As we've been swimming in the weird reality-unreality that is Hands on a Hardbody (it's based on a real event and real people, and a lot of the lyrics come from things actually said in the documentary, yet most of these characters' backstories in the show are fictional, and only some of these characters are based on the real people in the film, and oh yeah, several of our actors are playing real people, some of whom we're in contact with through Facebook), I'm seeing this contest differently. And it's cruel.
Benny says it in Act II: "Cruel game, people. Damn cruel game." But I always heard that line as a justification for the mind fuck Benny's just pulled off. The more I think about it, the more I see the truth in that line. And then I connect it to the interview Frank Nugent does with Dr. Stokes, when we're told that sleep deprivation is a torture technique used by the Chinese government and by our own government under Bush-Cheney.
Holy shit. Way to kill my buzz! Maybe all that doesn't really hit home for the audience til Act II, when we're faced with the struggles of Jesus, Kelli, Greg, Benny, et al.
We know the creation of this contest is purely cynical. This is just a promotional gimmick, and we hear Mike and Cindy talk about how many cars they sold during the contest last year. As Mike puts it, "You give 'em a circus, they buy souvenirs." Does that make the contestants circus animals? Cindy comes right out and tells us that they're doing it "as a service to the dealership." Go, capitalism! And the contest only works if there are enough suffering people desperate enough to stand for ninety hours in order to win a truck. Sounds Orwellian now, doesn't it? It hadn't occurred to me before, but it's pure exploitation of those least able to protect themselves.
And then there's all the manipulation and even cheating within the contest itself.
Why do I mention all this? Because it's intensely, inherently dramatic. People wonder how standing around a truck can be dramatic, and that's how. And it's why this show doesn't feel like just a song cycle or a "concept musical." It feels like a book musical. There's a lot going on here. And in a real way, as the American middle class falls further and further behind, this show is an insightful microcosm of our country, which is why I think audiences respond to it so very powerfully. Almost everybody has been feeling the pinch over the last six years. No wonder they cheer so loudly every night when the winner finally wins... It's about fucking time somebody wins...!
So why is it so dramatic? Because the stakes are really high. Norma's husband is at the unemployment office when the contest beings. Jesus needs the truck to pay for grad school. Heather's car has been repossessed. But it's not just the contestants who have high stakes. The show's creators took care to give Mike Ferris (the sales manager) and Cindy Barnes (the PR manager) both very high stakes as well. Cindy tells Mike at one point that her kids sleep on a sofa-bed and eat oatmeal for dinner. The tough times hit all of us. By Act II, we find that Mike's confidence is all bullshit and he's in danger of losing the dealership – which would in turn means Cindy loses her job too.
To that end, this score is a study in the 21st century, postmodern American musical, dominated by songs about big emotions, but far more sophisticated than is immediately apparent. Its easy-going style and casual-sounding lyrics give all the songs a sense of simplicity and spontaneity, but there's a lot going on inside.
Hands on a Hardbody – much like High Fidelity, Bat Boy, Lippa's Wild Party, Next to Normal – is an endless fount of subtle little surprises. As many times as I've seen the show now, I still keep hearing new alliterations, new interior rhymes, new subtleties of harmony, new details of foreshadowing.
It reminds me every night of a lesson I learned long ago, working on Hair for the first time. You wanna be a good director? Just remember that everything comes from the text and the music. You can extrapolate, but you shouldn't impose or, worst of all, rewrite. You'll ruin it and you'll also show everybody what an arrogant asshat you are. (See: the Broadway productions of High Fidelity and Cry-Baby.)
I get to swim in this beautiful score every night and I keep understanding it on a deeper and deeper level as I live with it. I realize now that the score is basically separated into two types of songs, those that move the story along; and those that explain the character's "stakes," which musical comedy folks used to call "I Want" songs. The plot songs are the show's spine, its structure, and the "I Want" songs are its guts, its drama.
There are essentially four plot songs, positioned at the beginning and end of each act, like bookends inside of bookends.
The opening, "A Human Drama Thing" both introduces all the characters and also puts the plot in motion, so it's both types of songs at once. Or maybe more accurately, it's both types interwoven. (Much like the opening of High Fidelity.)
In "Hunt with the Big Dogs," Benny is established as the "villain" of the story (if there is such a thing in this story), intentionally provoking his competitors into letting their emotions overtake them, and therefore losing control. Just as in any reality show. It's all a mind game with Benny, as we see later with the conversation about the highway to Kelli's house. It also signals one of the contestants' symptoms of fatigue – being quick to anger – that gives us a psychological arc to this test of endurance and the toll it takes on its contestants.
