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HANDS ON A HARDBODY
background and analysis by Scott Miller
Based on an actual annual event and the documentary that captured it, Hands on a Hardbody is a rare bird Ė a documentary musical. Many of the characters in the show are real people, while others are composites of real people. Much of the dialogue and lyrics are based on the documentary and additional time the showís writers spent with the real folks. This unique new musical recreates the (now defunct) annual contest at a Texas truck dealership, where ten hard-luck Texans compete for a new hardbody truck. A new lease on life is so close each of them can touch it, and now for once, their fate is in their hands. Under a scorching sun, we will watch them laugh, cry and push their bodies and minds to the limits, as they fight to keep at least one hand on the brand new truck, all hoping they have the nerve and endurance to drive away with the American Dream.
Despite its odd concept, Hands on a Hardbody is a thrilling, powerfully emotional musical, with a country-rock-pop score by Trey Anastasio (frontman for the rock band Phish) and Amanda Green (High Fidelity, Bring It On), and a script by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Doug Wright. Featuring a catchy combination of rhythm and blues, rockabilly, gospel, rock and roll, and country songs, Hands on a Hardbody is a peek into the lives of everyday, ordinary Americans, struggling to survive against the backdrop of a broken and beaten American middle class and working class.
After a tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse, the show opened on Broadway and lasted less than a month. Still, The New York Times said, "You can hear the sound of America singing in Hands on a Hardbody, the daring new musical. . . With a bravado to match the gumption of its characters, this new show drives onto the Broadway lot without the high-gloss blandishments that adorn most big musicals. Instead it concentrates its energies on giving voice to a story of average people fighting to hold onto hope in the face of fierce economic headwinds and bad breaks, not to mention buckling knees." The Times went on, "This scrappy, sincere new musical brings a fresh, handmade feeling to Broadway, which mostly traffics in the machine tooled. Burrowing into the troubled hearts of its characters, it draws a clear-eyed portrait of an America thatís a far cry from the fantasyland of most commercial musicals." The Wall Street Journal called the show "completely, satisfyingly right!" New York magazine said, "Hands down, itís musical theatre heaven!"
The structure of the show is essentially the same as Spelling Bee, and so is the dramatic content. Itís endless suspense, as we wait for each character to be "out," getting invested in one or more of them and rooting for them. Hardbody is an actorís show, and its structure-by-elimination only works if we care who stays and who goes each time it happens. At its core, itís about universal emotions like despair, weariness, joy, hope, fear, love, friendship; and honest, deeply held emotions that comes only from really great actors.
Probably, Hardbody is a show that never should have run on Broadway. Itís not "a Broadway musical" by todayís standards. Itís more an off Broadway show, emotionally intimate, nuanced, and by definition, physically stagnant. Like High Fidelity and Cry-Baby, Hardbody would have fared better in an off Broadway house, where no one would have expected the truck to spin and dance, where no one would have expected choreography or scenic eye candy. Though there are laughs, this is a serious story about serious people in serious times. Itís physically about people standing still, but itís also about the metaphor of standing still for a long time, being trapped in life, being tired, being scared; and also conversely, about endurance, about standing up, about surviving. The narratives here are interior ones. This isnít a show that needs dance to tell its story, or the emotional expansion that dance provides; so the choreography in the original production felt imposed on the story, rather than coming from it organically, like the showís producers thought the audience needed "a Broadway musical."
The truth is the audience just needs a great story, great characters, and honest emotion. Look at The Fantasticks. Look at Passing Strange or Rent.
Most of the songs in the score have choral back-up and the arrangements are superb. And the lyrics are so strong Ė smart, clever, honest, raw, insightful, powerful, subtle, rowdy, aching, and most of all, deeply emotional. There are masterful, playful turns of phrase, like "Leave the judging to the judge whoíll judge us all on Judgment Day," or the wistful "...but I can almost feel the ocean breeze, when I read a label labeled overseas..." or Normaís "...till the day that I go to my proper reward." That one phrase, the use of that word proper, says so much about Norma and her faith, and her relationship with God. Thereís so much information in Amanda Greenís lyrics, but also jokes, and interior rhymes, and at the same time, the lyrics are always fully in the voice of the character. Just as an actor has to keep acting when she sings, so too Doug Wrightís dialogue and Amandaís lyrics have to be seamlessly merged, so that the audience never catches a false moment that pulls them out of the story.
