“Hands On A Hardbody” opened last week on Broadway after a run at the LaJolla Playhouse, bringing some of the west coast cast with it. I grabbed tickets on the pre-sale because the last tow musicals that looked appealing during previews (Once and Book of Mormon) took home wheelbarrows full of Tonys that put ticket prices through the newly renovated theater roofs. Besides, how can you argue with a score written by Phish’s Trey Anastasio, especially when he teased the show last New Year’s Eve (with “Burn That Bridge”) and two years ago with “My Problem Right There”.
Broadway has seen its share of shows built around songs, with character development wrapped around a book assembled from pieces, rather than in the other direction. Think “Movin’ Out”, “American Idiot” and “Mama Mia.” “Hardbody” goes in the other direction – it’s based on a documentary film about a real-world contest to see who could keep their hands on a pickup truck the longest. The characters are rooted in reality, the dialogue flows from their less theatrical existence, and the songs were written to make a musical rather than making a musical out of a song catalog. Even knowing two of the numbers going in, I was pleasantly surprised to see (and hear) how they moved the story along.
Hardbody goes against the grain of the classic musical, though, in that it doesn’t offer us escape from reality for three hours (as “The Drowsy Chaperone” reminds us one should). It’s a view into a dozen different American realities, as vivid and relevant in 2013 as they were in the mid-90s when the actual events transpired. What makes it work is that it’s an original story about American values – pickup trucks and contests – told through truly American-influenced music (where else can you hear a dobro, mandolin and pedal steel guitar on a Broadway soundtrack) – about that most American of values – love. Yes, it’s a love story, although the objects of affection involve people, deities, animals and of course, trucks.
Without spoiling one of the finer points of the show – it is possible to have top-notch choreography when nearly every scene involves people holding on to a truck. You have to see it to appreciate it. And go see it, soon, because it gets my early Tony vote for best book, best orchestration, and quite possibly best musical.