I knew Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster were featured in this musical, but the rest of the cast were not familiar to me. I knew Neil Pepe, the artistic head of the off Broadway Atlantic Theatre, to be a director of range. Sergio Trujillo has done fine work on several shows, and is one of the creators of the long running Jersey Boys.
But the idea of a musical based on a documentary about a group of Texans playing hands on with a truck did not create much urgency in me. Amanda Green was the only name I knew from the author’s side, and she only from her clever cabaret appearances as performer and material writer. I’m not into rock onstage, so Bring It On, her earlier contribution to the Broadway slate, did not do much for me. All I recall of that one was a bunch of cuties (that dates me I know, but that’s what they were) jumping up and down, spectacularly. Ms. Green’s lyrics went flying by, undecipherable by me on account of the over amplification. So, as I said, I was prepared for something new, but perhaps outside my ken.
Wrong, Richard. With a cast of only ten principals, one shiny red truck and a few supporting players on the sidelines, what unfolded before me at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre was a warm and occasionally very moving show filled with play worthy dialogue by Doug Wright, mostly theatrically valid music by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio (a native of Fort Worth, a founding member of Phish, named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time, but new to the theatre) and lyrics by Green that would have made her Dad (Adolph Green) proud indeed.
In format, in Hands on a Hardbody, we’re not far from the concept Michael Bennett came up with to show us how a chorus is cast. Here, as in that big winner, we have the same “God, I need this job!” angst going for us only here it’s “God, I need this truck!”
And little by little, as we come to know the ten applicants, the writing is good enough to make us begin to care for each, perhaps to pick those whom we favor. Everyone’s been given a shot at the prize, and much is revealed about who and what each one is.
To accomplish this, the composers have had to stick to the country western folk soft rock styles that speak for these rural Texans of all ages, and as orchestrated by Mr. Anastasio and Don Hart, and vocally arranged by Carmel Dean, the score has variety and melody and is backed by ideas that are often original and surprising.
Mr. Trujillo has managed to keep everyone (including the truck!) moving most inventively. It truly seems to dance when that seems appropriate. I’m sorry it’s been decided to merely list the song titles in the program. Musicals should, and most do, list the songs and tells us which characters sing them. I know for example, a lovely and wistful ballad called “Alone With Me” was sung by Keith Carradine and Mary Gordon Murray because they play an estranged married couple, and as they are both called “Drew,” I could sort them out in the program.
I know Hunter Foster’s delightful work from several other musicals, so I know it’s he who bangs out a home run with “My Problem Right There.” Norma Valverde does a remarkable job with what have been just another big gospel aria, this one called “Joy of the Lord”. She builds it from a highly original base to a rip roaring finale with the help of the ensemble as she grows into it. It is indeed a rouser, and very welcome.
But gems like “It’s A Fix,” “Used To Be,” “Born in Laredo,” and several other precise, fun and melodic tunes are hard to place. This could so easily be remedied by a rethinking of the song listing, so long used in musical theatre. Some change is not progress; it’s just change. For the rest, it was interesting to discover how much the book and the lyrics revealed to us about these very well drawn Texans.
I have no idea who the target audience is for this very friendly show. I would not have thought it would appeal to us seasoned veterans. And since it certainly did, I wouldn’t exclude young ‘uns or even the musical theatre nuts who stopped really enjoying musicals once they got plugged in to body microphones.
The sound design on this one, by Steve Canyon Kennedy, is almost perfect. It implements, but does not destroy instruments or voices. It tries too hard in the very first number, “Human Drama Kind of Thing” which is an anthem sung by the entire cast. They are very talented; they don’t need all the help Mr. Kennedy gives them. As a result you cannot tell who is singing solo lines because all voices are coming from the huge speakers overhead. Maybe he just wanted to get our attention, fast. But after the overblown opening, the score and the cast are well served, and as a result we can hear and appreciate the very nimble lyrics of Ms. Green, and some of the more delicate melodies, and all of the pungent dialogue.
This is another of those “Dare to Dream” musicals, this one with a new sound, and I hope it joins many of its predecessors, from Annie to Billy Elliot to A Chorus Line all the way back to The Music Man and Bye, Bye Birdie as a long running success.
Hands on a Hardbody is at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, NYC. Details and tickets.
The composers of Hands on a Hardbody
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: