartass kids should be stoned to death, as Leviticus requires...

When I wrote about Les Misérables for my first book, From Assassins to West Side Story, I realized the entire story (at least as adapted for the musical stage) is about the tension between the angry, vengeful Old Testament God (represented by Javert) and the loving, forgiving, New Testament God (Valjean). I discovered at the time that many Bible scholars think these two faces of God really are two different Gods, one tribal and nasty, one universal and awesome.

In Les Miz, the New Testament wins out. In Hardbody, Norma clearly believes more in the philosophy of the New Testament. Benny, on the other hand, clearly sees God in Old Testament terms; but by the end of "God Answered My Prayers," he seems to reconsider that position.

I can't give all the credit for these rich textual themes to Amanda Green and Doug Wright. The original documentary film also focuses on God and religion a fair amount, maybe because it focuses so much on both Benny and Norma, clearly two of the coolest "characters" I've ever seen in a documentary. I'd love to hang with both of them. (Side note: The real Benny Perkins and I are Facebook friends. Jeff Wright, who plays Benny in our show, is also FB friends with him. And Benny's been really cool about answering questions and such for us. He really loves the show.)

Maybe the reason I like these themes in both Hands on a Hardbody and Les Miz is that both shows explore the complicated relationship between people and their beliefs. There are no pat answers here, no cliches, no assumptions, just exploration, questions. I can't give you the two examples of the most interesting writing about religious belief in this show, because both scenes contain spoilers. But come see the show and you'll see what I mean.

We've had two run-throughs on the set, with our beautiful truck, and I've been sort of surprised at how far along a lot of the acting is. We don't open for two weeks, but there's some amazing acting happening on our stage, not just individually but among the ten contestants. And now after writing all this, I think that's partly just because the writing is that good.

I can't wait to share this show with our audiences!

Long Live the Musical!