The new musical Hands on a Hard Body (Atkinson Theatre) opened just as City Center’s Encores! series revived the 1966 musical It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman. The two make an intriguing study in contrasting ways to write a musical. Even more intriguing, though the two shows could not be less alike in sound, look, and feeling, they share strong underlying attitudes. Moral: Artists with differing tastes can hold similar views and yet come up with virtually antithetical results.
The brand-new show, oddly, seems the older of the two in its approach, partly due to its eccentric choice of source material. Based on the 1997 documentary film of the same name, Hands on a Hard Body follows an absurd contest run as a publicity stunt by a struggling small-town Texas car dealership: The entrant who keeps his or her gloved hands on a new Nissan truck longer than anybody else wins the vehicle.
Tying the piece down to a single, remote place and a specific, physical object immediately makes clear that this will not be a big, showy, multi-scened song-and-dance spectacle—although Sergio Trujillo’s choreography does everything possible to keep the car-centered movements inventively varied. What’s meant to interest us is not who ultimately nabs the Nissan—the show’s final 15 minutes bear little suspense—but what sort of people would feel compelled to endure such a contest.
It’s a curiously bleak, Beckettian creature to encounter in an era when Broadway hasn’t so much dumbed down as kiddified down for the tourist-family market, and most big musicals strive to out-Disney Disney. Hard Body‘s book is by Doug Wright, a specialist in life’s odd byways whose last Broadway musical venture was Grey Gardens, also based on an oddball documentary film. But that work’s characters had not only historical interest (Jackie O’s relatives!) but family conflicts that gave Wright strong dramatic opportunities for illustrating the Beale women’s astonishing slide from social elite to public embarrassment.
Hard Body’s 10 contestants give Wright and the songwriters, Amanda Green and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, a broader range but less drama. Except when a song locks into some especially intense feeling, what we learn of them seems more case history than characterization. And while the songs do sometimes dig deep, the case histories run to a pattern—a random sample of the rural Southwest battling recession in a changing world. “Everybody’s broke here/Tryin’ to make ends meet,” runs the opening number, and that’s basically how things stand. Hard Body’s truck-clutchers share not only a common goal but an identical economic motive. Each needs the cash the truck will bring: to settle their debts, pay their tuition, feed their kids, tide them over till the next job, or fund their escape to the big city.
It’s a somber picture from which Hands on a Hard Body, commendably but somewhat monotonously, never flinches, though still proffering moments of individual hope. The show sums up its sardonic view of our socioeconomic shrinkage in a line spoken by the contest’s ultimate winner: “Funny, ain’t it? The American dream—a Japanese car.” The song that follows, one of the show’s best, laments, in a nostalgic fashion true to country music, the supplanting of small towns and their individual mom-and-pop enterprises by the unending parade of “Wal-Marts, Walgreens, Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Starbucks . . .”
Because everyone onstage shares this sense of anomie, along with grim economic prospects, the individual stories that the show tries to press upon us tend to blur. The authenticating details—six kids to feed, a son destroyed by the Iraq war, an unemployed spouse—take on the quality of sidebars to a feature story on some huge issue that the show never fully articulates. This discretion would be admirable if it didn’t leave us with nothing but a bundle of rueful American instances. An annoying subplot involving an attempted fix by the car dealer doesn’t help; the glum facts don’t need a topping of facile cynicism to make their point.
Neil Pepe’s feisty production offsets the script’s leveling effect with sturdy, distinctive performances. Familiar faces (Keith Carradine, Hunter Foster, Dale Soules) do well; some less familiar or utterly new presences do still better: Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and particularly Keala Settle, as a church lady whose epic moment of religious ecstasy momentarily kicks the show into a higher reality. The score may lack an overall theatrical build, but it’s wholly listenable: Expect its individual numbers to turn up in cabarets years from now, provoking the kind of talk that leads to revivals. Still, for all the show’s virtues—its tenderness, truthfulness, and sincerity—it doesn’t generate the dynamism that brings success.
Noisy, brassy, and at times almost manically peppy, It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman wouldn’t touch tender, truthful sincerity if you served it on a solid-gold plate. In 1966, the show misfired by being hard to classify: too outré for the squares; too cautious, in its pop-art tactics, for the hip; and too knowing for that era’s youth. Today, given Broadway’s new kid-friendly atmosphere, it feels totally at home, and John Rando’s free-spirited concert staging cheerfully kicks aside the old production’s tentativeness, using John Lee Beatty’s bright pastel cardboard-cutout sets and Paul Tazewell’s even brighter cartoon-pastel costumes to supply just the right two-dimensional style.
Superman inhabits an urban sector of the same despairing landscape as Hands on a Hard Body, only here the despair is sociological, not economic. And unlike job-starved rural Texas, crime-ridden, neurasthenic Metropolis has that secret ingredient, the Man of Steel, with his speeding-bullet flight skills and x-ray eyes. A mad scientist (David Pittu) and an envious gossip columnist (Will Swenson) plot to destroy Superman (Edward Watts), trying everything from a leaky nuclear reactor to a quartet of Chinese acrobats, whose multiple cartwheels, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, send the show into hyperspace, where it easily equals Spider-Man‘s aerial combats.
Naturally, Superman foils their nefarious plans, with encouragement from Lois Lane (Jenny Powers) and the columnist’s lovelorn sidekick (Alli Mauzey), though it would take x-ray vision to make total sense of the events in Jack Viertel’s slapdash editing of the original David Newman–Robert Benton script. Lee Adams’s uneven lyrics often perk up into wit but as often backslide into a prosiness that weighs down Charles Strouse’s bouncy tunes—which derive extra bounce from Eddie Sauter’s ultra-cool orchestrations. Superman is not quite a top-drawer show, but it’s tip-top second-drawer work. Though probably not sufficiently frenetic for today’s Broadway, its solemnity-free cynicism is right up to date, and its best melodies shine like jewels next to the aural paste of most current shows.