PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Doug Wright, Fleshing Out Real People in Hands On a Hardbody

By Kenneth Jones
20 Mar 2013

Allison Case in the La Jolla production.
Photo by Kevin Berne

I'm curious to know how you and songwriters Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green worked together. Did you discuss an outline and primary characters, with you writing a "play" to start, or was it more piecemeal than that?
DW: Early on, Amanda and I got out bulletin boards and notecards and started outlining our story. Often, she'd ask me to write monologues for characters that she would later turn into lyrics. Together, we wanted to be intimately familiar with every single beat in each character's journey. I've never worked so painstakingly with a lyricist before; she borrowed turns of phrase from me, and vice versa; I was only too happy to steal her jokes. I think we both felt responsible for the show's architecture, and so we built it together.

When Trey came aboard, he informed our work in astonishing ways. His knowledge of music is so vast — from the Delta blues to alt country to pure Americana and yes, even show tunes — that his musical impulses enriched our characters. And he's a real stickler for the truth; if details in my text didn't seem accurate — like the mention of a particular Marine base, for example — he challenged me to get it right. I'm so grateful to him for that.

How did this project and collaboration come to be? What are the seeds of Hands on a Hardbody?
DW: When I was living in Brooklyn, I rented the film one homesick night and fell hopelessly in love with it. I knew it could be a musical; these were characters whose hearts and hopes were so big they almost required songs. That said, I'm merely a playwright; I have a terrible sense of rhythm and I'm essentially tone deaf. I knew I'd need a formidable musical collaborator.

Amanda had approached me some years before about working together, but we'd been unable to find suitable material. In my soul, I knew she had both the hilarious wit and the stinging sense of pathos to bring Hands on a Hardbody to life. I sent her the film and asked her to watch it. She became as infatuated as I was, and together we flew to Los Angeles to meet the filmmaker and option the rights.

Later, she asked Trey to come onboard and compose the score with her. In no time at all, it was an obsession for him, too. All three of us have adopted it with a fanatical zeal; Amanda and Trey walled up for almost ten days in the country to pound out songs together. They'd email tunes to me; I'd send back book scenes. We'd get together at Amanda's apartment and pore over the script endlessly, reading and singing aloud. We've all poured our blood into this piece; it's a bona fide labor of love for each one of us.