About the Author:
Doug Wright has a knack for writing acclaimed plays based on true stories. After adapting the life and work of Marquis de Sade into off-Broadway’s Quills, Wright won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for I Am My Own Wife, based on the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Wright penned the books for Grey Gardens (which was based on a true story) and The Little Mermaid (which, as far as we know, was not), before finding inspiration in the story of 24 hard-luck Texans who compete to win a new pick-up truck. Below, Below, the Dallas native documents the journey of his passion project Hands on a Hardbody, from an indie documentary to a new Broadway musical (opening on March 21 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre) about the fight for the American dream.
In 1995, documentary filmmaker S.R. Bindler captured a seemingly preposterous event in Longview, Texas, called the Hands on a Hard Body competition. At a Nissan dealership, contestants placed their hand on a brand new, “hard body” pick-up truck. The competitor who could stand the longest without removing his or her hand from the vehicle won it.
By chance, I rented the film and fell in love with it. I thought it had the makings of a great musical: memorable, idiosyncratic characters, an evocative locale, and a highly irreverent “leading lady” in the form of a sixteen valve, four cylinder pick-up with a blazing red chassis and a satellite radio. Luckily, my friend Amanda Green agreed with me. She consented to write the lyrics, and suggested that she compose music alongside rock musician extraordinaire Trey Anastasio.
At first, I was incredulous; Trey Anastasio, front man for Phish, the celebrated jam band and heir apparent to The Grateful Dead? Then we had dinner, and I learned that musical theater fans exist in the unlikeliest places; while Trey was growing up in New Jersey, his mother routinely brought him to Times Square for matinees. Over enchiladas, he explained why he felt the overture to Gypsy was a compositional high point in American theater. I was totally won over; there was method in Amanda’s madness, after all!
As a native Texan, I wanted our show to be as authentic as we could make it. Though I haven’t lived there in years, I felt an obligation to be true to my home state, to its rich mythology, ostentatious pride, big heart, and antediluvian politics. Trey was no stranger to the Lone Star State; he was born in Fort Worth before his parents moved northward. But Amanda had never been there. I asked her if she was willing to go deep into the heart of the American Southwest, and she was game. In fact, she proposed that we sit down and break bread with some of the key contestants in the original film.
First on our list was J.D. Drew, the oldest entrant, and his wife Virginia, residents of the tiny town of Gladewater. I’ll never forget the afternoon we spent in their company. Their home was charming and tidy, with wood paneling and ceramic Jesus figurines; both husband and wife are ardent, impassioned believers. J.D. is an inveterate charmer; he has a high wattage smile, wavy gray hair and a hearty laugh. Virginia is more circumspect, cautious around strangers, but she still whips up a mean egg salad for sandwiches, and tears open a jumbo bag of potato chips to make us feel welcome.
Amanda and I perch on the sofa, and wonder what they must think of us, these two rarified theater folk, Yankees no less. I realize I’m wearing a 1950s style sports shirt with cocktail shakers embroidered on the pocket. It’s not uncommon for Pentecostals to frown on liquor consumption; they tend to be temperate people. Have I made a sartorial mistake?
We interview J.D. about his experience in the contest, and he’s a treasure trove of anecdotes: the comfortable shoes he wore to better his chances, the psychological one-upmanship among his fellow competitors, and the impact of the staggering Texas heat. Then we ask him if he’s familiar with Broadway musicals. He is: Years ago, he caught a touring production of Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. More importantly, we ask, is he willing to be a character in one?
J.D. is nobody’s fool; he wants to know how he and his wife will be represented onstage. Will he be the upright, decent man he believes himself to be? Will his faith be represented without condescension or unwelcome commentary? Will it make his family proud? He understands that writers often take liberties to meet the demands of drama, but will we be true to his spirit and his reputation?
“The great achievement of the film,” we reassure him, “was the director S.R. Bindler’s ability to push past the outrageous trappings of the contest itself, and reveal the hearts and the souls of the people in it. Our hope is that we can do the same in our musical.”
J.D. and his wife agree to let us tell their story. We leave Gladewater with a heightened sense of our responsibility; to push past the easy route of satire, and touch some larger, universal truths about the nature of competition itself. Inwardly, we’re chastened. We hope we’re up to the task.
Three years later, our producers have generously flown J.D. and Virginia to the La Jolla Playhouse to catch a performance of the show. I have the terrifying task of sitting next to them. I know I won’t be watching our musical, I’ll be watching them watch it. They smile; at a certain moment, I hear J.D. belly laugh. Virginia affectionately slaps his arm in recognition at a key moment. Near the end of the show, she’s wiping away tears.
Afterwards, I take them backstage. J.D. gives his doppelganger, Keith Carradine, a hearty handshake and a pat on the back. Virginia melts in the arms of actress Mary Gordon Murray. Amanda and I share a meaningful glance. Neither of us can wait to email Trey, back in New York, who’s waiting on tenterhooks for a review that will ultimately matter more to us than any periodical: What did J.D. and Virginia think? They liked it, we later tell him. They felt it was true.
Since then, we’ve stayed in touch with the Drews. J.D. made me a birdhouse for my Chelsea terrace with a bent Texas license plate for a roof. For Christmas, Virginia sent me a jar of homemade jalapeno jelly. On March 21, they’ll take their first trip to New York City, and walk down a red carpet and into a bona fide Broadway show.
Here’s hoping that lightning strikes twice, and they love it all over again.