And then thereís the incredible music, written by both Green and Anastasio Ė some songs have music by both, some songs are by one or the other. Itís a big basket of different musical styles, rock, pop, Latin, country, gospel, funk, but itís unified by its story. These are the musical sounds of Texas. Just as the High Fidelity score exists fully inside its story (each song in the style of one of Robís rock gods), so does the Hardbody score. While the original documentary can show us Texas, the stage musical has to deliver that through our ears. Texas is real to us onstage because these people sound like Texans, or more to the point, they sing like Texans. And all that gives this very eclectic score a single voice.
Itís a Human Drama Thing
Youíd think this would make a lousy musical. First off, the whole premise of the story is that these people are just standing there. Seriously. Just Standing There. For a really long time. For ninety-one hours, sixteen minutes, and twenty-seven seconds. Not really doing anything. How does a director make that visually interesting?
The original production answered that with a truck that spins and moves, and a good amount of choreography. There were even some moments when the contestants all let their hands off the truck during a song, presumably relying on the audience to accept that itís just "a musical comedy moment." During the rhythmic counterpoint in the middle of "Joy of the Lord," the original cast had both hands off the truck a lot. When Kelli and Greg climbed up on the truck, they also let their hands off of it.
But maybe asking how to make the show visually interesting is the wrong question to ask. Maybe the goal here just isnít to be visually interesting, even though that goes against all our usual instincts. Because really, this is a story about stillness. Why fight that? Why struggle against the showís fundamental nature? That can only lead to bad choices. Maybe the only legitimate goal here is to be clear in the storytelling and to be authentic in the emotions. This is a story concerned with who these people are and how they got here.
So what is Hands on a Hardbody really about? Not its narrative, but its heart and soul. For instance, the narrative of Fiddler on the Roof is about this family of Russian Jews, but what the show is really about is holding on to tradition in an ever changing world. Likewise the narrative of Cabaret is about this eccentric group of characters being affected by the early rumblings of Nazism, but what itís really about is the idea that doing nothing in the face of evil is also a choice. (Which is why productions of Cabaret that suggest the holocaust at the end miss the point Ė the show is not about the holocaust or World War II; itís about everyday choices and their consequences.) Company presents us with this guy Bobby who hangs out with married couples a lot, but what itís really about is emotional commitment in a disconnected, increasingly technological world.
So what is Hands on a Hardbody about? Itís about the American middle class struggling to climb out of the massive, seemingly inescapable hole that their government threw them into in the 1980s and again in the 2000s. But itís also about what makes us Americans Ė attitude, grit, bravado, stubbornness, contradiction, self-delusion, toughness, aggressiveness, appetite, commitment, authenticity. We never laugh at these characters; the show never mocks them. These people are America. The show treats them with respect and so must we.
Even as we accept Hardbodyís inherent stillness, there are some songs in the show that really need some physicalization. The trick is to give the actors movement that looks as natural and spontaneous as possible, and that also supports the lyric and the dramatic action (even if itís interior) behind the song.
The other issue here is the Fourth Wall. At the beginning and end of the show, the actors directly address the audience, and Benny does a few times in between, but other than those instances, this is as naturalistic as a musical gets. And also, aside from the opening, there really arenít any interior monologues like most musicals use.
Thereís even a "Note on Acting" in the script that says:
Despite their colorful eccentricities and regional turns of phrase, the characters in our story are inspired by very real people. They should not be played broadly, or with an implied "wink." Rather, they should be acted with integrity, with full regard for their ardent hopes, heartbreaking foibles and core decency.
In other words, this is a musical that should be treated like a play. This show doesnít have the speed and wacky energy of musical comedy, the exaggerated reality of many concept musicals, or the melodrama of rock opera. This is just a drama. This musical doesnít use most of the devices of musical theatre. And the original productionís one giant misstep was imposing musical comedy devices on this show. It distanced the audience from the characters and their emotions, and created a wall of artifice where there just canít be one.
