Jay Armstrong Johnson, left, Keala Settle, Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine… (Kevin Berne )
LA JOLLA — From Florenz Ziegfeld's synchronized showgirls toAndrew Lloyd Webber's roller-skating actors to aSpider-Man who flies, musical theater has often encouraged dance and movement extravaganzas.
So imagine the anxiety of the team putting together the new musical, "Hands on a Hardbody," which has its premiere Saturday at the La Jolla Playhouse.
The story's 10 characters are tied — figuratively — to a Nissan pickup truck. How do you take that reality and turn it into a show-stopping number?
"Hands on a Hardbody," written by Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning author Doug Wright and based on a 1997 documentary film of the same name, is about a truck giveaway in Longview, an east Texas city of about 70,000. The winner was the person who could stand the longest with one hand on the pickup, the "hardbody." In the movie, the contest dragged on for more than three days.
"It's an endurance contest and the verb is to stand and wait," said Neil Pepe, who is directing the show.
"Stand and wait" doesn't sound like a recipe for a successful musical. But everyone who signed on understood that. In addition to Wright and Pepe, the show brings together composer-lyricist Amanda Green; Trey Anastasio, a founding member of the rock group Phish; and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, whose L.A. Dance Project debuts in September.
"So we thought, how are we going to keep that sense of active endurance of what's going to happen next?" Pepe said. "And then, with the truck, how do we move it? How can we stay true to the organic nature of the people around the truck and find a [movement] vocabulary around the truck?"
Most of the characters are from the working-class backgrounds and struggling to survive. Pepe wanted that fact to drive, so to speak, the style of movement and the show's relatively low-tech effects and staging.
Among the first key decisions was that the truck would move, though Pepe didn't want it to be automated. While the actors are actively pushing and pulling the truck, it becomes their "movement partner," he said.
The show's hardbody star is a 1993 Nissan short bed pickup, which was purchased on EBay. Scenic designer Christine Jones and the production crew modified it so the cast can manipulate it. Throughout the musical, the pickup is spun about, used as a stage with cast members cavorting on top of it, and operated like a battering ram.
Pepe likened the interactions between truck and actors to one of the famous dance sequences in film, from the 1951 musical comedy "Royal Wedding."
"It's probably a bad comparison, but there's that beautiful Fred Astaire number with the coat rack, which in a way is taking a material thing like a chair and figuring out ways to interact with it," Pepe said.
Jon Rua, one of the actors, agreed with Pepe. "We're pushing this truck everywhere we go. It's a character and we're responsible for it so it's a big ensemble effort. We are all responsible for the truck and for people's safety."
Pepe and the creative team determined they would divide the show into "literal," in-the-moment action scenes, and sequences that were more like dream-ballets (though they don't involve classical dance). The "literal" sequences are those that depict the contest, so the actors must abide by the competition rules, and restrict their stage movements. That doesn't mean they stand still. The actors move around the vehicle, trading places, sometimes weaving their way over and under one another.
In the "dream" scenes, an actor singing about personal hopes and aspirations will move more freely about the stage. When such a shift occurs, an actor's hand stays momentarily frozen in mid-air, while the other actors pull the truck away, signaling that time is temporarily frozen.
But don't expect to see any Broadway-style tap-dancing numbers, even during these dream sequences. Pepe and the other creators wanted the choreography to reflect not just the mood and style of the songs — mostly rock 'n' roll — but the personalities and backgrounds of the characters, most of whom were inspired by the real-life contestants. The second act opens with a modified Texas line dance, and a gospel number gives rise to a rousing percussion circle, with the actors pounding on the truck.
Rua, who plays Jesus Peña, said, "We never disregard the truck.... It's given birth to an organic movement."
Rua has an extensive dance background and he has some of the more athletic moves, including a flip off the pickup. For long stretches, however, he stands relatively still — just as the real contestants did. It's not easy standing for so long, he noted. He's become conscious of trying to conserve his energy, and he has pains in his heels and his shins and a tightness in his muscles.
Still, Rua and the other actors have become vigilant about following the competition's rules. Each character has a different way of touching the vehicle, and it's become hard to keep your hand still on the truck. So much practice has made them good competitors.
"None of us can actually stand by the truck, and not put our hands on the truck," Rua said.
"Hands on a Hardbody," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 17. http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org or (858) 550-1010