By Kenneth Jones
20 Mar 2013
Dramatist Doug Wright has written about real people before: Broken Long Island socialites Edie and Edith Beale in the musical Grey Gardens, for example, and the singular Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived the Nazis and the communists, in I Am My Own Wife, for which Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play. But never has a work by Wright been so close to home as it is with the fact-based Hands on a Hardbody, the tale of disparate and desperate Texans who participate in an endurance contest — last man standing with their hands on a Nissan "hardbody" pickup truck wins the vehicle. Wright, a Dallas native, "got" the people and setting of the story, inspired by the 1997 film documentary of the same name. Wright shared with Playbill.com some of the challenges and joys of creating the populist ensemble musical, which has music by Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame) and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Green (High Fidelity).
The Nissan dealership in the film "Hands on a Hardbody" is located in Longview, TX, somewhere between Shreveport and Dallas. You're a Dallas native. How much of your attraction to this project was its Texas setting? Do you think if it had been set in North Dakota you would have been drawn to it?
Doug Wright: For a long time, I've hankered for a vehicle that would allow me to write about my home state. I found the characters in S. R. Bindler's documentary film immediately identifiable; even though I grew up in the relative comfort of the Dallas suburbs, I felt as if I knew them all: Benny Perkins [played by Hunter Foster], the backwoods sage; Kelli Mangrum [played by Allison Case], the feisty tom-boy with ambitions larger than the landscape can contain; Norma Valverde [played by Keala Settle], the fervent believer; and J.D. Drew [played by Keith Carradine], the spirited good-old boy with the infectious grin. What a wonderful, lovable, idiosyncratic gallery; I couldn't wait to try and capture them on the page.