Dallas — Playwright Doug Wright is a Texas boy who has done well in the theater world. A Dallas native, he graduated from Highland Park High School in 1981 and was then off to college, grad school and New York, his playwriting career taking off in the ‘90s and 2000s. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the marvelous one-man, multiple-character play I Am My Own Wife, and has written the book to the Broadway musicals Grey Gardens, The Little Mermaid and Hands on a Hardbody, which is entering its final weekend in its North Texas premiere at Theatre Three.
Wright spent the opening weekend in Dallas, hanging out at Theatre Three where he performed, took classes and ushered in the 1970s and early ‘80s. I interviewed him in the green room on preview weekend. (Wright is one of three Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who have worked at Theatre Three, the others being Beth Henley and Tracy Letts.)
The show is based on the 1997 documentary of the same name about an annual contest in Longview, Texas, in which contestants compete by continuously touching a Nissan truck. The person who lasts the longest wins the vehicle.
Wright seemed to be genuinely thrilled with the production, as he should be. Expertly directed by Jeffrey Schmidt, the production is Theatre Three’s strongest production of a musical in many years. Below is my interview with Wright, but before that I’ll include a short review of the production:
The intimacy of the space works especially well for this kind of smaller musical, which features lyrics by Amanda Green (daughter of legendary lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green) and music by Trey Anastasio of the jam band Phish. Green was also here for opening night—her second trip this year to a Texas theater producing this show. The first, at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, didn’t turn out so well. That story—of a production in which the director changed the show quite a bit without asking permission—will go down in the history books.
Theatre Three was able to get a real Nissan truck onto the stage (T3 Executive Director-Producer Jac Alder actually bought it, and the theater will put it to good use), and set designer Schmidt made some smart choices with the playing spaces around the pick-up. When on the set for our interview, Wright pointed out to me that he loved the touch of a bird’s nest in the “A” of the Nissan sign, with bird droppings below it.
The beauty of the show is that while it presents a major directorial challenge of keeping most of the cast attached to the truck for almost the whole time, there are moments when characters are on break or step out into the spotlight with their own musical monologues (think A Chorus Line). Schmidt gets fantastic performances from the cast across the board, but there’s especially moving work from Jim Johnson as contestant JD and Delynda Johnson Moravec as his wife on the sidelines, their marital problems make something like winning a new truck seem trivial; and Nancy Sherrard is bawdy and hilarious as contestant Janis.
Major Attaway and Leah Clark, as contestants Ronald and Norma, have the strongest voices; the song “My Problem Right There,” featuring Attaway, Clark, Monet Lerner as Heather and Molly Welch as Kelli, is the standout number. Ashley Wood, as previous winner Benny, looks and acts the role of a good ol’ boy wonderfully, but is the weakest link in the vocal department.
It’s a vibrant production of a completely charming musical with delightful, tuneful music, especially rousing when the cast uses the truck as a percussion instrument in Norma’s song “Joy of the Lord.”
Expect to see Hands on a Hardbody booked at theaters across the state in the coming years. We can’t wait for the first performance in Longview, where it should be warmly received. It treats the characters with loving respect. After all, they want something that’s literally tangible—but that object represents so much more about dreams and desires. It’s a great human condition story.
And now, the interview with Wright:
TheaterJones: You went to the State Fair this weekend?
Doug Wright: [smiling] Yes! We brought Amanda Green down and wanted to give her a dose of Texas, because she’s an Upper West Side girl.
How long had it been since you were at the Fair?
When we first started working on this show four or five years ago, I went. So it hasn’t been too long.
A few weeks ago it was announced that the Highland Park School District was banning seven books, to which you responded with a letter that made the Internet rounds. [They have since reversed the decision.]
I have in the past been very actively part of their annual literary festival, which I think is a terrific addition to their curriculum. My mother forwarded and article about [the ban], so I wrote the letter as a result. I [hear] that the English faculty was pleased that someone was speaking out in their support. I think it has helped give momentum to that group of parents who feel like their children should be allowed to read material that a huge consortium of faculty have deemed age-appropriate.
The title that made me roll my eyes the most was The Working Poor: Invisible in America, this coming from a very rich school district.
God knows kids at Highland Park are wonderfully bright, but it’s a very homogenous community. If issues of income equality and an increasingly corporate government can’t be raised in the classrooms of Highland Park High School, where they are perhaps most relevant, then we’re in a truly preposterous, Sisyphean situation.
These parents are so tone deaf they make it an issue during banned book weeks. That’s how divorced they are from the literary world and they want to make decisions about what people can and cannot read.
Let’s go back to your early days in Dallas. You performed at Theatre Three in high school, right?
