The latest entry for Best Musical this season was last night’s “Hands on a Hardbody.” The late legendary director Robert Altman was planning to make a feature film of the documentary about this saga: in 1995 in Longview, Texas, there were contests to win a Nissan truck. People had to stand outside with one hand on the truck. It was like “Survivor: Truck.” Whoever made it to the end, would win the truck. The documentary, just reissued, was a big hit. Altman had it all drawn out and ready. But it wasn’t to be.
Now “Hands on a Hardbody” is a wonderful, quirky musical on Broadway. Amanda Green, daughter of Broadway star Phyllis Newman and another legend– songwriter Adolph, as in (Betty) Comden & Green– who wrote “Singing in the Rain” among other classics–wrote most the music and lyrics. (Doug Wright wrote the book.) Her collaborator is Trey Anastasio of the rock group Phish. These are some of the best songs ever on Broadway, just one hit after another, and real songs, too–not bland commercial fare.
Green and Anastasio use the songs to tell the stories of the contestants. And the performers are outstanding, surprising, and new. Only Keith Carradine is well known– the Tony winning star of “The Will Rogers Follies.” Carradine brings the Altman connection to “Hands on a Hardbody.” He of course starred as a singer in Altman’s amazing classic film “Nashville” back in 1975. Carradine’s Tony winning actress daughter Martha Plimpton was front and center last night, too, cheering her dad on.
Of all the other performers, you will be amazed by a couple: Keala Settle, making her Broadway “debut” (she had a small small part in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”), steals the whole show with her gospel tinged “Joy of the Lord.” Hunter Foster, a Broadway regular who should be a bigger star already, is sensational as a local who already won one truck–but his wife took off with it. It was also great to see Mary Gordon Murray, another Broadway vet and soap star (“One Life to Live”). Jay Armstrong Johnson not only sings but uses the real red Nissan truck on stage as a jungle gym (I am assured the truck was reinforced especially).
Neil Pepe directed, and Serjio Trujillo choreographed–and you want to see how they move these people around the truck and how the truck moves around them. And the songs are worth the whole show anyway.
On, to the Tonys!