The job of any director working on this show is to get out of its way, to let the beautiful, smart, emotional, insightful writing do its work, to let the actors focus on nothing but acting. No devices, no tricks, no conventions, no abstraction, no commentary, just honesty. Good directing is following the road the writers have laid out, without imposing yourself or your Great Ideas on it. If a director thinks a show needs him or her to impose things on it, then either theyíre working on a bad show, or they havenít learned to trust the material fully. That imposition is an act of ego, not storytelling.
This Is Not a Childís Game
Like Green and Tom Kittís High Fidelity, Hardbody has a pitch-perfect opening number (both openings should be studied by musical theatre composers, writers, directors, and actors). It follows Stephen Sondheimís Ten-Minute Rule, that you can do anything in a piece of theatre, as long as you establish the rules for the evening in the first ten minutes. All the great shows do this. Think Cabaret, Company, Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Into the Woods, Passing Strange, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys, bare, Songs for a New World, Fiddler on the Roof...
In the showís opener, "Itís a Human Drama Thing," the writers introduce us to setting, the showís musical voice, all the characters and their backstories and motivations, the showís premise, the hurdles ahead, the social and cultural content, and the style and tone of the storytelling. Itís as beautifully constructed as High Fidelityís "Last Real Record Store on Earth," but the opening of Hardbody also does a ton of narrative heavy lifting. It takes up eight pages in the script and twenty-six pages in the piano score. And by the end of it, everything is established, something that might take lesser writers half of Act I to accomplish.
And thereís an energy to it all thatís genuinely thrilling, like the show is coming at the audience like a rocket. Both these openings, from Hi-Fi and Hardbody, start with a single actor talking to the audience, nice and casual, almost confessional. And then before you know it, the stage is filled with people and the music is pounding, and before the song ends, we feel like we know them all.
The opening song starts with Benny speaking directly to us, "Stand here, simple as that. Stand here with your hand on the truck. Last one to take his hand off wins it. Sounds absurd, donít it? Some kind of sideshow. Maybe, maybe not." And from those few sentences, we know everything important about this story. Then music creeps in underneath...
Everything you thought you knew,
Leave that all behind.
Just keep one hand on the truck
And try not to lose your mind.
This is not a childís game Ė
This is not a game of chance Ė
Itís a sharp honed skill,
Itís a test of will,
Itís keepiní still,
When the Devil tells you, "Dance!"
What a great way to start a show! Essentially saying, "This will not be the kind of musical you expect. This will not be a show about dancing and production numbers. This is something else. Everything you thought you knew about musicals, everything you assumed about the show tonight, leave that all behind."
This is a strong lyric to start with because the first thing it asks of the audience is to take all this seriously. The stakes are high here and the challenges are massive. (These ten lines are also really good advice for anybody directing this show. In fact, it sort of describes the modern American musical theatre as it continues to evolve today. Did Amanda Green intend that meta-layer? Or could she have put that double meaning in there subconsciously? Who knows?)
And notice the triple-rhyme (skill, will, still); Green uses triple rhymes all over this score. Itís a nice cultural touch in this score that uses musical triple-time in its country waltzes and its rockabilly.
But Benny also shares with us here in these first few lines the same kind of Texas wisdom and insight the real Benny shares with us throughout the documentary. The way to win this contest is focus and will power. This is not easy, and itís not about luck. Itís about refusing to give an inch. All that is in these ten lines. But we also get a hint that this is a religious community; if this were set in New York, you probably wouldnít get a reference to the Devil. And itís also the first clue that faith and God will play a big part in this story.
Then we meet the contestants and get that iconic line, "Itís a human drama kind of thing," which encapsulates the whole story in one simple but meaningful sentence. In the film, the real Benny says only "Itís a human drama thing," which is the title of this opening song. But the message of that sentence (and Bennyís insight) is important Ė this isnít really a story about strategy or competition, or even about this contest; this is a story about human emotions, fears, needs, connections, limits. All musicals are about emotion, but this show is about deep, primal, fundamental human emotion. The social and political context is just background here; the focus is on these charactersí humanity. It really is a human drama thing.
