Tuesday, August 27, 2013


This ain't your typical musical theatre score. Hands on a Hardbody, the short-lived Broadway musical by Phish band member Trey Anastasio and lyricist Amanda Green, has been beautifully immortalized on a terrific recording by Sh-K-Boom Records that will make you wonder why this heartfelt, bare-bones little show didn't last longer on the Great White Way.

Perhaps Broadway isn't as welcoming of something different as it should be. There's no glitz of flash in this show, nor any in the score. The music, a tough-as-nails blues, folk, country, and rock score, sounds more like a playlist for a road trip through the American South than anything you'd ever hear on a Broadway stage... though, I have no doubt that was what Anastasio and Green were going for. It gets the head nodding and the toes tapping, that's for sure.

Hands on a Hardbody is one of those rare musicals based on a documentary (the only other Broadway show like that which comes to mind is the terrific Grey Gardens) which features a bunch of working-class women and men competing to win a brand new, shiny hardbody pick-up truck. How to win this truck? They must all keep their hands on the truck's body for as long as they possibly can without leaning on the truck or removing their hand entirely. The last remaining person takes home the grand prize. Each person that competes, however, has their own personal and poignant reasons for wanting to win this truck. For some, it's financial need... for others, it's for personal validation of self-worth... and for the rest, it's the means of achieving a dream. The show is very much 'A Chorus Line' meets Garth Brooks or Johnny Cash, though 'A Chorus Line' has more bite and savage pain.

The music sounds as typically country-rock as anything of the genre you've heard before, and nothing in the score can really be considered innovative... save for an inventive, if predictable, use of the truck itself as percussion during the show's rousing a capella gospel number. Also predictable, quite often are Amanda Green's otherwise great lyrics. This isn't really a complaint, because even though you can sometimes predict rhymes or even whole verses to come, the words Green has written are very genuine and human. They don't necessarily surprise, but they do move... quite deeply, at times.

And for the times where the lyrics don't work or the music sounds relatively standard, a buoyant, energetic, and passionate cast saves the day. Hunter Foster, Keith Carradine, Dale Soules, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Allison Case, and Keala Settle are just the tip of the iceberg in this excellent ensemble, Settle being a stand-out as the funny, touching, and deeply religious Norma. Settle is just as excellent at making us laugh as she is at breaking out hearts, and her obligatory big-belting gospel solo Joy of the Lord brings down the house. Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case are also excellent in their terrific and catchy duet I'm Gone, another highlight of the score.

Did this show deserve to close as early as it did? Absolutely not. The score, despite a few quibbles, is wholly terrific and energetic... it lives and breathes. The cast is amazing. The show itself is ambitious and refreshingly human. At least we have this wonderful recording, immortalized perfectly by the unparalleled Sh-K-Boom Records, to preserve what should have had a longer life on the New York stage. Here's hoping this little-show-that-could finds the success it deserves elsewhere. Get this album if you like show music that dares to be different.

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