In the furor over "Kinky Boots," "Matilda" and "Pippin" two months ago at the Tony Awards, one musical show got skunked -- and it's my favorite new score of the last few years, hands down. (Good though "Kinky Boots" is.)
"Hands on a Hardbody" got three nominations: best score (Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green) and featured actor/actress nods for Keith Carradine and Keala Settle, who play two of the Texas contestants trying to win a truck by keeping one hand on the vehicle's body longer than the others. (Charlotteans may remember her cheerful Tracy Turnblad in the 2005 national tour of "Hairspray" or tragic Bloody Mary in the 2009 tour of "South Pacific.")
I've never been a Phish fan, but Anastasio (its guitarist and vocalist) wrote a diverse, melodically rich score for this musical. It ranges from rousing gospel numbers to fiddle-flavored country tunes to uptempo blues full of nasty electric guitar. Here are a couple of samples:
Lyricist Amanda Green ("Bring It On: The Musical"), the daughter of Tony-winning lyricist Adolph Green, grew up in New York. Librettist Doug Wright (a Pulitzer-winner for "I Am My Own Wife") grew up in a Dallas suburb. They have written compassionately for all the characters, from the Marine unable to adjust to civilian life to the Latina woman filled with the heavenly spirit to the elderly couple scraping along on their last thin dimes. Even the token bad guy, who has won a truck before and re-enters the contest out of sheer ego, justifies himself along the way and gets the most powerful song in the show: "God Answered My Prayers (He Said No)." The writers treat everyone with respect and affection, even the rib-shack hostess who tries to rig the contest.
Maybe the musical got short shrift because it doesn't have visual dazzle, power ballads, reams of cute kids or climactic uplift: The person who wins the contest, left alone onstage, can scarcely believe what has happened, though the cast reunites for the moving anthem "Keep Your Hands On It." The photos in the original cast album from Ghostlight Records show simple lighting, humble costumes and nothing on stage but 15 people and one truck.
But maybe that simplicity could make it attractive to a local producer. It ran for just one month this spring on Broadway, so I don't expect a national tour to come here. If any impresarios can get a vehicle onto their stages, this might play better in the South -- where people actually drive trucks -- than on the Great White Way.