To see Amanda Green at Birdland or at 54 Below is to see two theatrical worlds melding in happy harmony. She is the offspring of Tony winners—actress Phyllis Newman and lyricist Adolph Green—and the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
“It seems like a straight line,” Ms. Green allowed, “but actually it was a very squiggly line that got me to where I am today.” Where she is on this particular Wednesday is the Café Edison, where a few doors down on West 47th she is about to open her second Broadway show of the 2012-2013 season, Hands on a Hardbody.
The curtain has just come down on the final “unfrozen” matinee of this musical she has written with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Pulitzer Prize-winning Doug Wright. The tweaking and tightening will come to a complete stop in a couple of days, and they’ll go with what they got, for richer or for poorer, March 21 at the Brooks Atkinson.
Its provocative title refers to an endurance contest held annually by an auto-dealership in Longview, TX. The hardbody is a spiffy new Frontier Nissan pick-up truck, which goes to the lucky soul whose hand stays on its blistering chrome the longest. It’s a blue-collar, stand-up-and-be-counted version of the Depression-vintage marathon-dancing previously shown in musicals like Steel Pier and movies like Hard to Handle and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
S. R. Bindler, a hometown boy on a break from NYU film school, came upon this phenomenon at three a.m. one September morning in 1992 when he stepped out of the bar he had just closed and into the florescent glow of a used-car lot across the street.
To him, it looked like a camp meeting of The Walking Dead, shuffling in circles around a truck, gliding gloved hands along a gleaming surface. There were five-minute breaks every hour and 15-minute breaks every six hours. If the heat didn’t get you, the hallucinations would. The last person standing emerged after 70 hours.
A year later Mr. Bindler returned to Longview with a camera and a producer (Kevin Morris) to film this rustic ritual. The result, teasingly titled Hands on a Hardbody, won documentary honors in Los Angeles, Boston and Orlando in 1997 and national distribution in 1998. Robert Altman was planning to reprise it as a feature film at the time of his death. It also crossed Mr. Wright’s line of vision. His claim to fame—after his Tony and Pulitzer for I Am My Own Wife—is he saw a big Broadway musical in Grey Gardens, the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary on Jackie Onassis’ white-trash kin, the Beale belles of East Hampton, and he saw it in down-and-out Texans struggling to stay standing three straight days for a free truck.
“On the surface of it, it seems absurd,” Ms. Green said. “All these people standing around in the hot sun with their hand on a truck. You think you’re going to giggle, but, by the end, you care deeply about each person and understand how important it is for them to get that truck.”
Then there is the elephant in the room–the Nissan on the stage—with the threat of theater stagnation forming around it. “We kinda liked the challenge of that,” Ms. Green said. “We never felt in our bones the show would be static or stationary because we knew how much drama was in it and what the stakes were. It’s a profound metaphor—the American dream, survival of the fittest—how desperately people need that truck, given the state of today’s middle class.”
For stage purposes, the field has been trimmed to nine from the 24 who originally showed up for the film documentary. “We created tension between the car dealers. We created marital discord and romances where none were. We felt free to make a drama out of it, a story you would want to watch.”
Longview is light years removed from Ms. Green’s milieu—and, as a lyricist, she likes it like that. “I think that’s your job as a writer, to immerse yourself in a world.”
Thus, it’s no accident the songs that begin and end the first act—“Human Drama Kind of Thing” and “Hunt with the Big Dogs”—are words right out of the film-documented mouth of the real Benny Perkins. Played by Hunter Foster in the musical, Mr. Perkins won the Nissan the year before and has come back for seconds.
Ms. Green took a road trip to Texas with Mr. Wright. “We went to Dallas where Doug is from, saw the Texas State Fair, had some deep-fried Oreos and drove to Longview where we met the people in the movie.”
Locating them was one of two hurdles that stalled the production. Finally, her husband—Jeffrey Kaplan, an orthopedic surgeon by trade—suggested she use a private detective. He also filled in the other major blank of the musical—the composer—by recommending Mr. Anastasio. Until the Phish frontman took over, Ms. Green was writing both words and music; her proudest effort, she said, was a haunting, sweetly affecting paean to times past, “Used to Be.”
Her own personal “Used to Be” is where we go into Technicolor. She grew up way out West—Central Park West—in a sprawling duplex. Her dad—with Betty Comden—wrote that metropolitan mantra, “New York, New York, a helluvah town.”
Comden-&-Green was the longest-running collaboration in show business history—stretching from January 1941 when they joined Alvin Hammer and Judy Tuvim (later Holliday) on stage at the Village Vanguard as The Revuers, to the day before Mr. Green’s demise in October 2002. Together, they amassed seven Tonys—from Wonderful Town to The Will Rogers Follies—and wrote such classic landmark M-G-M musicals as Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town.