Yes. I kind of grew up in these hallways. When I was 14 I performed in a play called The Shadow Box, I played Steve. I ushered here and would repeat that so I could see shows over and over again and learn. I also did numerous children’s shows for [the late] Larry O’Dwyer.
You wrote the part of the Marquis de Sade in your play Quills for him, right?
Yes. I saw him on the street when I was doing a fellowship in Princeton, it was just luck that I ran into him. I was working on the play at the time, and he did three developmental workshops. He was never able to do a full production, though.
My introduction to your work was seeing Quills at Stage West, before the movie came out. Jerry Russell, who died last year, played the Marquis. You know he’s gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis’ father, right?
Yes! I don’t know if that will help her election chances if everybody knows that her father did my villainous play about a notorious character.
Maybe she can use that as a slogan.
Longview, Texas, is the setting of Hands on a Hardbody, but Texas was part of your early plays too. I’m thinking of Dinosaurs, which you wrote after visiting the Creation Museum in Glen Rose.
Yes. My first play, a one-act called The Stonewater Rapture, was set in Texas. That play still gets performed all over the place. Dinosaurs was an attempt to grapple with my Texas past. And now Hands on a Hardbody, so Texas really does filter through my work.
I remember as a kid going to the Dallas Theater Center and seeing the work of Preston Jones and remembering thinking someone from Texas could be a playwright as readily as Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams, and that all you had to do was put pen to paper.
Of course the Dallas theater scene has changed and grown incredibly since then, especially in the past 10 years or so.
It has. When I was here, there was Theatre Three, Dallas Theater Center, The Shakespeare Festival of Dallas and few maverick groups like Hip Pocket Theatre and Dallas Repertory Theater. Now I still think of groups like Undermain Theatre and [Addison Theatre Center]/WaterTower Theatre as the new kids on the block, and of course here they have these wonderful, established reputations.
I saw the off-Broadway production of I Am My Own Wife, which went to Broadway and won several Tony Awards, not to mention the Pulitzer Prize. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is such an incredible character. Is she still a part of you?
Very much so. I was just interviewed last week by a German newspaper that’s doing a story about her enduring legacy. There have been 32 countries that have done productions, sometimes multiple productions in those countries. I was a sponge around her, and learned bout her life and struggle and German history and history of homosexuality and gay culture, she still informs my way of looking at the world today.
How did the idea for Hands on a Hardbody happen?
I was living in Brooklyn and was homesick one evening, and went to the video store, if anyone remembers those, and I saw this little movie on the shelf and noticed it was set in my home state. I thought that might help with my homesickness. I took it home and watched it and was so delighted and stunned and touched by it. I called my friend Amanda Green and said, “I think this could be a musical.”
We approached the filmmaker, S.R. Bindler, and he was supportive. And then we realized we’d have to get permission from the people whose stories are in the movie. At that time the movie was already 10 or 12 years old. We realized we had no way of reaching of them. We hired a private detective, sent him the movie and we said we have to find these eight people. He got their names and addresses, most of them still living in rural east Texas, and Amanda and I flew down here, hopped in a rental car, drove to Longview, Texas, and started knocking on doors. Lovely people welcomed us into their homes. We said “we want to turn that contest into a Broadway musical and would you sign an agreement?” They all said “yes.” It premiered at La Jolla Playhouse.
Along the way, Amanda, who was writing both music and lyrics, wanted to bring in her friend Trey Anastasio [of the band Phish] who proved to be the vitamin pill we needed to push the project over the top. His participation was incredible and heartfelt.
Had he written a musical before?
He wrote a musical in college that is a cult favorite among Phish fans; he’s been a huge lover of theater since he was a kid. Amanda said “you have to go to dinner with us.” I can’t lie, I thought he was from the rock ‘n’ roll world, what would he know about theater?
Did you know Phish music?
Not really. I was one of those gay kids who listened to Broadway musicals.
Totally! Erasure and the B-52’s.
So what happened at dinner?
I sat down to eat with Trey and he gave the most moving, insightful and passionate defense of the overture to Gypsy that I had ever heard. I thought “this guy knows his musical theater.” He brought a naturally theatrical sensibility to everything he wrote for us. It was a really charmed collaboration between the three of us.
How did it progress from there?
Amanda and I had outlined the show together. We tended to work very collaboratively. I would say “I think I need a love song and she would say ‘great, but I need to know its content so could you write a scene for it.’ ” I would write a scene between two characters, and she would turn it into a song, and Trey would work with her musically to bring it to the finish line. Other times we’d find out that a particular song wasn’t serving its purpose or carrying its weight but there would be a few fantastic or observant lines in it because Amanda is such a trenchant lyricist, and I would use them for a scene.
