New Line Theatre Gets Its 'Hands On A Hardbody'

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

I know what you’re thinking. When you saw the play’s title, “Hands On A Hardbody,” and noted the theater, you naturally assumed it was another sex-filled romp with lusty dance numbers that New Line offers in hefty doses each season. You are wrong. In this case, the “hardbody” does not belong to a well-buffed human, but a truck. A red Nissan how-the-hell-did-they-get-it-on-the-stage, hardbody truck. It is a musical, but there are no dance numbers, lusty or otherwise. Instead, it is a seriocomic look at how people cope with dreams, heartache, and the near-heroic effort it takes—in the face of serious economic difficulties—just to survive until tomorrow.

Cast of "Hands On A Hardbody" at New Line Theatre Courtesy New LIne Theatre

Cast of “Hands On A Hardbody” at New Line Theatre
Courtesy New LIne Theatre

The play—with book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Amanda Green—just had a short run on Broadway last year. New Line’s production will be the first since its Broadway premiere.

The story is about an actual promotional contest that went on for years in Longview, East Texas, where 24 contestants would stand there with their hands on a truck. They got 5 minutes off every hour, 15 minutes off every six hours, and the last one standing with their hand on the truck won. The play is based on a 1997 documentary about the contest.

“Crazy stuff happens,” says Scott Miller, artistic director of New Line who is also directing the play. “People start suffering delusions and develop all kinds of crazy physical problems. The contest ended in 2005 because one guy in the contest lost, walked across the street—this was the middle of the night—broke into K-Mart, went to the gun department, got a gun and shot himself in the head. So they stopped the contest. It’s hardcore.”

All the characters in the play have really suffered from the economic downturn, so there are very high stakes for all of them. One contestant has had her car repossessed, so if she wins the truck, she’ll be able to drive to work instead of ride her bike for eight miles. One guy wants to go to veterinary school, so if he wins, he’s going to sell it to pay for tuition. For Miller, the show is about Americans struggling, being tough, and fighting through the difficulties of the economic downturn.

“What’s really cool about it is, by the end of the show, you realize that all the people who lose are still doing fine,” Miller says. “It wasn’t really the truck they needed so much as they needed to go through this ordeal to learn about and understand themselves.

Miller says on one level, “Hands On A Hardbody” is a very serious story, but there are a lot of laughs, and he predicts the audience will come to be invested in the characters and feel for them when they lose. The musical numbers traverse a wide range of styles, but remain geographically appropriate. “The music is kind of everything you might hear in East Texas, so it’s country, rock, pop, R&B, gospel, rockabilly, a lot of different styles, but they all feel very Texas.”

So how did they get the truck on the stage? New Line bought a truck that didn’t run and set designer Rob Lippert removed the body, got rid of the innards, then built a new frame that the body fit onto so it looks like a working truck.

“No engine, no axle, or any of that stuff,” Miller says. “I can’t wait to see the look on audiences’ faces when they come into the theater and see that truck on the stage.”

“Hands On A Hardbody” runs from May 29 through June 21. For tickets and information visit the New Line Theatre website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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