By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
It might be the most memorable moment in Hands on a Hardbody, the new Broadway musical now at the Brooks Atkinson. A group of Texans are standing at an auto dealership with their hands on a pickup truck, and the last one touching it takes it home. After several hours in position, they've reached a moment of weary silence… until Norma Valverde, a devout Christian with a warm heart and a Discman full of inspirational music, starts laughing. She's just chuckling at first, almost to herself, but soon enough, she's busting loose.
Norma guffaws for a long time, and there's an electric thrill as her laughter spreads through the theatre. And then she starts singing "Joy of the Lord," an a cappella gospel song that explains exactly why she's happy.
One by one, the rest of the cast sings along, and they use the truck itself as an instrument. They slam the hood to make a drum. They honk the horn to add some harmony. They pound out a rhythm on the freshly-waxed doors. When the offstage band joins them for the final measures, it's like these people have pulled music from the sky. It's a thrilling evocation of the musical's deeper story about how people rely on each other in hard times. The truck might represent a dream of economic advancement, but in that moment, the truck is at the community's service.
This sequence lives or dies by Keala Settle, who also played Norma when the show premiered at California's La Jolla Playhouse last year. If she can't gin up real laughter, then everything falls flat. And she knows it.
"Every night when I have to start laughing, I would rather get shot in the knees," says Settle (pictured above on the left.) "It is so horrifying. It's horrifying to know that you have got to do it, pull it out of nowhere, and then calm it down enough to start singing a cappella. And then hope for the best that you're on the right key when the band comes in at the end."
She relies on her castmates to rev her up. "The second I start getting into it, I hear Kathleen [Elizabeth Monteleone, whose character may be cheating] across from me. She's my dressing roommate---her and Allison [Case, who plays an ingénue named Kelli]---and we call our dressing room Dorm Room because we've got music blasting and it smells like 500 lotions in there. There are flowers and candy and a whole kitchen up in there. And Kathleen starts laughing. And then Keith [Carradine, who plays an out-of-work oil rigger] starts laughing when he hears her. And that's it. I need that, or I cannot go on."
Settle was in the original Broadway cast of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and starred in the national tours of Hairspray and South Pacific. But while those shows required teamwork, Hands on a Hardbody demands something extra. The actors themselves have to follow the rules of the contest, which disqualifies everyone who takes their hands off the truck. If they lift a palm off the tailgate and the audience sees it, then the show could collapse.
That helps the actors understand the pressure of the story, which is based on a documentary film of the same name. But while the real-life contestants got to stop after a few days, the actors have to touch the truck for weeks on end. At this point, they're relying on each other like soldiers in the field.
"We are so tight-knit at that truck because we have to be for the show to work," says Settle. "That's what happens when you stare at a truck for that long. We're living the contest. And right now, we're really living it because we come to rehearsal at noon, and we don't leave the theatre until 11 o'clock. We laugh with each other about everything. We will laugh at The Shawshank Redemption. At the cliffhanger game on The Price is Right. Keith and I laugh at each other before the show even starts. They've had to tell me to shut up because you can hear me off stage."
That closeness also reflects the deeper theme of the musical, which has a book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, and music by Green and Trey Anastasio. Even though these actors are crafting individual performances, they lean on each other to endure.
The message resonates with Settle's personal life. Not so long ago, she recalls, "I had set up my life in a way that I was in charge, and nothing and nobody else could tell me otherwise. And basically, all of those plans fell through. I had nothing else to do except start from where I was---at the bottom---and learn how to live again, and with the help of a lot of family and friends, I did. And from that point on, wherever I happened to be, I've known that the only way I can survive as a human being is to interact with someone else."
Still, she knows how to leave Norma behind. "You get right up against the boundary of it being real," she says. "Once the show's over, I go home. I watch Netflix and eat a deli sandwich like anyone else. But you have to know how to get right up to that extreme and then pull yourself back when it's over."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Kevin Berne