I love that you see this documentary and think to yourself: here’s a story about people who are stuck to this truck, so it has limited mobility. Let’s make a musical!
That was the biggest challenge of the material. It was an insane idea, but what I liked about it is that it posed an implicit challenge. How do you take material that appears to be so static and fire it through with life and behavior and movement dynamism? That was one of the great challenges of tackling the piece. Hopefully at the end of the day audiences get so invested in their characters and the competition and their fundamental humanity that people become more important than the set.
We had some wonderful choreography in New York, and Jeff [Schmidt] has done a beautiful job of realizing it for the Theatre Three stage. It’s surprisingly not static but very dynamic.
It transferred to Broadway but didn’t last long there…
For New York it was an idiosyncratic title. I think this is the kind of eccentric, character-driven theater piece that would have benefitted from an off-Broadway production first so people could buzz about it. Instead we opened it cold in the most competitive theater market. It received mostly great notices, but not the ticket sales. I can’t lie; it was tough.
You previously had fairly decent Broadway runs, with Grey Gardens running 18 months and I Am My Own Wife for a year. And The Little Mermaid was two years.
It was my first official Broadway flameout, and it was a piece that I think is as good or better than anything I’ve ever written. So go figure.
You could seek counsel from many of the other Broadway greats, like Charles Strouse, who had big hits and a few flops.
You do think that if you pour your heart and soul into it and you hold yourself to a high standard of craft, and if audiences are cheering it at the end, you think you have a hit. Then you realize there are variables you can’t control, that have to do with tourism and demographics and producing strategies and marketing.
New York does seem to have a problem with Texas-set or –themed shows. Preston Jones’ Texas Trilogy and A Tuna Christmas didn’t do so well either.
My friend Carol Hall, who wrote The Best Little Whorehosue in Texas, is one of those few artists who have pushed through the mainstream with Texas material. It’s odd; New York is the only major market that doesn’t have a dedicated country music station, so musicals with country music and themes and influences have traditionally not done well and we were no exception. I told the cast “the talent you’re bringing to the show is piecing the authors back together after a huge disappointment.”
Can you talk about what happened with Hands on a Hardbody in Houston?
I didn’t see the production, but while I was deeply sorry for the actors and designers who plunged themselves wholeheartedly into a misguided version of the show, in the same breath I think it was a wonderful, educative moment for the American theatrical community because it reminded all of us that plays are protected by copyright and they’re owned by the people who penned them and that as such their content has to be respected. It’s not like TV or film where the studio owns the copyright. The great privilege of dramatists of America is that we emphatically own our work.
It’s my understanding that amateur theaters are the theaters that are most likely to make unauthorized changes to a show; but for a professional theater, this was a major no-no.
Amanda and Trey and I tend to be pretty generous with communities that ask to make changes in the text. Some communities ask to change things because of concerns about audiences, they’re concerned about rough language, and we’re quick to say “just say ‘darnit,’ ” or they say “we don’t have a Latina woman but we have a terrific African-American woman who would be fabulous in the role,” and we say “yes.”
That’s why I think at the end of the day it was a good lesson.
You married your partner, or husband now, David Clement.
Yes. Depending on which part of the country we’re in depends on which word I use [partner or husband]. We’ve been together for 12 years and married for six. We married in Santa Monica, California. We were one of those 17,000 couples in limbo, before Prop 8. We’ve been working on a musical for La Jolla Playhouse. It’s about the Weather Underground; we met [leader] Bill Ayers.
Do you know his son, playwright Zayd Dohrn?
Yes, he’s a wonderful writer. I was growing up in Dallas in those years [of the Weather Undground], it was technically in my lifetime, but I was too young to know anything so it’s been fascinating to explore that through literature. It asks the question of what happens when people with really noble ideals goes off course.
So you’ve done two Broadway musicals based on documentaries, Grey Gardens and Hardbody. Any other documentaries you’re looking to musicalize?
Yes, but I can’t say what it is yet. David Stone, the producer of Wicked and If/Then and other shows is on board. I’m so excited about it because I’m working with my Grey Gardens colleagues, Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, on it.
Is it a documentary from the past 20 years?
What about a new play?
Yes. It’s called Posterity and opens at the Atlantic Theatre Company in winter . It chronicles a legendary meeting between Henrik Ibsen and a sculptor who wants to carve his portrait, and it was a portrait sitting that went very, very badly.
Speaking of great playwrights, who were your playwriting influences?
Preston Jones. The great guys from the canon: Miller, Williams and Albee. Also the fabulous New York writer and director Charles Ludlam of Ridiculous Theatrical Company, he was a seismic influence on me. The work [Ridiculous] did has influenced generations of theater artists.