Trey, Amanda and Doug

On Friday April 27, the new musical Hands on A Hardbody will have its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. The show is an adaptation of the documentary film Hands on a Hard Body, which relates the story of a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas that holds a contest to award a truck to the person who maintains a hand on the vehicle for the longest period of time. Songwriter Amanda Green has been developing the musical for a half-dozen years along with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Doug Wright ( I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens ). One relatively late addition to the creative team has been Phish’s Trey Anastasio. In the following conversation Green discusses how all of this came together, talks a bit about the process of mounting a musical and shares insight into collaborating with Trey.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to be involved with Hands on A Hardbody ?

Doug Wright, the playwright, is a friend of mine and he approached me with the idea several years ago. It was 2005 when we first started talking about it. He played me the documentary and I thought it was fantastic. Then he and I set about trying to get the rights, so that’s how I got involved. It’s been a labor of love for several years to get this puppy going.

So you were there from the outset. How rare is this for a songwriter? Have your other experiences been similar? For instance your work on the musical High Fidelity ?

High Fidelity was another labor of love where the composer Tom Kitt and I went after the rights ourselves. So I have been on the ground floor with both of them but each situation can be different. I’m working on another musical Bring It On and I was one of the later people hired. So that was not something I generated but High Fidelity and Hands on a Hardbody have been projects that are near and dear to my heart and I’ve had a big hand in bringing them along at the various stages of development.

Getting back to Hands on A Hardbody, what about the documentary led you to believe that it would work as a musical?

It is a good question because it is a bunch of people standing stone still for hours at a time…a natural for singing and dancing (laughs). Their emotions are so big and they need the truck so badly and I love the way the characters express themselves. These are Texans and they express themselves in really colorful ways. I found them to be sympathetic and complex and funny and sincere people. I thought what they needed was so desperate that I felt like there was a lot of emotion and humor and pathos to sing about. I thought they were great people.

Can you talk about the process by which Doug Wright and yourself worked together?

He and I developed it from the ground up. It was one of the more collaborative experiences I’ve ever had. We went through it beat by beat. He would go off and he’d write his scene and I’d go off and write my song but we’d talk about a moment and say, “This would probably be a song moment.” I might bring a song and we would write around it or he might bring a scene and we’d say, “Maybe the characters would sing this rather than say it.” But we plotted it out the story. He did a lot of fleshing it out himself but we worked together though every step.

How about the music itself? In terms of genres and style, what did you have in mind at the outset and did this change at all?

Early on and then later when Trey came aboard we were all of the same mind: we wanted to write songs that these people might actually like and listen to. So we set out to write good songs that these characters would sing. Sometimes opera or musical theater can be (singing) “Open the door…I think there’s somebody at the door..” (laughs) Well we just wanted to write good songs. In the same way with the lyrics, we wanted the characters to express themselves in the way they would express themselves. Similarly we wanted the music come of out the moment and out of the kind of people that they were. So it’s kind of Americana and a lot of different styles under that umbrella. Some pop, some folk, a little country a little alt-country, some blues and soul.

Speaking of Trey, how did you come to work with him on this?

I’m still pinching myself that it came to pass because it’s an amazing thing. We have a mutual friend and he knows my work well and he knows Trey’s work well and he thought we would hit it off as songwriters. So for a while he was telling Trey, “You should call my friend Amanda,” and he was telling me about Trey.

Then when we finally got together we did indeed hit off and we started writing songs right away. We were having a great time just writing songs and I had been working on Hands on a Hardbody for a while and I would tell him a little bit about it. I had been writing the music myself because we never found a composer and we spent so long working on it that eventually I was like, “Well, this song goes like this…” and everyone said “Yeah it goes like that…” I’d written songs before but never a musical [with previous shows she had focused on the lyrics]. We were really happy with some of the songs and then there were some moments where I said, “This just needs to be better, I wish this could be better.” Certain moments and connective tissue and some songs where I was like, “I’m just treading water here.”

But we hadn’t found anybody and I was working with Trey and the more I worked with him, I saw how sophisticated a composer he was and how knowledgeable and tuneful and fun and funny and brilliant. And he came to hear me sing some of my show tunes along with some Broadway people and he said, “God, I love musicals. You guys have the best time. Maybe we should find something to write.”

And my husband was like, “Why you don’t ask him about Hands on a Hardbody ?”

So I sent him the documentary and luckily he fell in love with it too and he came aboard and it was a very happy thing.

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