PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Doug Wright, Fleshing Out Real People in Hands On a Hardbody
By Kenneth Jones
Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) talks about digging into his Texas roots to create the book of the new Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody, inspired by the film documentary about Lone Star State dreamers.
Dramatist Doug Wright has written about real people before: Broken Long Island socialites Edie and Edith Beale in the musical Grey Gardens, for example, and the singular Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived the Nazis and the communists, in I Am My Own Wife, for which Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play. But never has a work by Wright been so close to home as it is with the fact-based Hands on a Hardbody, the tale of disparate and desperate Texans who participate in an endurance contest — last man standing with their hands on a Nissan "hardbody" pickup truck wins the vehicle. Wright, a Dallas native, "got" the people and setting of the story, inspired by the 1997 film documentary of the same name. Wright shared with Playbill.com some of the challenges and joys of creating the populist ensemble musical, which has music by Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame) and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Green (High Fidelity).
The Nissan dealership in the film "Hands on a Hardbody" is located in Longview, TX, somewhere between Shreveport and Dallas. You're a Dallas native. How much of your attraction to this project was its Texas setting? Do you think if it had been set in North Dakota you would have been drawn to it?
What strikes you as specifically "Texan" about this story? Or what of Texas did you bring to the musical?
Remind me — how deep is your history in Texas? Are there generations of Texas Wrights? And were trucks in your DNA?
When did you leave Texas? And you ever miss the barbecue?
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?
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?
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.
When adapting a documentary that includes elements from the lives of ordinary people who are still living, are there any special challenges or obstacles for as the adaptor? That is, do you need to get special permission to dramatize them?
Somewhat desperately, we sent the DVD to a private detective in East Texas, so he could locate them for us. Once we got a list of addresses, we hopped a plane to Dallas, drove to Longview, and started knocking on doors. Our purpose was twofold: to secure the cooperation of the contestants, and to interview them about their experience.
It was a hilarious, exhilarating trip; we found ourselves on porches in tiny towns like Gladewater, TX, saying chirpily, "Hi, we're Broadway writers from New York and we'd like to put you in a show, all because you entered a crazy contest 15 years ago at the local Nissan dealership!" Folks were shocked, but gracious. J.D. and his wife Virginia Drew invited us in for egg salad, and Benny Perkins took us on a night-time bar crawl through Longview that neither Amanda nor I will ever forget.
We've kept in touch with all of them. Virginia Drew just sent me a new batch of her home-made jalapeno jelly, and every major Christian holiday, I get a lovely note from Norma Valverde. J.D. Drew even built me a birdhouse, with a bent Texas license plate for a roof. And our whole cast at the Brooks Atkinson enjoys Facebook friendship with Benny Perkins.
How much did you find yourself using your own imagination to fill in the blanks of the characters? There is a certain lack of what we might call "backstory" to some of the characters.
Were there characters from the film that did not make into the musical? Are there composites or conflated characters? Are there any wholly original Doug Wright-created folks?
There has been criticism of these endurance competitions in recent years — some have said that it puts contests at risk, mentally and physically, all in the name of promoting a car dealership. One contestant from another competition committed suicide after losing. Did the idea of exploitation — which contestants freely signed up for, of course — inform your work?
What did you learn in t La Jolla Playhouse during the world premiere in 2012, and what work did you set out to do before Broadway?
What have you learned in previews on Broadway?
The people of the film offer choice phrases and observations, like sagacious Benny, who says, "It's a human drama thing, it's not just a competition, it's not just a contest, it's human drama, it's human life happening." There's a line about "tryers." Is this gold for a dramatist? Did you lift lines, wholesale, from the film?
Everybody in the contest comes in with different motives and expectations and needs. The truck means different things to different people, as you point out in your program note in the Playbill — it's about manhood, money, making life and work easier, etc. Beyond the specific wish for that Nissan pickup, what one common thing did you and Trey and Amanda and director Neil Pepe point to as their unifying desire or "want"? What is universal, as far as you're concerned?
I got the sense from the film that these "characters" formed an odd kind of family by the end of their 70-something-hour endurance ordeal, supporting each other, caring for each other — even though two days earlier they were strangers. Do you see them as a family? Did that idea come up in discussions with your collaborators?
We long to see love stories in musicals. If not romantic love, I sensed bonds and affection in the film. Is there a complicated flow chart in your files that maps out the relationships of all ten contestants, and what each means to the other?
Some people who have not seen the film or the musical, but know the premise — people keeping their hands on a truck for days, in order to win the vehicle — have asked, "If they are stuck to that truck, isn't the experience physically passive? Do they dance?" The film makes clear that contestants get a five-minute break every hour, with some other breaks, too, which allows their hands to be off of that hardbody. What kind of discussion did you and your collaborators have about making the show move?
If you entered an endurance contest like the one in the film, how long would you last?
What's next for you as a dramatist? Can you share any upcoming projects?
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
Here's video produced by La Jolla Playhouse, where Hands on a Hardbody had a 2012 tryout:
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