Directors say ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ is unparalleled in American Theater today


By Diana Saenger

The La Jolla Playhouse’s April 27 season opener is based on the 1997 documentary film, “Hands on a Hardbody,” about contestants who compete in an endurance/sleep deprivation contest to win a brand new hardbody truck. After seeing a short preview of the musical it’s apparent this production hits the high notes in every way — solid story, amazing songs and terrific actors.

“Hands on a Hardbody” is a world-premiere musical commissioned by The Playhouse for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife,” “Creditors”). Wright said he got the idea after seeing the documentary.

“It’s a wonderful, sly piece of filmmaking because once you start watching, you think, ‘what a ridiculous premise,’” he said. “But then you see these profound truths emerging about where we are, our loss of identity and sense of squandered opportunity. Yet, we also see our spirit, resourcefulness and tenacity, so I felt like it was a stunning portrait of our country in this moment, and I knew it was stage worthy.”

In addition to Wright, an incredible team has been brought together to create the show: Amanda Green, music and lyrics; Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame), music; Neil Pepe, direction; Benjamin Millepied, musical staging; Zachary Dietz, music direction; Christine Jones, scenic design; Susan Hilferty, costume design; Tony Award-winner Kevin Adams, lighting design; Steve Canyon Kennedy, sound design; and Playhouse resident dramaturg Shirley Fishman.

Director Pepe likes that this is a “big American musical.” “It’s about the lives of these people and the music is eclectic with rock ‘n’ roll, ballads and folksy country blues. It’s not just themed at one audience, it will appeal to everyone.”

While the story of strangers coming together in Longview, Texas, each hoping to change his life or her by winning a new truck is compelling, the ensemble putting this show together have high praise for the music. Wright, Pepe, actor Keith Carradine (who appears in the show), and Playhouse Managing Director Michael Rosenberg couldn’t say enough about the team.

“This is our 70th commissioned production and what we’re doing here is unparalleled in American Theater today,” Rosenberg said.

Green’s lyrics can be found in productions like “Bring It On: The Musical,” Broadway’s “High Fidelity,” and the revival of “Hallelujah Baby.” Peers consider her lyrics for Hardbody, “amazing.”

“I wrote all these scenes I knew were destined for the trash bin, but I knew I’d get in return heart-stopping sentiments expressed in rhyme with beautiful melodies,” Wright said about Green’s talent.

Anastasio is a founding member of the Grammy-nominated rock band Phish and drew high praises from the “Hardbody” creative team.

“In talking with Amanda early on and listening to some of her songs, they were beautiful,” Pepe said. “And then they brought Trey (Anastasio) who has this incredible sensibility of rock ‘n’ roll songs and all kinds of music, so it became very exciting to want to direct.”

Tony Award-winner Carradine plays one of the lead characters (JD) in the show. In addition to his huge film and TV résumé, Carradine has an impressive stage career. He said there were several factors that enticed him to do this show.

“Amanda has a brilliant pedigree,” he said. “When I heard Trey was involved and heard some of the songs and then read the script, which is so completely original in every aspect, I couldn’t wait to be a part of it,” Carradine said.

“This production is like lightening in the bottle. There’s something so fresh about it, and the collaboration that is bringing it together. I haven’t come across anything in many years that captures this moment, and I’ve done a lot.”