As mainstream musicals go, Hands on a Hardbody is something of a Rorschach test, at least among my fellow musical dramatists, among whom it has been the cause of some lively (and happily always respectful, anywhere I’ve been around to hear or share in the discussion anyway) controversy and disagreement.
Based on a documentary film, it’s about an annual Texas competition, in which a bunch of mostly working-class people from various walks of life, gather together to win a new hardbody truck. The competition is simple enough. You put on work gloves (so as not to mar the finish) and put your hands on the car. At least one hand has to stay in contact with the car at all times, except for official periodic breaks of about 15 minutes to eat and take care of other necessaries. The competition goes on for as many days as it needs to until all but the winner fall away. It has a lot in common with marathon dancing…and weirdly, with A Chorus Line (a group of variegated people gather, each in pursuit of the same objective)…so little wonder it has inspired a musical.
The controversy has arisen over a number of things.
First are the collection of characters: Anytime you deal in a gestalt objective shared by many, you are perforce also dealing with characters who have to be painted in quick, bold strokes. That naturally takes you to archetypes. By definition, the only thing you can do to make an archetype fresh is offer particularization. Even so, the milieu presents its own challenges. There’s no question that the group in A Chorus Line is more compelling than the group in Hardbody, but much of that has to do with the nature of the group itself. The performers in ACL are all renegades from society (nobody “normal” goes into show business), and though it is their dreams of acceptance that inspire universal appeal, their world is not instantly familiar to the lay audience, and the archetypes of that world, even all these years after the show’s debut, can still be seen as discoveries. But in Hardbody, the Texas types are all familiar: the bigoted macho guy (Hunter Foster); the middle-aged husband trying recklessly to reclaim his manhood after a debilitating, life changing heart attack (Keith Carradine), the poor black woman who needs the car for her family and knows Jesus will provide if her faith never wavers (Keala Settle), the blonde bimbo (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) and etc. and etc. (All wonderfully portrayed by a strong and terrific cast.) You can see them as anything from a collection of clichés in a redneck fest better suited for life on the road, or as a cross-section of blue collar America and a poignant sociological portrait of poor and disenfranchised dreamers in a country that should do better for the less fortunate. I’ve heard both assessments and a lot in between.
Then there’s movement. Director Neil Pepe and choreographer (though he’s credited only with “musical staging”) Sergio Trujillo don’t keep all players strictly tethered to the car during the contest portions—but they exhaust just about every conceivable trick for moving around a truck and moving with a truck (it’s on a turntable and can move forward and back), as well as stretch the limits to which individual characters in the spotlight can separate from the truck “poetically” in order to take stage, while we understand we’re in their minds…but always “buttoning” their segments by getting pulled back to the car as if by slow gravity. And similar to the above, you can see all of this as anything from what-were-they-thinking dull and repetitive to a brilliant experimentation on the notion of finding (as Stravinsky put it) freedom within restriction.
Finally there’s the score. There are those who hear it as standard issue deep country. But if you accept that it ain’t gonna sing you anything you haven’t heard before, you can pause to appreciate how co-composers Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green and especially Ms. Green as sole lyricist have managed the rare (and perhaps in my experience previously unencountered) trick of getting some pastel character shadings out of a musical genre that relentlessly expresses itself in primary colors.
As a consumer advocate I can recommend the show in the way I’d recommend any show that takes an interesting shot at a target with dignity and creativity. But as to offering some definitive assessment: I don’t think there’s one to be had. Where do my personal feelings about Hardbody lie? Oh, right in the middle, I’m afraid. I had a very good time and admired the show as a whole, but it didn’t rock my world. I found it mostly interesting and forgave the brief stretches where it wore out its welcome because it stayed on point with savvy and style. I left happy enough, but not juiced. Though the Saturday night audience with whom I attended sure was.
In short: Hardbody, more than most debate-worthy musicals I can think of, is very much in the hands of the beholder…
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