After that line, which will provide a kind of structure for this lengthy song, we meet Frank Nugent, the radio DJ, who will share narrator duties with Benny throughout the show. Frank is the audienceís surrogate, our way in, the outsider, the only character not involved in the contest. And through Frank, we meet Mike, who owns the dealership.
Next, the contestants tell us about themselves collectively. We meet the community.
Some are on vacation,
Some are unemployed,
Someone will drive home elated,
Someone will walk home destroyed.
Everybodyís broke here,
Trying to make ends meet,
Pay a debt back,
Had a set back,
Got to get back
On our feet.
So donít make any judgments;
Let the players play.
Leave the judging to the Judge
Whoíll judge us all on Judgment Day.
Again, what a great lyric! Green gives us a quick summary of the communityís economics, which of course is at the center of this story, a story in which winning this truck is economic salvation Ė but just for one person, in this community full of many people in need. Also, notice the acrobatic triple double-rhyme again: debt back, set back, get back. The magic of it is that it makes complete sense, itís fully in the language and diction of these characters, and it further characterizes the high stakes here. These people are in debt. Theyíre losing ground. If they have to "get back on our feet," then theyíre not on their feet right now. Theyíre down and out.
And then this section ends with more religious language, and one of the coolest trick lyrics in the show: "Leave the judging to the Judge whoíll judge us all on Judgment Day." Not only does it just sound great, not only is it impressive in its stunt of language, but it also says something of import Ė donít judge us for being in debt, for losing a job, for not paying the bills. God is the only one who should judge. Itís a sentiment many of these people have probably read in the Bible, in Romans 2:1-6:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that Godís judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape Godís judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that Godís kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of Godís wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will repay each person according to what they have done.
God and faith are a big part of this communityís life, and thatís explored throughout the show.
Then we meet Cindy Barnes, the PR manager for the dealership. Throughout this number, Frank, Mike, and Cindy will give us all the information we need about how the contest (and therefore, the show) works. Bookwriter Doug Wright uses Frankís radio audience to talk directly to us. These three characters arenít breaking the Fourth Wall, but they are giving us straight exposition. Itís a neat trick.
Then we get a series of solos from the contestants about entering the contest, and then all the contestants sing:
And Iíll do anything it takes!
I never won nothing;
I came all the same.
I thought I would die
When they called out my name.
I prayed for a change to come
Year after year,
Itís here! Itís here! Itís here!
Earlier in the song Benny was telling us these things about the others; now theyíre telling us themselves. And Benny caps it with a bit of Texas wisdom:
Like the great Ali did when he changed his name from Cassius,
Everybodyís hoping to rise once more from the ashes!
Then we hear from Norma, and after a few lines, the rest of them. These are people of faith, and their suffering is great, so this contest is a big deal. To get through this, they need what their religion offers them. And these lines also return us to the economics of this community Ė which could be in 1997, when the film was released, or it could be today...
Keep Your Hands On It
The show ends with a "moral" to the story, in "Keep Your Hands On It," partly a wrap-up for each character, Š la Animal House and Spelling Bee, but itís also a thematic epilogue, a philosophical summation of the evenings. Like the showís 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.
Hardbodyís opening 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. Itís both a concept musical opening and a book musical opening at the same time. But what is this song about at its core, whatís the point of it, why is it the finale, and how does it relate to the central theme of the show?
After one of the contestants (Iím 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 everyoneís anthem by the time the song is over. What does that title phrase mean for the rest of them? Donít give up. Donít quit trying. Yes, but more than that, more specific, more meaningful, more insightful. JD sings:
If you want something,
Keep your hands on it.
Cling with all your soul
When you find your fit.
Itís not about holding on tightly or desperately; itís 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.
At its core, "Keep Your Hands on It" is about learning what to value and being faithful to that Ė people, dreams, the future.
If you want something,
Let your purpose show.
Hold it close to you,
Donít you let it go.
Let it be your guide,
Star of Bethlehem.
If you want something ...
Donít let go.
In other words, donít 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.
In this song, every character directly tells the audience how theyíre doing and what they learned, and then the whole cast gives the audience a final summation.
Youíre Hell Bent for Glory
More so than any of the showís creators anticipated, 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.
