I was first introduced to the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hardbody as a master's student at Sam Houston State University. A close friend shared her VHS copy of S.R. Bindler's acclaimed film with as many people as she could. Soon, our whole circle of friends would quote the film and gather to view it at parties. Needless to say, when the musical premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 2012, I was intrigued and looked forward to its transfer to Broadway. The musical garnered positive notices in California and opened to mostly positive reviews at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York City on March 21, 2013. But before I could see the show, it closed on Saturday, April 13, 2013. At the same time, Ghostlight Records announced it would record an Original Broadway Cast Recording of the music.
Perfectly embracing the atmosphere of small-town Texas, the score is composed by Trey Anastasio (Phish) and Amanda Green. During its New York run, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times wrote "the score ranges from gospel to blues to country to slightly rougher-edged rock." None of the instantly accessible tuneful songs sound like what we are accustomed to hearing on an Original Broadway Cast Recording, but each song is delightful and invigorating. The score and lyrics are fresh, enlivening, and filled with a splendid heart. The characters are not far-fetched caricatures, but blue collar neighbors, friends, and family. The songs emphasize the realistic aspects of their characters' lives as they attempt to win a new lease on life with a brand new hardbody truck. As Ronald sings, "Car don't make money/ Truck - make money."
Each of the ten contestants and a handful of the people that reside in Longview, Texas are given solos that emphasize their unique characters.Standouts include Norma's song "Joy of the Lord" and Janis' song "It's a Fix." Also: "If I Had This Truck," Don and Janis' "If She Don't Sleep," Chris' "Stronger," Jesus' "Born In Laredo," and Benny's "God Answered My Prayers." The most affecting track is "Used To Be" which laments the loss of distinctive personality in American small towns. Echoing "How do you know when you've gotten home," the cast and lyrics discuss how the mom and pops have all vanished in the wake of large chain corporations such as WalMart, Starbucks, and Applebee's and how every town now looks the same.
Filling a Broadway house enough to turn a profit is a tough task for any new musical. It is made even harder for a show with a small cast, minimalistic sets and costuming, and a story about people that are happily and far removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life. I suspect these aspects of the production were probably why the musical adaptation of Hands on a Hardbody closed so quickly on Broadway. Luckily, for those of us in Houston, TUTS Underground will be producing Hands on a Hardbody in Zilka Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts from June 12-22, 2014.
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Ghostlight Records released Hands on a Hardbody (Original Broadway Cast Recording) both in stores and via digital outlets on August 27, 2013. The album can be purchased from Ghostlight Records, iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere music is sold.