Dallas native Doug Wright is Broadway’s go-to guy for book musicals. He turned his sights on Texas — for the first time — with ‘Hands on a Hard Body’
Doug Wright still vividly recalls his youth growing up in University Park.
“My friend Bruce and I used to sneak out after dark and go to the clubs,” he recalls. “We were living the wild life on Cedar Springs.”
But that was decades ago, and today Doug Wright is a responsible, happily partnered and incredibly successful playwright. But he still has a dangerous side: Working in the Broadway theater.
It’s not a joke. In the cutthroat and stressful world of NYC, having a show in a B’way theater is the pinnacle of achievement. And so far, Wright has had four.
It doesn’t stop there, as we’ll talk about. But what’s remarkable is that Wright has done it mostly in musical theater, which Jeff Whitty — who wrote Avenue Q and Bring It On! — described as too much hard work. If that’s true, why does Wright keep coming back to them?
“That is kind of true — they are really, really challenging. But when you’re writing a play, you are flying solo; when you are writing a musical, there are many more people to blame,” Wright jokes. “And working in the theater happily is different than working in film because you retain copyright of your own material, especially if you have good collaborators — and I have been good in that regard.”
He sure has. Wright’s resume includes collaborations with Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, which will finally open in Dallas in February), Amanda Green (daughter of legendary songwriter Adolph Green and actress Phyllis Newman), Trey Anastasio of Phish fame, and will be re-teaming with his Grey Gardens cohorts, Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, for a new (still hush-hush) musical “for David Stone, the producer for a modest little show he did called Wicked.” (Expect it to open within the next three B’way seasons.) He’s even teaming up with his husband, songwriter David Clement, for a musical about the Weather Underground.
Even before that, Wright “just wrote a new show for the Rockettes — this Texas boy getting to write for the old school spectacle with the leggy and beautiful Rockettes?” He beams.
But right now, he can’t stop thinking about Hands on a Hard Body.
Sure, every theater artist always says his favorite show is “the one I’m currently working on,” but when Wright says it, he’s dead serious. It has a special place in his heart.
Hands on a Hard Body “was one of the first times I’ve written about my home state, and I wanted to write about it in a way that felt compassionate and accurate,” he says.
It’s based on the 1996 documentary film of the same name, about an actual contest in Longview where a car dealership donates a pickup and the winner succeeds merely by holding his or her hand physically in contact with the truck longer than anyone else (we’re talking days, not hours).
“I was really struck by the documentary, and the metaphor for the American dream — all these diverse backgrounds coming together to compete,” he says. But only Doug Wright would see the potential to turn that set-up into a musical.
“Absolutely I felt it could be musicalized,” he says, almost puzzled by the suggestion it would be strange. “Idiosyncratic subjects make for great musicals — who thought a show about a homicidal 19th century barber or 20th street gangs would work? I thought the static nature could be reinvisioned without violating the fundamental rules of the competition. And it poses a thrilling opportunity for a director and choreographer.
That’s what theater should do — take static things and make them fly. You can have people gasping … and you don’t need giant Animatronic creatures to do it. You have to speak to you about common aspects of the human experience. I thought that about Hands. You just have to keep trying.”
Of course, this is also the man who thought a one-person play about a transsexual German refugee made for a good play — and he was correct. I Am My Own Wife won the University Park native a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Just fancy hardware,” he says dismissively of the accolades; his real pride comes from making theater that touches people. He does feel a twinge of sadness, though, that Hard Body didn’t enjoy a more successful run.
“We got some lovely, lovely notices, but New York City is its own rarefied world, particular the theater world, and a lot of New Yorkers didn’t expect to see themselves reflected in hardscrabble East Texans,” he opines. “Expecting a Blue State audience to see a show about residents of a Red State was challenging, but we did find it to be a universal story. It speaks to the fractured country we live in — there are so many divisive issues, and then you do a musical about economic inequality? You [produce a show] about the have nots coming to an event sponsored by the haves, and people have to spend $150 to see it?” He sighs.
“We were profoundly disappointing that we didn’t last longer on Broadway, but I’m cautiously optimistic that it will have a life” beyond that initial production.
That optimism is borne of something unusual in the current market: An original cast recording of a musical most would call a flop. Some more successful shows haven’t done that — for instance, 2008’s Cry-Baby enjoyed twice as many performances as Hands on a Hard Body and did not get a cast recording.
“[Cast albums] are essential for marketing shows and getting those musical theater fans out there to develop a hunger for a show,” he says, recalling his own days as a gay boy in Dallas listening to LPs of favorite shows. “Trey and Amanda had a passion and a real interest in the album. It was a moving day when we recorded it — we knew it was the last time we’d see each other as a company. We had this top-notch band and veteran performers who have sung these songs 60, 70, 100 times in front of a live audience. It was a very emotional day, very profound.”
That was made more so because Wright has nothing but raves about his cast, especially its name star, Keith Carradine.
“When I was a teenager, I thought he was the sexiest thing on the planet,” Wright gushes. “At 65, he’s still fine looking. And he’s one of the most collaborative and gifted actors I’ve ever worked with.”
And Wright is all about the collaborative process of theater.
“It’s pretty intimate writing a musical,” he says. “A lot of time, if we’re thinking of a song, I’ll write a monologue and the composer and lyricist will turn it into one. Or sometimes [the composer] will say, ‘That scene you wrote? It actually would work better as a duet.’ I’ve had composers and lyricists steal my funniest lines and I’ve stolen lyrics and turned them into punchlines. It always happens.”
But even with all of his musicals currently in the works, Wright is actually excited about his first non-musical productions in a long time: A screenplay about singer Peggy Lee and a straight dramatic play about, of all people, Henrik Ibsen.
“I’m eager to get back to write a serious play — I have a commission from the Atlantic Theater to do that,” he says. “There is something glorious about being in a room alone with your demons.”
REVIEW: ‘HAND ON A HARD BODY’ ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING
Any musical with a song called “Born in Laredo” has a leg-up with Texas theater queens, but Hands on a Hard Body has a whole lot more Lone Star bona fides going for it than just that. This Longview-set musical — based on the documentary about a contest where 10 people compete to win a pickup truck — captures in its lyrics something special about the Texas spirit and lifestyle. “If I Had This Truck” explains the unique position a 4×4 holds in country culture; “If She Don’t Sleep” recalls Texans’ famed braggadocio (a couple crows about their A/C unit which used to cool a Kmart that went bust in Abilene / It cools our house to 12 below). I can relate, especially in August. The music has a casual honkytonk/gospel feel (steel guitars and boot-worn twang) that marks it as something other than the latest London import or jukebox retread — it recalls the film Nashville (which, like this play, starred Keith Carradine). There’s an honest sentiment that comes through despite a large cast of singing roles. Hands On a Hard Body may not have wowed New Yorkers, but Texans will get it. (Available Aug. 27.)
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 23, 2013.