The Saturday evening showing of “Hands on a Hardbody,” a real-life Texan dramaturned musical, was three-quarters full of middle-aged patrons in well-pressed coats and high-heeled shoes. In the mainstage theater of the Colorado Springs at Colorado College Fine Arts Center, ushers directed theatergoers to their respective seats over the sound of country music. On stage, two enormous gyrating blue and white striped tube men flanked a sign proclaiming “Floyd King Nissan.” The mood was cheerful and expectant; this was the regional premiere of the Tony Award-nominated play, and the live orchestra pit and musical score (composed by Trey Anastasio of the rock band Phish, and actress, singer, and songwriter Amanda Green) promised a good lineup of tunes.
In 1992, the first “Hardbody” event occured in Longview, Texas, as a promotional contest run by Jack Long Nissan. Twenty-four contestants were picked at random from a pool of entrants. One of them was promised to receive a $15,000 truck for free — no strings attached. All they had to do was win the contest. The rules: keep one gloved hand on the truck at all times, except for a five-minute break every hour, and a 15-minute break every six hours. No sitting, no leaning, no kneeling. The last person standing drives the truck home. The first contest lasted 87 hours.
S.R. Bindler, a resident of Longview and a New York University film student, happened to be in a bar across the street from the dealership and watched part of the competition unfold. Back at school, he became obsessed with trying to turn the contest into a screenplay. In 1995, after several fruitless attempts, he returned to Longview with some friends to film a documentary instead.
The original “Hands on a Hardbody” was released in 1997, complete with a wacky lineup of down-on-their-luck Texans and collection of pithy quotes delivered by Benny Perkins, the winner of the inaugural contest, back in the competition for the second time. “If you can’t hunt with the big dogs, you get up on the porch with the puppies,” he said — a line that is used in the 2012 musical of the same name.
The event ended in 2005, when a second-time contestant dropped out of the contest after 48 hours and committed suicide. It’s still remembered in East Texas, however — even by theatergoers at the FAC. A woman sitting next to me confided, in a Texan twang, that her father owns a ranch near Longview, and that she remembers the contest taking place while she was growing up. “East Texas was never the same afterwards,” she said.
The play itself is an endearing mix of country music, impassioned bursts of song, memorable, lovable characters, and one very bright red truck in center stage. As one contestant, a troubled war veteran with a beautiful singing voice, sings a piece about his life, “Stronger,” the audience is perfectly silent. Later in the play, as contestants begin to collapse (or in some cases, break down from the effects of sleep deprivation), audience members moan and cheer.
“I can’t picture this on Broadway,” a man nearby commented. While the play had a stint on Broadway in 2013, it seems more at place in an intimate, homey theater setting like the FAC. And that’s part of the charm. “It’s a human drama kind of thing,” Perkins said, and the stories of each character — military veterans, rednecks, college students, devout Christians, old men and young dreamers, many of them based on real people from the 1995 contest — seem best sung to a cheerful, supportive crowd.
“Hands on a Hardbody” will be playing at the FAC until April 14. Tickets start at $20, but with their Gold Card, CC students with can get free rush tickets for the best seats still available, beginning an hour before showtime.