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March 21, 2013

The No. 1 Reason to See: Hands on a Hardbody

by Jesse North

PS - Hands on a Hardbody - story

The hardknock life of Americans battered down by lean financial times gets the musical treatment in the new show Hands on a Hardbody. Composed by Trey Anastasio (of Phish phame) and Amanda Green with a book by Doug Wright, Hardbody adapts its story from the 1997 documentary about 10 Texans trying to win a pickup truck. The rules of the contest are simple: whoever keeps their hands on the truck the longest wins. The musical dramatizes the endurance competition while highlighting each of the contestants’ backstories.

The no. 1 reason to see Hands on a Hardbody: “Stronger”

Following a raucous acapella slam fest on said hardbody, led by the earnest Keala Settle and company called “Joy of the Lord,” Iraq war vet Chris Alvaro (played by David Larsen) cuts through the ebullient ode with a swift, “Shut the fuck up!” Chris, who has remained mostly silent up until this point in Act I, gains everyone’s full attention with this outburst and is about to emote a lot more. He sings a power ballad called “Stronger,” which chronicles his experience in the military from enlisting, through battle, and returning home. Placed up against “Joy of the Lord,” which expresses everyone’s hefty appetite for life, “Stronger” is Chris’ confession that he no longer has any.

Rather than tell a story of a golden boy who comes undone when thrust into the horrors of war, “Stronger” paints a portrait of one who was broken before he even got there. Enlisting with the hopes that the army would fulfill its promise to make him “all that he can be,” Chris regards himself as less than a man, referring to himself as a “baby” and a “98-pound kid.” The yearning to speed up time and reach the full potential that Chris expresses is easily relatable to anyone who has ever experienced the awkwardness and misplacement of a teenager. This makes Chris’ eventual disillusionment even more shattering, that his dreams led him to an ever darker place than where he started.

In one four-and-a-half-minute song, “Stronger” addresses the issues of what it means to be “strong,” a “man,” and what it takes just to get by in this world. By the end when Larsen is belting “I don’t feel like living any longer,” the severity of Anastasio and Green’s message hits like a brick and the importance of Hardbody surfaces. This is a musical about people who have their hands planted on a truck trying to win it because they believe it is the only thing that will give their lives purpose.

For a musical that centers on downtrodden countrymen and, for the most part, portrays them with upbeat dispositions, Chris’ soliloquy is a daringly honest, pitch-black tale about a sector of Americans whose stories are often told only after it’s too late. Yet this is not a musical limited to military veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. When the main narrative is stripped away, leaving only its cold, hard message, “Stronger” can be about anyone who has lost their way and given up the desire to find it.

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