Doug Wright is the Dallas-born playwright with a Pulitzer Prize for his drama, I Am My Own Wife, an Obie Award for Quills and a Tony nomination for the musical Grey Gardens. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports this week, Wright was back in Dallas for Theatre Three’s staging of his latest musical, Hands on a Hardbody.
The 1997 documentary, Hands on a Hardbody, became something of a cult film among documentary aficionados. Director S. R. Bindler may have made it on shoe-string while still in college, but he and his friends had chanced upon a bit of pure, slice-of-life, hardscrabble Americana. It was a last-person-standing contest at a truck dealership in Longview, Texas — the dealership’s fun way of pushing up sales while giving two dozen locals the hope they might actually escape the kind of place that holds last-person-standing truck contests. Early on in the film, a dealership employee explains what — other than the obvious, dire economic need — would motivate people to stand three-to-four days without sleep, holding their hands on a Nissan pickup that they desperately hope to win.
“Trucks to a Texan,” he says, “is kinda like his hat. It’s either a cowboy hat or he’s gonna have a hat on his head. That’s the way trucks are here in Texas.”
And that’s the kind of nugget of social observation the musical Hands on a Hardbody turns into a song of longing and working-class conspicuous consumption:
“A truck to a Texan is just like his hat
You don’t feel complete if you ain’t got that.
A truck is a marker, a part of the plan
That says you’re a grown-up, that says you’re a man.
If you live in the North, you can drive a sedan.
But if you live in Texas and you ain’t got no truck,
Buddy, you’re stuck…”
The song, “If I Had a Truck,” ends with Ronald McCowan (Major Attaway), who needs the truck to start his own landscaping business. He breaks it all down for us: “Car don’t make money. Truck make money.”
Doug Wright, who grew up in Dallas, had long been fascinated by the Hardbody documentary.
“What I love about the documentary,” Wright says, “is it’s admittedly a portrait of a very specific people in a very specific small town and yet the central metaphor is the Great American Promise: If you’re tenacious, if you work hard, you will succeed. And lurking just beneath that is Darwin’s survival of the fittest.”
In this, he says, it echoes the 1969 Sydney Pollack film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? –– a pitiless treatment of Depression-era dance marathons. They’re an allegory, not only of a rigged capitalist system, but of life-as-spectacle and life-as-meat grinder. Hardbody doesn’t go that far; it’s not the existentialist slog that Horses is. For one thing, many of the contestants appear to be thoroughly nice, decent people. And someone actually does win the pickup (whether that transforms their life is another question).
But talk about the punishment of Tantalus: “Here, buddy,” the truck contest basically says, “you get to hold the very thing you need until you can’t hold it any longer. Then we give it to somebody else.” Hardbody the film remains, at heart, a story of loss. The grateful winner doesn’t fully offset what we’ve seen of pain and need and failure. We witness one young loser limping off into the darkened lot, dazed and shoeless. She’s headed no one knows where.
So any Hardbody musical, as energetic and upbeat as it might be, was not going to traffic in the usual boot-scooting, yee-hawing Texas cliche characters. These people face foreclosure and unemployment. They’re the working poor, the people in Texas who haven’t been blessed by the state’s “economic miracle.” As Wright says, Hardbody is a Broadway musical that demonstrates “the lives of ordinary folks are worthy of dramatic attention.”
So Wright got composer-lyricist Amanda Green hooked on the project. And Green brought in composer Trey Anastasio of the rock band, Phish. Neil Pepe was hired as director (he staged the original, pre-Broadway Spring Awakening), David Carradine was the star. The show tried out in La Jolla, opened last year at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway and earned three Tony nominations.
And it died in less than a month. Broadway is less a last-person-standing contest than it is an unforgiving demolition derby.
“About once a year,” says Wright, “a lead critic in New York will write the familiar editorial: ‘Why are musicals all superficial glitz? Why can’t we have a musical about real human beings confronting the issues of the moment?’ And so I honestly thought we were serving that up on a silver platter and lo and behold, we didn’t survive very long.”
As something of a consolation prize, Hardbody has had a healthy life post-Broadway. There have been a dozen productions around the country, though Wright says he hasn’t seen them. Watching his labor of love close down was too painful; it took him 18 months before he could come to see Theatre Three’s area premiere. The experience, he says, has been “restorative.”
