The words of playwright Doug Wright will once again be heard on the Unicorn Theatre stage.
The playwright who claimed a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his unique one-actor drama, “I Am My Own Wife,” has a sensibility offbeat enough to make him a comfortable fit with the Unicorn, which looks for work that generally falls just outside the mainstream.
The Unicorn has produced “Quills,” Wright’s play about the imprisonment of the Marquis de Sade; “I Am My Own Wife,” depicting the life of a German transvestite; and “Grey Gardens,” a musical about a reclusive mother and daughter living in a dilapidated mansion in East Hampton, N.Y., for which Wright wrote the book.
Now comes “Hands on a Hardbody,” a musical based on a 1997 documentary film of the same title about people competing in a grueling endurance contest to win a new truck at a car dealership in Longview, Texas.
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Wright, a native of Dallas, had the idea of creating a musical based on the film and eventually teamed up with composer Trey Anastasio, the principal songwriter for Phish, and lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green, who contributed to “Bring It On: The Musical.”
“In my experience, source material for musicals requires one indelible prerequisite: that the passions, dreams and desires of the characters are so overwhelming, so vivid and so profoundly felt that they can sing about them,” Wright said via email.
“In ‘Hands on a Hardbody,’ every single character is driven to win the truck by such a potent need; it didn’t seem implausible to me that they would break into song. As a former Texan myself, I knew that the state has a rich musical legacy, and that the score would be awash in compelling influences.”
In the opening minutes of S.R. Bindler’s documentary, we hear the voice of contestant Benny Perkins, who had won the contest a few years earlier, waxing philosophical: “It’s a contest they say of stamina. But it’s who can maintain their sanity the longest. And that’s what it is. That’s what it comes to. Because when you go insane, you lose.”
The competition consisted simply of each contestant’s ability to remain standing with a hand on the truck one of them would drive home. The last man or woman standing and touching won. Crowds gathered to root for their favorites.
“You feel like they’re kinda bloodthirsty in a way,” Perkins says later in the film. “They’re there to see the spectacle. And it seems so absurd. Very absurd. And you have to realize later, hey, you know, it’s a human drama thing. It’s more than a contest and it’s more than winnin’ a truck.”
Perkins is a character in the show, as well as other real contestants. The Unicorn production, directed by Missy Koonce, has a cast of 15 that includes some of the city’s best-known musical-theater performers, including Cathy Barnett, Jessalyn Kincaid, Julie Shaw and Tim Scott.
Green, speaking from New York, said the collaborators wanted to do deeper research than the film itself and decided to track down the people in the movie.
“The first thing we did was watch the documentary and then Doug and I tried to get in touch with our favorite people from the documentary, and we couldn’t find them,” Green said. “My husband hit on the idea of hiring a private detective, which we did. And we went to Texas to meet with them. Many of them came to opening night on Broadway. I’m still in touch with them.”
Green said there was one potential pitfall the creative team was determined to avoid: rendering east Texas personalities in broad, cartoonish strokes.
“It’s too easy to do stereotypes,” said Green, a native New Yorker. “It helped that Doug was from Dallas. I think if you live in Texas you can take potshots at yourself if you feel like it. We promised them and ourselves that we would treat them with dignity and complexity.
“At the same time we were telling them that we’re going to write what we want. We were creative. We didn’t always stick to the facts. But at the same time we didn’t write down to anyone.… They were involved from the beginning and they loved it. They came to La Jolla. They came to workshops. And they were tickled pink. We would take literal lines from the documentary and turn them into lyrics.”
Green, who spent time in Nashville writing country songs, has a formidable Broadway pedigree. Her parents are actress Phyllis Newman and the late Adolph Green, a lyricist, playwright and screenwriter who worked for decades with Betty Comden.
Green said she and Wright were friends and had been looking for a project to work on together.
“I’ve always thought Amanda was a trenchant lyricist, hilarious one moment and heart-breakingly emotional the next,” Wright said. “She also has a keen sense of melody. She brought Trey onboard, and together they created some wildly memorable tunes. For all three of us, this was a project driven by our unabashed love for it. One day, I’d write a monologue, and Amanda would turn it into lyric.
“Then she and Trey would pirate it away and go to his studio just outside Manhattan, and come back a few days later with a rip-roaring melody. The three of us became inseparable, agonizing over every note, every comma of both script and score. It was an intense, exhilarating collaboration.”
Green said she wanted a musical partner on the show, and had written some songs with Anastasio. She said she quickly recognized his abilities as a sophisticated songwriter.
“He confessed to me that he had grown up watching musicals,” Green said.
On one level, the contest appears to be about raw materialism. On another, it’s a chance to pull yourself out of an economic spiral. One contestant in the film, for example, said her plan was to immediately sell the truck so she could get braces for her teeth. But, as Perkins said, it’s ultimately about much more. According to news reports, the contest was discontinued in 2005 after a losing contestant committed suicide.
Wright said the contest represents the implicit promise to all Americans that you can succeed if you work hard.
“But lurking just beneath that rosy notion is another, much darker one: Darwin’s survival of the fittest,” he said. “We live in an age where the industrial, blue-collar class that once produced goods and services is tragically on the wane; income disparity has reached alarming levels.
“Increasingly, just to get by, people are driven to more and more extreme measures. Wal-Mart workers are living on food stamps; single mothers are holding down multiple jobs. Hopefully, the show speaks to a host of increasingly alarming economic issues in the country … but at the same time, it’s a tribute to the sheer tenacity of the human spirit.”
Wright said he was gratified that the Unicorn is producing another of his works.
“I’m very proud of my association with the Unicorn,” he said. “Because my plays are often unconventional or (I hope) audacious in challenging ways, I’m usually produced by the smaller, maverick theaters in town; the companies that want to take their audiences on slightly wilder rides. That said, with the Unicorn and the wonderful (Kansas City) Rep, Kansas City is becoming a real theater mecca. It’s good to feel I have a home in it.”