In Bill Maherís documentary Religulous, Maher is talking to a group of truckers, and he admits that itís a luxury to be an atheist. He says:
I think being without faith is something thatís 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 youíre 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 heíll bring.
Itís a human drama kind of thing.
They are all at the mercy Ė the whims? Ė of an omnipotent and capricious God. Itís human lives as Greek drama Ė both the contest and the musical. All the worldís a stage and God is a divine Will Shakespeare. Just like Bennyís first few lines at the beginning of the show, this last line ("Itís 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 can respect, a person who genuinely walks the walk. Norma talks to God a lot. In the opening number, she sings:
Lord, itís been a real tough year.
Thank you for this chance right here.
Iím shaking and Iím sick with fear,
But can I bend your ear a minute?
Look at all these people in it!
Jesus, I just got to win
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, Iím not alone. I donít 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 thatís another six hundred or so. And my cousin in Waco, she goes to one of them Mega-Churches, they call Ďem "Prayer Warriors" down there, must be two thousand. So every day, the Lordís got almost three thousand people prayiní "Give Norma that truck!" So I feel real blessed.
But she and her multitudes donít understand that those prayers are asking for the wrong thing. Theyíre 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. The real prize in this contest isnít the truck; itís self-awareness. Like in every Hero Myth, the prize is never a thing; itís the newfound wisdom the hero learns. There is a moral argument being made here by the showís creators (consciously or not) about how people (particularly Americans) use religion. Only Americans could create "prosperity theology."
In the showís second song, "If I Had This Truck," Norma sings:
When I win this truck,
Iíll 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? Sheís asking for the wrong thing, and sheíll pay for that later. Norma explains to Chris at one point, "God forgives us, but forgiving Him can take a very long time." Itís a lesson sheíll have to grapple with herself, when she has her own crisis of faith.
But thereís a positive side to her religiosity too. In "Hunt With the Big Dogs," when Bennyís 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 whatís behind Chrisí outburst and she chooses to see the good in him, despite his obvious psychic damage and the wall heís built around himself. One of the reasons Norma wants to win is so she can "drive us all to the Lordís house on Sunday." When Ronald asks her where she gets her strength, she says, "Lord shows me strength I didnít know I had." Sheís 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, Normaís joyful shot of energy, "Joy of the Lord," and Bennyís 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 doesnít answer because as far as sheís concerned, you can only understand it if you understand it. Bennyís 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 Normaís 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 weíre in East Texas...
Mike Ferris invokes religious imagery in his raunchy seduction number with Heather, but heís mocking religion, not calling upon it:
Lord knows Iím a sinner,
But something tells me you are too;
And Iíll pay tomorrow for what I pray
Weíre about to do.
In Les Misťrables, 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). Some 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.
Both Hands on a Hardbody and Les Miz explore the complicated relationship between people and their beliefs. There are no pat answers here, no clichťs, no assumptions, just exploration, questions.
Brains, Women, and Rain
Thereís so much going on in this rich, amazing show.
Benny says it in Act II: "Cruel game, people. Damn cruel game." Maybe that line is just a justification for the mind fuck Bennyís just pulled off. After all, midway through Act II, Frank Nugent interviews Dr. Stokes, who tells us that sleep deprivation is a torture technique thatís been used by the Chinese government and by our own government under Bush-Cheney.
Maybe all that doesnít really hit home for the audience until Act II, when weíre 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 Ďem a circus, they buy souvenirs." Does that make the contestants circus animals? Cindy comes right out and tells us that theyíre 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, doesnít it? Itís pure exploitation of those least able to protect themselves. And then thereís all the manipulation and even cheating within the contest itself.
Itís all intensely, inherently dramatic. People wonder how standing around a truck can be dramatic, and thatís how. And itís why this show doesnít feel like just a song cycle or a "concept musical." It feels like a book musical. Thereís 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 audiences respond to it so very powerfully. Almost everybody knows what itís like to feel the economic pinch. No wonder audiences cheer so loudly when the winner finally wins... Itís about time somebody wins...
