Previews for the populist show — inspired by the recently re-released 1997 film documentary of the same name — began Feb. 23 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It opened March 21. The musical was commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse, which produced its pre-Broadway premiere in 2012. Reviews were mixed-to-positive, but box office for the ensemble show was anemic in previews, hovering around $200,000 a week, with an average ticket price of about $32.
By closing, it will have played 28 previews and 28 regular performances.
Neil Pepe (Speed-the-Plow and artistic director of Atlantic Theater Company) directs the production, which features a Nissan "hardbody" pickup center-stage. Unlike Broadway's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in which the title fantasy vehicle was hoisted by crane to "fly," this truck does not levitate — it spins into multiple positions (pushed around by cast members) in an impressive display of what you might call "car-eography." Musical staging is by Sergio Trujillo (Memphis, Next to Normal, Jersey Boys).
Like A Chorus Line, the show is an event-based experience in which contestants are cut throughout the show, leading to a lone winner, creating consistent dramatic tension. The premise is simple: Last one standing with his or her hand on the hardbody wins the truck.
Librettist Wright (Grey Gardens and I Am My Own Wife) and lyricist Green (High Fidelity) conjure the world of Longview, TX, and sketch in the backstories of the hardscrabble folk, revealing a dormant marriage (played by Keith Carradine and non-contestant Mary Gordon Murray), racism and grief (played by Hunter Foster), career aspiration (Jon Rua, as a "Tex-Mex" student), faith in Jesus (Keala Settle, in a turn likely to earn her a Tony nomination for its sheer, giddy vivacity), budding young love (Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson, sweet hicks), beauty-queen-style tenacity (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), bubbling rage (David Larsen, playing a Middle East war), poor planning (Jacob Ming-Trent, playing a character who feasts on Snickers bars throughout the ordeal) and redneck idiosyncracy (Dale Soules as the oldest female contestant, doing it for her kids — with her quirky hubby, played by William Youmans, on the sidelines). Surrounding the action are representatives of the dealership (played by Jim Newman and Connie Ray) who are as flawed and economy-lashed as the contestants. A radio announcer (played by Scott Wakefield) adds some structure.
Critics found the show appealingly small-scaled, human and likable, if modest to a fault.
"Although it's far from fully loaded in a conventional sense," said the Times, "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 that's a far cry from the fantasyland of most commercial musicals. Hands on a Hardbody simply sings forth a story of endurance, hardship and the dimming American dream, which increasingly seems to hover on the distant horizon like some last-ditch motel whose neon lights are blinking out one by one."
|photo by Kevin Berne|
"A seemingly far-fetched stage show," wrote the AP, saying what everybody was thinking. But, "by the end of the show, you'll swear that truck can dance. You might, too. Anastasio and Green have written a soundtrack of mostly fine songs in a nice mix of styles — blues, gospel, country and honky-tonk — that will fire you right up. Playwright Doug Wright has had some fun himself, the cast is committed and realistic, and the whole thing is a pleasing, tuneful, heart-filled ode to small towns and American dreams."
"Broadway has been sorely in need of a new musical that touches the heart without insulting the intelligence," declared the Wall Street Journal. "Now it's got one."
While praise was general, it only went up to a point. Wrote the Daily News, expressing a common sentiment, "Loaded with a cabful of fine performers, this song-laced lament about surviving hard times offers a decent ride. So much so, you wish it were better, tighter and carried a more affecting payoff. As is, it's a bit of a missed opportunity."
The music, flirting with blues, folk, gospel and R&B, is co-written by Anastasio (frontman of the jam band Phish) and Green (a collaborator on Bring It On). Carmel Dean is the musical director and vocal arranger.
"The musical was inspired by the documentary; it's not wholly faithful to it," Wright told Playbill.com in a recent interview. "The demands of the stage are very different. As dramatists, we knew we needed to serve our own story and our chosen themes first. We saw the contest as a metaphor for the country in this particular historical moment; it tackles issues very present in the current culture, from the war over immigration policy to income equality and the slow erasure of the working class. We try to be true to the essential spirit of both the film and its subjects, but — first and foremost — we wanted to serve our own story."
Here's how the producers bill the fact-inspired new American musical: "For ten hard-luck Texans, a new lease on life is so close they can touch it. Under a scorching sun for days on end, armed with nothing but hope, humor and ambition, they'll fight to keep at least one hand on a brand new truck in order to win it. In the hilarious, hard-fought contest that is Hands on a Hardbody, only one winner can drive away with the American Dream."
The show's Tony-winning design team includes scenic designer Christine Jones (American Idiot), costume designer Susan Hilferty (Wicked), lighting designer Kevin Adams (Spring Awakening), sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy (Jersey Boys), with orchestrations by Trey Anastasio and Don Hart.
The La Jolla Playhouse production of Hands On a Hardbody is produced on Broadway by Broadway Across America – Beth Williams, Barbara Whitman/Latitude Link, Dede Harris/Sharon Karmazin, Howard & Janet Kagan, and John & Claire Caudwell, Rough Edged Souls, Joyce Primm Schweickert, Paula Black/Bruce Long, and Off The Aisle Productions/Freitag-Mishkin.
The show was commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse (Christopher Ashley, artistic director & Michael S. Rosenberg, managing director), where it had its world premiere in 2012.
For those American dreamers who might not be able to pay top price for the show, Hands On a Hardbody has a discount "rush ticket" policy: A limited number of $32 rush tickets (price includes $2 facility fee) are available for every performance. These rush tickets, which are available to all patrons, are cash only and can be purchased at the box office only, beginning at 10 AM the day of the performance. There is a limit of two tickets per person.
For more information, visit handsonahardbody.com.
Watch highlights from the Broadway production: