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.
Growing up Green “was everything you’d think it would be: thrilling! My parents were friends of all the incredible people on Broadway—Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Cy Coleman. Isaac Stern lived next door, and his kids were my great friends. There were great parties, with all those people playing the piano and singing. Sometimes, they’d trot me out to sing at those parties, which I loved.”
She made her stage debut in two of those friends’ West Side Story, playing Maria. “I was nine. I like to think that wasn’t the apex of my career, but you never know.”
Ms. Green found cabaret a perfect place to exercise her twin talents—performing, usually her own material.
“My father came to see me perform a lot, y’know, cabaret evenings like Put a Little Love in Your Mouth! (which is a song sung by a dentist, by the way). He was very proud of me and my songwriting. I would run lyrics by him. He wasn’t very judgmental because he was a very kind person, but, if I made him laugh, that was a strike. I recall once, I played him something I wrote, and I said, ‘Well, it’s really not that great,’ and he was, like, ‘No, it’s not.’ I said, ‘You’re not supposed to tell me the truth.’’’
After his death, Ms. Comden took up the mentoring. “She was like an aunt to me. She was so encouraging and very loyal.”
One thing that ties Ms. Green’s past and present up in a nice neat bow is Keith Carradine, who stars in Hands on a Hard Body and starred in the last Comden-&-Green, The Will Rogers Follies. “I had a crush on Keith as a young child,” she admitted. “I saw him in Nashville and fell in love with him. Then, he was in The Will Rogers Follies—and fantastic in it. Actually, when I wrote the song ‘Used to Be,’ I wrote it with him in mind..
“Keith and I have a great sense of continuity and history. He’d given my dad an opening-night gift for The Will Rogers Follies—a framed picture of Will Rogers, and it said, ‘To Adolph, Love Keith.’ And I had a plaque put over it, and I said, ‘To Keith, Love Amanda,’ with the date on it for our opening night in La Jolla. He cried.”
This is her third try at Mount Broadway, her first without composer Tom Kitt. High Fidelity in 2006 went silent after 13 performances, but Bring It On: The Musical fared much better with 171 performances during the first half of this season.
Five years are the typical gestation period for Broadway musicals these days. High Fidelity, from page to stage, took that long—but its melodies and lyrics have their own mysterious ways of lingering on. In May, Ms. Green and Mr. Kitt will perform a concert of the entire now-cultish score of High Fidelity at 54 Below.
Hands on a Hardbody, likewise, tips the scales at half a decade of hard work, but “it’s grown a lot,” Ms. Green noted. “We’ve done workshops, developmental workshops, a production, a workshop after the production. I see the value in all that because each time you do it, you learn something new. It doesn’t matter how much you think you know it. Doing a production in La Jolla and then leaving it two months—we looked back and said, ‘Why did we put that song second? My God! What were we thinking? It stops the action completely.’ So, you don’t have that clarity of thought.”
A week before we spoke, she and her colleagues wrote a song in the dressing room. “Like an old showbiz story,” she said. It just happened. I found a segment of a lyric that I’d discarded five years before, and I set it. Trey had his guitar, and I started singing, and there you go. We put it in the show two days later. Very Mickey and Judy.”
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