Don't let the title fool you. The hardbody in the new musical Hands on a Hardbody doesn't belong to one of the gym-fit dancers from Newsies, but refers to a shiny new Nissan pickup truck. And the hands belong to ten strangers competing to see who can keep one hand on that truck the longest. The contestant with the most nerve — and tenacity — wins the marathon and drives away with the American Dream.
Writing the show itself is a dream come true for composer Trey Anastasio, lead singer for the much beloved alt-rock jam band Phish. "To say that it's an honor to write a Broadway musical is an understatement," Anastasio says. "This is an art form that predates what I do… it has a depth of tradition, a tapestry of tradition."
For a man whose improvisatory band toured for over 20 years and never played the same set list twice — and whose music spans across genres from jazz to reggae to folk — Broadway represents a return to Anastasio's musical roots. Growing up in Princeton, NJ, his mother regularly brought him to New York to see shows: "The soundtrack of my life was original cast albums," he says. "Hearing West Side Story for the first time changed my life."
Indeed, Anastasio's senior project in college was to write a musical. The result, Gamehendge, is an oddball fantasy. (Think of a Dungeons & Dragons-type game set in Stonehenge. Get it?) The mere mention of the title causes Anastasio's face to turn as red as his hair, but Gamehendge lived on as a cult favorite at Phish concerts. Anastasio's buoyant enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of musical theatre has charmed Hardbody's team of collaborators, especially Doug Wright, Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am My Own Wife and book writer for musicals like Grey Gardens and The Little Mermaid.
"Trey is a true marvel in rehearsal," Wright says. "One minute he's citing the influence of an obscure Louisiana blues band and in the next he's [discussing] old footage of John Raitt singing in Carousel."
The idea for the musical began with Wright when he saw the award-winning 1997 documentary film of the same name. Texas-born, Wright was drawn to the real-life contestants, a motley crew of down-on-their luck Texans whose fate is held literally in their own hands. "The characters in the film are such glorious, engaging raconteurs," Wright says, "it's not hard to imagine them breaking into song."
Having already adapted a documentary into the Tony Award-winning Grey Gardens, Wright turned to his longtime friend, lyricist Amanda Green — most recently represented on Broadway with the ebullient cheerleader musical Bring It On. "Amanda can draft a lyric that has you doubled over in laughter in one line then breaks your heart in the next. She's brought so much more to this project than I ever dreamed."
A singer-songwriter with ties to Nashville, Green grew up steeped in Broadway tradition as the daughter of lyricist Adolph Green ( On the Twentieth Century, Bells Are Ringing, One the Town and Hallelujah, Baby!) and Tony Award-winning actress Phyllis Newman. In addition to her genetic predisposition for finding the funny in any situation, Green is grateful to count no less than Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim as a lyric-writing mentor. "Only someone who grew up living and breathing in that atmosphere can possibly have the comic timing and sensibility she has," Anastasio says.
Determined to capture the full spectrum of the contest participants' experience, Wright and Green hired a private detective to track down several of them, and then made a cross-country odyssey to conduct interviews. It turned out that finding them was easier than finding a composer. "Finally, I couldn't wait," Green says, "so I just dove in and started writing." As a result, Green shares composing duties with the man who eventually became her collaborator.
A mutual friend introduced Green to Anastasio — "a psychiatrist with whom neither of us is a patient," Anastasio reports — and they discovered in one another kindred spirits, not just for their off-beat sensibilities, but in their work habits. "I love to work," Anastasio says, "so I'll send an e-mail to Amanda at seven in the morning and I'll get one back at 7:01. I've tried that with other collaborators, but…"
"We're all obsessed," Green says, finishing his sentence.
The team grew to include director Neil Pepe ( Speed-the-Plow) when it premiered at California's La Jolla Playhouse, a production that earned critical raves and put Hardbody on the fast track to Broadway. The cast features the return to Broadway of Keith Carradine ( The Will Rogers Follies) and Hunter Foster ( Urinetown, Little Shop of Horrors), as well as choreographer Sergio Trujillo ( Memphis), who was tasked with the challenge of getting ten actors to dance while keeping one hand on the shiny truck parked center stage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
The parking metaphor looms large in Anastasio's mind as he prepares for his Broadway debut: "Writing a Broadway musical feels like parallel parking a cruise ship," he says. "If you look at a cruise ship captain you probably think, 'His job isn't hard. He just stands up there and turns a little wheel.'" Anastasio smiles. "But that's not the way it goes."
(This feature appears in the March 2013 issue of Playbill magazine.)