Wright goes way back, finding personal salvation with this theater. In 1979, when he was 14, Theatre Three executive producer Jac Alder cast him as a young boy in Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box. He sang “Goodnight Irene” onstage. After that, he did almost anything he could to stay there.
“I spent the bulk of my childhood in these halls,” he says, “or in the Teen/Children’s Theater Program, as it was called, at the Dallas Theater Center. And those two institutions enabled me, as a nervous young gay kid in Texas, to survive childhood.”
Wright says returning to Dallas with this show does offer one particular challenge. More than anyone, Texans will judge Hardbody on authenticity. Texans know trucks, they know their fellow Texans — in this case, Marine vets, immigrants, broken-down oil field workers.
The musical does take some liberties with the original material. Wright and Green have based eight characters on real people in the film, then they added two composite characters. More significantly, they’ve created a couple of sub-plots for melodrama. There are accusations the contest is fixed — it wasn’t in real life — and the creative team has seriously darkened the character of Bernie Perkins, here played by Ashley Wood. Perkins was the old pro — he’d won an earlier contest — and in the film, he’s a likable good ol’ boy who has a lot of clear-eyed wisdom to pass on. The fact, for instance, that this is actually a test of mental, not physical, endurance. All the buff young people we assume are the likely long-distance standees will, in fact, fall out fairly quickly. They can’t stay awake and stay sane. Perkins’ prediction is exactly what happens. But here, Perkins is made into a bitter, confrontational loner, practically the villain of the show.
Wright argues the changes were necessary: Hardbody is a story of attrition — much like Horses — and although one might think this lends suspense to the narrative (who will be next?), it mostly means the action involves one person after another giving up and walking offstage. We know what’s going to happen — over and over. So the story needs some complications, some conflict, to hold interest.
What is perhaps most daring, most honest about the musical — after the choice of blue-collar subject matter — is the decision to keep it as simple and static as the contest (and the documentary) itself: We never escape Jeffrey Schmidt’s amusingly realistic truck lot. There are no flashbacks, no widening of scope, no changes of scene to people’s humble living rooms. There have been Broadway musicals in which no one dances (Sondheim’s Passion, for example), but it’s hard to think of any in which the majority of choreographed moves are confined to pushing a truck, jumping on it and hanging on it, rarely leaving it. The impulse of almost any Broadway dance number is to push out, express energy and emotion by expanding, filling the stage with life and color.
Certainly, the show (and choreographer Zenobia Taylor) take advantage of the regular fifteen-minute breaks the contestants receive for outbursts of real movement. But the show’s basic physical compression is increased at Theatre Three, where the in-the-round stage doesn’t allow much room to maneuver a red Nissan Frontier. We get some slow trundling. But as Wright says, confining people like this only ramps up the drama. There’s no escape — from their hopes or their fears.
“Their souls are bared in the act of surviving this contest,” he says, “and we don’t need to leave the stage and go elsewhere. We need to be watching every drop of sweat fall from their brows, and we need to see their muscles strain as the days wear on.”
Directed by Jeffrey Schmidt, Hands on a Hardbody is one of the strongest, most consistent musical productions Theatre Three has offered recently. As one might expect from a Phish composer, Trey Anastasio is a master of many American styles. And the downhome East Texas setting provides him an opportunity to switch among country blues, slow country ballads, some rock ‘n’ roll — all of these flavored with Broadway accessibility and music director Sheilah Walker’s very capable skills.
As JD Drew, the middle-aged guy who alienates his wife but stays with the contest, Jim Johnson has a rich, old-fashioned baritone voice — it could use a more country sound — and he plays JD with a glum lack of charisma. He and Delynda Johnson Moravec, as his wife, have the show’s most touching duet, “Alone With Me,” about the distance between what they were as a couple and what they are now. Otherwise, the cast has some truly impressive vocals to handle all this, including Major Attaway, Molly Welch and especially Leah Clark, who plays the laughing, charismatic Christian who gets everyone eagerly slapping the truck in the show’s powerhouse tune, the gospel barn-burner, “Joy of the Lord.”
In fact, when it comes to issues of authenticity, Wright says one reason Hardbody has found an audience after Broadway is its treatment of ordinary faith. The language in the show is occasionally salty, but Wright and Green have created the rare musical that has characters who are actually decent, joyful Christians.
“If we were going to represent them truly,” he says, “we needed to honor that. And so it amuses us that this decadent gay playwright and this nice, Upper West Side Jewish girl have written a musical that has the church folk clapping their hands and stomping their feet. “