Hands on a Hardbody – Park Playhouse (Albany, NY), 7/24/14

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I can’t always predict what is going to spark my attention. Like most people, I have my particular triggers for what I am going to be interested in; you come to me with anything related to the NY Yankees, The Wire, Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Seinfeld (man or show), Jon Hamm, Dave Grohl, Jack White, Jimmy Fallon, Journey, or the Muppets and you are guaranteed to at least spark my interest. These are well established and my affinity for these people and things has been exploited on more than one occasion by someone trying to get themselves out of the doghouse. If Hamm and Fallon teamed up to do a baseball movie and the soundtrack was done by the Foo Fighters, I don’t think anyone would be surprised at my enthusiasm and obsession with that project (which, by the way, sounds AMAZING – someone start working on it).

Then there are other times when I’m not particularly sure why something has struck my fancy; absent any of my normal indicators, I still occasionally get very invested in projects that I wouldn’t necessarily predict. This is not to say that people don’t like things outside their normal interests – of course they do. Rather, it is the level of interest that is a surprise to me. Sometimes I just fixate on some unexpected things. The musical Hands on a Hardboy is one of those things.

When I first heard that they were developing a musical based on the cult documentary of the same name, there was no reason that should have captured my attention. While I really enjoy documentaries – especially about out of the ordinary things – I hadn’t seen Hands on a Hardbody. The film wasn’t easily available on DVD or streaming; in fact, the only reason I even knew of its existence was because it was occasionally referenced on Pop Candy, a blog that I used to religiously read (and that inspired me to start my own blog). So I didn’t have any deep affinity for the source material, though a documentary about a contest in Texas where the person who kept their hand on a truck the longest would win it sounded like something that I would be attracted to. The fact that Trey Anastasio, frontman for Phish, was collaborating on the score and songs certainly helped put the show on my radar, though while I enjoy Phish I certainly am a casual fan at best. I’ve seen them three times live, which in the Phish universe of fandom barely registers. Even my friends who are die-hard Phish fans don’t really recognize me as a fan, since they never invite me to go to shows with them. So on the surface, there is no clear explanation for why I would have taken more than a passing interest in this musical. It seems like something that I would file away in my mind and then vaguely remember down the road.

That’s not what happened, however; for whatever reason, I’ve been quietly stalking this musical since its inception, monitoring all news about its progress. Surprisingly, no one that I mentioned this project to had any idea what I was talking about, including Phish fans (Ha! Who’s the fan now?). I kept tabs on it from its first live reading in 2011 through its debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in California; I even investigated whether I could incorporate seeing the show with a trip to visit my friends in San Francisco (no go – too far away). When the show finally opened on Broadway in February of 2013, I moved it to the top of my wish list for shows to see (right behind The Book of Mormon). Unfortunately, while I was still working out arrangements with my friend Amanda, who is my Broadway buddy, to go with me, the show closed after only 28 previews and 28 regular performances. After that failed run, I assumed that the dream was dead. Hands on a Hardbody would be a footnote of Broadway history, one of many shows that couldn’t find an audience and that would essentially be forgotten. I just assumed that it must not have been very good.

Fast forward to 2014. We are lucky here in Albany to have free theater every summer through the Park Playhouse in Washington Park. They usually do two productions a summer – a regular show and then one that is more for children – and their shows are always on my radar as something to do in the summer. The quality and selection of productions varies year to year; I’ve only actually made it to a performance once over the years (Gypsy) but I was very impressed with it. In the past, their selections have been pretty pedestrian and have mostly been shows that I either have very little interest in (Spamalot) or are shows that I’ve already seen. I’ve always been glad to know that Park Playhouse is around to give people an opportunity to be exposed to the theater for free, but there has been very little overlap in what I’ve been interested in seeing and what they’ve performed.

Until this year.

When the announcement was made for this summer’s production, you could have knocked me over with a feather. They were doing Hands on a Hardbody! I was thrilled that I would have the opportunity to finally see it, but the selection was a little perplexing to me. Why was a theater company that normally does standards or bona fide Broadway hits embarking on the production of a show that lasted barely a month on Broadway? It seemed like a very confusing choice. But I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth; I’d been willing to pay Broadway prices to see this show and now I was going to be able to see it for free without having to leave town. I have to assume that the summer production wasn’t made specifically to make me happy in particular, but if it was they did a hell of a job. A rainy summer put a damper – literally – on the production’s month long season, but I finally found a clear night to see the show right before it closed.

