When you say “the recording is better than the show was” sometimes it is a positive comment on the recording and sometimes it is a negative comment on the show. In this case, it is both.

The recording captures fine performances by the likes of Keith Carradine, Hunter Foster, Keala Settle, Jim Newman and the rest of the solid ensemble of this fifteen-character musical. Hands on a Hardbody, which ran briefly (just two months) on Broadway earlier this year, tells the story of a contest at a Nissan dealership which will award a brand new pickup truck to the last contestant to still have his or her hands on its hardbody.

What is more, the recording preserves the melodically pleasing (if not particularly challenging) music of Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green as well as the intriguingly interesting lyrics of Ms. Green.

Those lyrics use the blue collar argot of the down-on-their-luck Texans who sing them, but manage to work in the kind of references to the world in which they live and amusing rhymes and alliterations that are the mark of good musical theater lyrics. She cleverly rhymes “This truck is bona fide” with “Ev’ry Texan needs a ride,” and rarely indulges in even slightly sophisticated vocabularies. Oh, she does succumb a bit so she can rhyme Maserati with “hot rod hottie” but even that fits with the vehicular fascination motivating the ten contestants. (She slips up very briefly with a too-classical reference in “You even got to bribe the boatman at the River Styx” to rhyme with “It’s a fix.”)

Most importantly, none of her lyrics put the characters down in any way. Instead, she manages to capture not only the strengths of the characters but their weaknesses as well without demeaning them.

Green is showing impressive growth in her skill with words. Her first Broadway outing, High Fidelity, was tantalizing in the quality of her wordsmithing but showed too many lapses. Fewer lapses marred the less challenging but still enjoyable lyrics for Bring It On. With Hardbody she has continued to improve and it has been noticed. This score earned her her first Tony Award Nomination.

Her partner for this score (and her fellow Tony Award nominee), Trey Anastasio, made his Broadway debut with this one. He’s best known in the pop music world as a founding member of the group Phish. Here he crafts catchy tunes in a country/pop style that slips over into gospel when needed. He is co-credited for the nicely supportive orchestrations, along with Nashville’s Don Hart who combines work in that city’s country music industry (The Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, etc) with composing symphonic works. The vocal arrangements are by the show’s music director, Carmel Dean.

The book for the musical is by Doug Wright, based on a 1997 documentary film about the actual contestants of a real “keep your hands on the hardbody” contest. Wright, the author of the non-musical I Am My Own Wife and the book for the musical Grey Gardens, brought the number of contestants down from the twenty-four in the documentary to a much more manageable dozen. Then he endeavored to imbue each with a distinct personality and an understandable back-story.

Attempting to make an audience care about even a dozen different people in the space of two acts is a task few, if any, book writers can pull off. In this case, that goal eluded Mr. Wright. What also became problematic for Hardbody as a stage show was the necessity for the cast to keep their hands on the on-stage truck so much of the time.

While those problems may have weakened the show, however, they don’t impact the recording at all. There is spirit, variety and genuine emotion in the recording that makes listening to the album more fun than watching the show was. The only real misstep involving the album was the decision to include track number 8, Keala Settle’s attack of “Uncontrollable Laughter” which is just that: one minute and 24 seconds of laughter which sets up track 9, “Joy Of The Lord.” It wasn’t needed and it is a distraction from actual songs and music. You might want to program your CD player to skip over it.

The original Broadway pit band of eight musicians is augmented for the recording by one additional violinist and the composer takes a few licks of the guitar part as well. Both the composer and the lyricist get credited for producing the album but the Executive Producer credit is given to the inestimable Kurt Deutsch, who founded Ghostlight’s parent company, Sh-K-Boom Records, with his wife Sherie Rene Scott back in 2000.

The album includes informative notes from the ever-enthusiastic Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal critic and About Last Night blogger who puts the best possible spin on the show’s strengths, a very helpful song-by-song synopsis and full lyrics. Most (but not all) of the 22 color photographs have captions telling the reader just who is who while presenting an accurate impression of the look of the show.

It also includes a bonus track of a song that didn’t make it to the opening night version. “The Tryers” sets out the theme of the show in Green’s simple, honest text “Here’s to the tryers, those brave do or die-rs with no safety net walking on them high wires we struggle so. And even though we falter and fall, most people never try at all.”

Hands on a Hardbody
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records Catalog 8-4475
Run time 66 minutes over 21 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos

Hands on a Hardbody
Original Broadway Cast Recording

September 17, 2013