The stakes are so high here, and thatís what makes compelling drama. Normaís husband is at the unemployment office when the contest beings. Jesus needs the truck to pay for grad school; and though he is American, he looks Latino and he was born in Laredo, Texas, right on the Mexican border, so he faces anti-Mexican bigotry. Heatherís car has been repossessed. But itís not just the contestants who have high stakes. The showís creators took care to give Mike Ferris and Cindy Barnes 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 everybody. By Act II, we find that Mikeís confidence is a sham and heís in danger of losing the dealership Ė which would in turn means Cindy loses her job too.
Musicals are about emotion, and emotion is about high stakes.
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 thereís a lot going on inside. The show is an endless fount of subtle little surprises, alliteration, interior rhymes, subtleties of harmony, details of foreshadowing.
The score is separated into two types of songs, those that move the story along; and those that explain the characterís "stakes," which musical comedy folks used to call "I Want" songs. The plot songs are the showís 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 itís both types of songs at once. Or maybe more accurately, itís both types interwoven.
In "Hunt with the Big Dogs," Benny is established as the "villain" (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, itís all a mind game with Benny, as we see later with the conversation about the highway to Kelliís house. It also signals one of the contestantsí symptoms of fatigue Ė being quick to anger Ė that gives us a psychological arc to this test of endurance and the toll it takes on its contestants.
The Act II opener, "Hands on a Hardbody," finishes off the conceit that the showís intermission is just one of the contestís fifteen-minute breaks, even going so far as to have Mike Ferris and Frank Nugent directly address the audience, something which otherwise happens only in the opening and finale. From this point forward, the audience plays a role too. Weíre in "the bleachers." Benny even refers to us, pointing out to J.D. how the bleachers are filling up. As in Cabaret, weíre part of the story now, playing a role simply by observing the ordeal, making it public.
The showís finale, "Keep Your Hands On It," works much like the opening, in that itís both a plot song and a thematic statement. We tie up every characterís storyline and the show offers us its lesson. All these characters have followed their own Hero Myths, and theyíve all learned something. This is what theyíve learned. This song is a companion piece to "Children Will Listen" and "Being Alive."
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 groupís 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 wonít leave Ďtil I win...
Greg: And my life can begin...
Heather: Sweet Jesus, I hate my Schwinn...
Norma: I know to covetís 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 Donís song, "If She Donít Sleep," we learn that what this couple wants most is to be together Ė they want connection. In Ronaldís "My Problem Right There," we see all he really wants is love (or at least, connection) and pleasure. Ronaldís a hedonist, the wrong type of person to be in a contest of endurance and sacrifice. Listen closely to this lyric; itís one of the funniest, most insightful character songs youíll 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 sheíll 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 Gregís "Iím Gone," all they want is escape (and connection), and the freedom to reach their potential, which is not possible (at least so they believe) in Longview, Texas.
In Normaís "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 everyoneís spirits midway through the contest, keeping them going through the ordeal. In Chrisí 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 heís 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 Jesusí "Born in Laredo," 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 stop being racist.
In "Used to Be," we learn that J.D. and Benny Ė and really, everyone present, to one degree or another Ė 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. Heís 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 jerk heís 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.
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 Hardbody, 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 heís not crazy about the company. Again, these are both songs about longing for connection.
In the first version of "Itís a Fix," the point is that everyone is cheating, so the contest is fixed. In the reprise, Mike Ferris isnít cheating after he promising he would, and so thatís why the contest is "fixed." Because itís not fixed. And it was supposed to be. Which shows you what extreme fatigue and the wrong drugs can do to your brain. 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 Normaís connection to her god. In the reprise, Norma has "lost" her connection and itís 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 thereís one reason for that Ė brilliant, skillful, artful, insightful, empathetic writing.
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 everyoneís magic amulet, like Lukeís light saber or Dorothyís ruby slippers. But then all but one of them lose, and we find out in this last song that theyíre all still doing just fine.
They were wrong about the truck.
By the end of the show, they all learn what to value and how to nurture that, how to keep their hands on what counts. The truck wasnít 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 wouldnít 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 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, theyíve all learned that people Ė human connection Ė matter more. Benny was right after all, it is a human drama thing. Itís Into the Woods, except theyíre standing still for 94 hours.
Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.