After all the (self-created) hype and interest, I’m relieved to report that I really enjoyed the musical. I really have no idea why it struggled to find an audience – it was a funny show that also had some heart and the songs and score were fantastic. Some of the dialogue was a little ridiculous, but I find that to be the case with plenty of Broadway quality shows. The story was creative and different; while it wasn’t necessarily the quality of Book of Mormon, it was very entertaining and should have done better than it did during its original run. Perhaps these regional productions will drum up some interest and five years from now we’ll see a revival.

The show follows ten contestants who are participating in a promotion by a local car dealership – they must stand with one hand on a truck until there is only one person left. That person will win the tucks. Violate any of the rules – removing your hand, taking off the gloves that must be worn, leaning or resting on the truck – and you are eliminated. The story focuses not only on the actual competition, but on the back story of the individuals that are participating. With hard economic times upon them, many of them view the truck as their ticket to opportunity – they can either use the truck to get out of their Texas town or to find more gainful employment or they can sell the truck for a small financial windfall. The documentary on which the musical is based is from 1997, but the economic circumstances of the participants are even more relatable today, thanks to our recent economic downturn.

Among the contestants are a religious woman, a recently returned Marine, a self-identified redneck woman (cheered on by her husband), and a returning champ who won the contest two years ago and who serves as the de facto villain of the show. Each character is given a moment to shine over the course of the musical and has either a solo or duet where their story and personality are highlighted. Though the contestants are mostly tethered to the truck for the duration of the show, this isn’t a stagnant performance; there are momentary breaks from reality that allow the performers to move freely across the stage. The titular hardbody is also attached to sliders so that it can move with the performers – they are able to dance and reorient themselves without having to let go. It’s kind of cool to watch as they spin the truck round and round during the performance.

The strength of the musical is definitely the musical numbers; the songs stick in your head and quickly establish this motley crew of contestants. The songs cover many different genres to represent the personalities of the individuals; there is some gospel, blues, rock and country infused into the songs, so there really is something for everyone. The variety is impressive – Anastasio and Amanda Green did an excellent job of blending all those inspirations into a cohesive musical that doesn’t feel like a haphazard attempt to hit as many musical genres as possible. My only real complaint about the show, other than some hokey dialogue, is that it is on the long side. The performance that I saw ran about 2.5 hours and while some of that may due to the pacing by this particular cast, there is still a lot of material crammed into this show for them to cover even at a more frenetic pace. If they could trim just a little of the filler, they would have a leaner and meaner show that would be far more efficient storytelling.

Despite the lulls in some of the non-musical moments, Hands on a Hardbody was still an engrossing musical. The stakes are seemingly pretty low, but I definitely had people that I was rooting to win this fictional contest. I wasn’t the only one – when a particular contestant was eliminated, there was an audible gasp from the crowd. If you make people react that way, you’ve done something right.

I was curious enough about the original documentary after seeing the performance that I decided to plunk down some cash for a digital download. I wanted to know what they had created out of whole cloth for the musical and what they kept from the source material. I’d be waiting for the documentary to eventually come out on Netflix prior to this point, since I am loathe to pay $6 for a film I’ll see only once, but my inquisitiveness got the better of me so I had to break down and spend the cash. Surprisingly, the musical is extremely close to what happened in real life. While some things were added to ramp up the drama, the majority of the musical mirrors the documentary. Lines uttered by the real life contestants are used as song lyrics and while there are more contestants in the documentary, it is pretty clear that the characters in the play are direct copies of the Texan combatants. The documentary itself was fun as well, though because the musical paralleled it so closely it felt a little repetitive.

I don’t know what the future will hold for Hands on a Hardbody, but I am glad that I finally got to see it performed. Though it has a limited Broadway run, there was a soundtrack released and I’ll probably download it to be able to listen to the songs I liked the most. I hope that the show has a second life performed in regional and community theaters and I’m glad that the Park Playhouse took a chance on it. Personally, I think that they should have marketed the Phish connection harder to attract more fans; if you have a fan base that is willing to travel the country to follow your band, they would probably be willing to make the trip to NYC. I also wonder if people found the name confusing; when I hear the word hardbody, the first thing that I think of isn’t a truck (perhaps because I am not a Texan). Even if Hands on a Hardbody doesn’t become terribly successful, Anastasio and Green should be proud of their finished product. They created an impressive musical that is both entertaining and endearing.

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