From the title of this musical, you might imagine one very sexy piece of theater. But the "hardbody" in question is actually a truck. And the hands all over it belong to contestants in a bid to win the vehicle by hanging on for as long as possible. The pickup goes to the last one standing.
It was a real event, an actual endurance contest, staged at a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas in 1995, and detailed in a 1997 documentary, from which the provocative title is taken.
“I saw the film years ago, and I was absolutely gob-smacked,” says playwright Doug Wright, who was commissioned to write the stage version of Hands on a Hardbody for the La Jolla Playhouse. We talked during a Sneak Peek for the press last week, which included a few songs from the new musical.
“I grew up about 60 miles from Longview,” the warm, affable Wright says, with no trace of a twang (he attended Yale and NYU). “I thought the documentary would be a kitschy piece of Americana at first, with its overtly ridiculous premise. But then it became really moving. It’s a testament to the indomitability of people, and a potent metaphor for the outrageous lengths we go to, to achieve what we want and need. It touches on corporate America, and the vanishing American middle and working class who’ve fallen off the grid and have to resort to desperate measures. There’s even the issue of immigration.”
“I was passionate about it from the start. I thought it had enormous thematic impact and promise,” Wright continues. “I brought this harebrained notion to Chris Ashley (artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, Wright’s friend from college days), and he agreed to support it.”
After Wright’s spectacular work on I Am My Own Wife at the Playhouse in 2001, which went on to be a Tony Award-winning smash hit on Broadway, garnering the Pulitzer Prize, he returned to La Jolla in 2009 to direct Creditors, his stunning, whip-smart adaptation of an 1888 August Strindberg play.
In the meantime, he earned Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for his book of the musical Grey Gardens, wrote the book for the stage incarnation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and created the play and screenplay for Quills, which snagged an Obie Award Off Broadway and three Academy Award nominations in Hollywood. He also penned the TV special, Tony Bennett: An American Classic, which received seven Emmy Awards.
When Wright got the green light for this latest project, his first call was to lyricist Amanda Green (High Fidelity, Bring It On: The Musical), whom he considers “one of the sharpest, funniest, most acutely moving lyricists.”
Together, they decided to hire a detective to track down the original Texas contestants, in order to get permission to use their names and stories. All eight they contacted were still living in the East Texas area.
“We told them we wanted to honor the film and their journey during the contest. In various ways, it had been a risk-taking, life-changing experience for all of them. We got 100 percent acceptance. It was amazing. Amanda and I made agreements for them to get a share of any future earnings,” he said.
Wright and Green also made high-profile additions to the creative team: composer/co-lyricist Trey Anastasio, lead singer of the wildly popular improvisational jam band, Phish, who’s creating a rock/folk/country score; celebrated choreographer Benjamin Millepied (Black Swan) and acclaimed theater director Neil Pepe, artistic director of the award-winning Atlantic Theater Company in New York.
The cast of 15 is equally impressive, including such heavy-hitters as Keith Carradine (last seen in San Diego in the national tour of “The Will Rogers Follies” in 1993), Hunter Foster (“Little Miss Sunshine” at the Playhouse, 2011) and John Rua, a knockout last year at the Old Globe in the new play, “Somewhere.”
Back in Texas, the contest lasted about 90 hours; it’s more like 144 in the musical, allowing for only a 15 minute break every six hours (the real contestants also had a 5-minute break every two hours). In addition to the originals, Wright and Green created several new characters, including an Iraq war veteran, a Mexican American, a waitress at the local rib shack and a wannabe stuntman (see the video of Greg Wilhotie, played by actor Jay Armstrong Johnson). The ages of the sleep-deprived contenders range from 20 to 65, “running the gamut from middle class to economically challenged,” according to Wright, just like the original participants.
A major challenge of theatricalizing this story is the setting: a truck is center stage, and the competitors are supposed to have a hand on it at all times.
“The setting is static,” Wright confesses, “but the people’s hopes and dreams are not. They’re an effusive, rambunctious group. Their passions are active, even if their bodies are not. Our challenge is to find theatrical ways to make something static viscerally exciting and thrilling to watch. That’s one of the most fun things about the project. Theater does so much with simple, elegant suggestion. The audience collaborates; they always finish the picture.”
So, set your sights on helping to complete the picture – and get a jump on a world premiere musical.
Hands on a Hardbody begins previews on April 27 and runs through June 17, in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, on the campus of UCSD. Performances are Tuesday –Wednesday at 7:30 pm, Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 7pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.
Tickets ($48 - $85) are available at lajollaplayhouse.org.; 858-550-1010.
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