They Deserve a Win: How Keala Settle and ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ inspired me to dream

Featured Actress in a Musical nominee Keala Settle with the 'Hands on a Hardbody' ensemble.

Featured Actress in a Musical nominee Keala Settle with the ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ ensemble.

It is the year 2040. For my son’s 16th birthday, I’ve taken him on a day of car shopping. So far, we’ve been unsuccessful in finding anything. This could be because of high prices, the poor conditions of used cars we’ve come across, or it could be due to the fact that at every dealership we’ve visited, I have burst into song at least once.

It started with me pounding on a big red Chevrolet while belting out “I feel the joy!” while laughing uncontrollably and it ended with me trying to pull my son on top of a 1999 Buick Century with me while singing “And everyone will know that we were here, when we’re gone!” and trying to do a somersault over the hood.

As the sun goes down, we finally call it quits and begin to head back home. My son is frustrated with me by now, especially since we didn’t pick a car for him. “Mom, what has gotten into you? What were all those songs you were singing today?”

And that will be when I tell him about Hands on a Hardbody.

Now, let’s rewind a bit. It actually all started at the end. At the end of the run, that is.

I was sitting in my dorm room, trying to get some homework done and failing miserably. My roommate, Emily, had been in the Visual Arts building all night, trying to accomplish the same feat. While procrastinating, I began to scroll through Twitter and that’s when I learned Hands on a Hardbody would be closing that week. I was heartbroken. I had been longing to see it since it opened and had fallen in love with samples of the score I’d listened to. As I continued to postpone my assignments, I began to look at ticket-selling websites. For kicks, I clicked through available seating for the Wednesday matinee. The show would be closing just a few days after that, and because of my busy schedule, that performance time was my only chance to see it. Should I skip class and just…do it?

It was too late for me to think the decision all the way through. I had already clicked “OK” and now had five minutes counting down on a timer at the top of the screen to buy these tickets. I quickly called Emily, and said something along the lines of, “Do you want to see this musical with me on Wednesday? There’s a truck and Hunter Foster is in it… It’s good, I promise!” Since I had been the one to introduce Emily to many musicals that she now considers to be her favorites, she decided to trust my judgment and hesitantly agreed. I bought the tickets.

On Wednesday, we arrived at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre filled with hope and anticipation. We made our way inside, claiming our seats in the fourth row from the stage on the right side. The lights went down, and during the two and a half hours that followed, I was hysterically laughing, thoroughly sobbing, sitting on the edge of my seat, and, above all, completely inspired.

Hands on a Hardbody is about a diverse group of people living in Longview, Texas, who have all entered a competition in which they could be able to walk away with a brand new truck for free. The twist is in the difficulty of the contest itself. These people must stand up straight for days on end and keep at least one hand on the truck at all times. They must stay awake through the hours of the night, and only receive occasional 15-minute breaks. They’re not allowed to take any kind of drugs or ingest any form of caffeine in order to help them withstand their exhaustion, and in the heat of the day, their fatigue is plentiful. As Benny (Hunter Foster’s character, who won this competition the year before) explains, there are several essential skills necessary in order to be victorious.

As the musical progresses, the audience is able to learn about each character individually. As their respective layers slipped away, they became more than just ten contenders surrounding a truck. They each became human, and in the minds of the audience, would turn into a friend or relative; someone that we know. The most devastating parts of the musical would be seeing each character come alive, learning about their backgrounds and personalities, and then watching them leave the competition. This powerful machine of an ensemble cast was so phenomenal that I was hoping there would be a ten-way tie and they could all share the truck in the end because I simply did not want anyone to leave the stage.

Benny’s journey is the most shocking of all, as it is revealed that his wife had left him and his son committed suicide. This complex character had me floored by his bitter ending, and I was completely blown away by Foster’s portrayal. His songs were my favorite parts of the score, and I continuously had moments where I felt like an eight-year old in a Broadway theatre for the first time, internally squealing, “He just looked right at me!”

In my world, Foster is Broadway’s rock star. He gives consistent, flawless performances so effortlessly, and this one was a shining example of that. I admire this man so much, and I wish more people could have seen him in this role. I left the theatre wanting to shout it out in the middle of Times Square, “Hunter Foster is in a wonderful new musical and he’s doing a terrific job!”

Another character that made a remarkable impression on me was Norma Valverde, played by the incomparable Keala Settle. Her mighty anthem “Joy of the Lord” served as the show’s most exciting number, complete with bouncy full-cast choreography and truck-slapping rhythms. I’ve never been religious, but as the musical progressed, I found myself finding assurance in Norma’s faith. As I watched the musical, I kept thinking that I wished I could believe in something as strongly as she did, but then it hit me: I believed in Norma. No other actress has ever made me feel that way about a character. Recently I was honored to be able to interview Settle about her journey to Broadway, the obstacles she’s overcome to get there, and how much Hardbody has meant to her. After the incredible experience of being able to hear all of this from her directly, I can say without a doubt that I believe in Keala Settle, too. She is an extraordinary woman, and has inspired me more than I can say.

As I’ve said before, the entire Hardbody family was excellent beyond words. David Larsen managed to make everyone around me cry (including myself) with his character of the tough Marine Chris Alvaro. His song “Stronger” ended act one on a solemn, unexpected note, and had everyone literally speechless. There were a few moments of unadulterated silence when the lights came up for intermission. Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone’s hilarious character Heather Stovall had the audience wrapped around her finger. I am so envious of her beautiful voice, which I would love to hear again in the future, preferably on Broadway. And of course, Keith Carradine’s take on JD Drew was astounding as well. Spoiler alert: He wins the truck at the end of the show and Mr. Carradine also wins the Tony Award. (The last part isn’t quite true…but hopefully it will be soon.)

After I see a Broadway musical, I usually take a few days to talk about it with anyone who will put up with me, listen to any and all recordings of the score that I can get my hands on, learn more about the cast and creative team, and then I move on. The time that I had spent inside the theatre always stays with me but I’ve found that after obsessing over it for a few days, eventually I’ll wear myself out. However, this experience was unusual. I saw Hands on a Hardbody on April 10, 2013. It’s been almost two months now and I have not been able to stop raving about it, listening to it, and learning about it. Sometimes I think back to that night in my dorm room where I debated whether or not I should see the show before it closed. Thank God I let my impulses get the best of me. (And for the record, Emily loved it too.)

The characters that resonated the most with me were Kelli Mangrum and Greg Wilhote, played by Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson. During their performance of “I’m Gone,” I realized that this musical is more than a bunch of people coming together under the same circumstances in hopes of walking away with the top prize. It’s about the dreams these people have which ultimately unites them. Each character has a distinct goal for their future, which have been kick-started by their ambitions to win the truck. Kelli wished to travel the world and maybe start an acting career while Greg has longed to be a Hollywood stuntman since he was a teenager.

As I listened to these characters, I thought about my own dream, which is to share beautiful pieces of theatre like Hands on a Hardbody with the world through my writing. If I’ve convinced someone to learn more about the musical, then I’ve done my job. The original Broadway team of this production has gone above and beyond what they might have originally sought out to do.

I am sure this musical is going to stay with me for a long time (if the first part of this article was intended for anything, it’d be to imply that fact) and I can only hope to see each and every actor in this cast to keep moving forward in their careers with even more projects. But for now, I’ll be back here, keeping my hands on these computer keys while waiting for the cast recording previews to leak.

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