The musical Hands on a Hardbody opens at the Keegan Theatre on March 9. Based on a contest held in small-town Texas in 1995, Hands on a Hardbody chronicles a group of people participating in a marketing stunt dreamed up by a car dealership. Those people do everything they can to be the last person with at least one hand on a new Nissan hardbody truck: Whoever lasts longest with a hand on the truck will win it.
Since this is the musical’s regional premiere, I asked the show’s directors to speak with me about the work. The following questions are answered by co-directors Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea.
The musical Hands on a Hardbody is based on a 1997 documentary film of the same name, correct?
Elena Velasco: Yes. But while the documentary chronicles a Texas tradition, the musical takes liberties with the characters in the source material. The characters’ names were pulled from the documentary, and some of the relationship dynamics echo the original, but the playwright, Doug Wright, and composers, Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, made their own creative choices to draw greater awareness to the disparity of the circumstances that drew each person to this contest.
Can you describe the show for people who may not have seen either the documentary or the 2013 Broadway musical?
Velasco: Hands on a Hardbody shares the story of 10 hard-pressed Texans who believe that their luck can turn around by winning a truck. They stand for days under the scorching sun, trying to keep their energy, humor, and patience together but are tested at every corner. The cast of characters in many ways reflect the different facets of the 99 percent of Americans who just want life to treat them a bit kinder than it has.
The characters are all fighting to win the truck. Does anything else unite these individuals, other than the desire to win?
Velasco: The quest for understanding one’s past and how it drives their choices is what unites these individuals. Each has a very different backstory, but all have had to make difficult choices in order to survive in a community where opportunities are limited. The contest is an act of voyeurism, and while it brings to light their limitations and challenges each person’s stamina, it also serves as a reminder to look beyond what we see.
How does Keegan Theatre’s version differ from the Broadway version?
Velasco: Aside from the outstanding and tight-knit cast, whose voices have been led by our astute music director, Jake Null, I would note that awareness of representation in this cast is what differs from the Broadway version. In doing my research, I was struck by a statement from the original creative team: that this was a true “all-American musical.” While I recognize that the documentary captured individuals that participated in the contest in that filming year, I felt that with all the liberties the creative team took regarding the relationships, local and national history and exploration of social issues, they missed the opportunity to represent the rich diversity of our nation. As we cast the show, Mark and I asked ourselves who should this community showcase – whose lives are regularly challenged by economic disparity and social injustice? That led to the casting choices we made.
This is a story about Everyman – people from many backgrounds – who want a new lease on life.
Mark, can you offer some insight into why Elena (Velasco) is a particularly good choreographer for this show?
Mark A. Rhea: I worked with Elena for many years although, unfortunately, not recently. I knew we needed someone who was a very strong physical/movement based choreographer and Elena immediately came to mind. I am thrilled she said yes, and to also have her as my co-director. She has been my savior, and I am forever grateful for this time together.
How would you describe the show’s music?
Velasco: The music offers a range of styles, strongly influenced by country, rock, western, gospel and pop. That said, each song allows the characters to dwell in their personal narratives and bring the audience into the world of the play, as Texans and as neighbors who we may know but who we have not taken the time to learn about. It asks us to listen to each person’s narrative because everyone has a story to share.
Are your cast members all local or did you have to cast outside the DC area?
Rhea: This is an all DC Metro area cast. And we are proud of that!
Why did the Keegan Theatre decide to put this musical into its season at this point?
Rhea: At Keegan, we strive to tell stories about the human condition, about our common humanity, about connecting with each other, about the power of the human spirit. Hands on a Hardbody explores these themes so clearly and powerfully. On a personal note, it brought me back to my Texas roots. Ironically, it’s the first time Keegan has produced a play or musical set in Texas.