You might argue that the two versions of "It's a Fix" are plot songs as well, and I'll deal with them in a minute...
The rest of the score is made up of "I Want" songs, which makes sense, since in this show, plot takes a back seat to character.
"If I Had This Truck" starts us off with the group's collective "I Want" song, giving us more details about these people but also showing what they all have in common. The writing here is so economical. So much information is imparted in so few words, even as Amanda Green keeps up her multiple rhymes...
Benny: No, I won't leave 'til I win...
Greg: And my life can begin...
Heather: Sweet Jesus, I hate my Schwinn...
Norma: I know to covet’s a sin...
All: But picture me driving in
My brand new truck.
These folks all want something different, but they also all want the same thing. In Janis and Don's song, "If She Don't Sleep," we learn that what this couple wants most is to be together – they want connection. In Ronald's "My Problem Right There," we see all he really wants is love (or at least, connection) and pleasure. Ronald's a hedonist, the wrong type of person to be in a contest of endurance and sacrifice. Listen closely to this lyric; it's one of the funniest, most insightful character songs you'll ever hear, even though this character has very little self-awareness. In "Burn That Bridge," we learn that what Mike and Heather want are sex (connection) and money. Or are they both just using each other, Mike to sell cars, Heather to finally gain some independence, some control over her life? At the end of the show she'll tell us that she finally won the contest the following year, "only this time, fair and square." She finally took control of her own destiny. She finally found her independence. Likewise, in Kelli and Greg's "I'm Gone," all they want is escape (and also connection), and the freedom to reach their potential, which is not possible (at least so they believe) in Longview, Texas.
In Norma's "Joy of the Lord," we see that all she wants is joy, plain and simple, and connection to her god. This number also works as a plot song, rousing everyone's spirits midway through the contest, keeping them going through the ordeal. In Chris' song "Stronger," we learn that all he wants is for all those promises that were made to him to be true; he wants to be actually stronger, because he knows he's not. Or more to the point, he has learned to be strong in certain ways, but not in other ways, and he longs to be a whole person again. And he desperately wants the connection to other people, most notably his wife and child, that his nightmare experiences and memories prevent. Maybe if you drill down to the core, Chris wants meaning in his life, some way to explain the horrors he seen and the hurdles he faces.
In Jesus' "Born in Loredo," he tells us quite directly that all he wants is respect, dignity, the same regard given to the rest of this nation of immigrants. And he wants people to fucking stop being racist.
In "Used to Be," we learn that J.D. and Benny – and really, everyone present, to one degree or another – want things to stay the same (quite an ironic sentiment in this story about standing still). Perhaps they seek a connection to the past, in this time of turmoil and uncertainty. Like most folks, they fear or at least dislike change. But change is the only constant. In "God Answered My Prayers," Benny just wants absolution. He's asking for change now, change within himself. He has self-knowledge for the first time. You might say he has achieved enlightenment, he realizes what a dick he's been, and he accepts his humbling. Even his final wrap-up in the finale is about him being humbled by life, and starting over again. When Jeff Wright (our Benny) and I became friends with the real Benny Perkins on Facebook, his advice to Jeff was to capture Benny's cockiness. The real Benny can look back and recognize how cocky he was, just as the fictional, onstage Benny comes to that realization during this song.
The other interesting aspect of this score is the sophistication behind the use of reprises. The best, most effective reprises are the ones which take the original lyric and music and re-fashion them for a new, or even contradictory, purpose which gives both this moment and the earlier moment new resonance.
In Harbody, there are three songs that get reprised in really interesting ways.
Both versions of "Alone with Me" are "I Want" songs. But in the first one, Ginny is accusing J.D. of not wanting to be alone with her. In the second, J.D. is finally alone with himself, and he's not crazy about the company. Again, these are both songs about longing for connection.
And how good writing can reveal character and tell a great story.
The two versions of "Joy of the Lord" are also fascinating. In the first iteration, the song is about Norma's connection to her god. In the reprise, Norma has "lost" her connection and it's up to Ronald and Chris to give it back to her. Interestingly, Ronald (the selfish hedonist) and Chris (the damaged loner) become the nurturers toward the end, and they learn something about themselves in the act of being selfless.
People are consistently amazed at how good this show is, how emotional it is, how deeply it affects them. And there's one reason for that – brilliant, skillful, artful writing. It all comes down to the text and music. We're just lucky that writers like Amanda Green, Trey Anastasio, and Doug Wright keep creating beautiful, interesting shows like this for us to work on. It's a real privilege.
We have two performances left. I will miss this show and this score so very much. And I hope our success will prompt many more productions around the country.
Long Live the Musical!