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From Local Stage To Broadway: ‘Hands On A Hardbody’

Above: (L-R) Jay Armstrong Johnson, Keala Settle, Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere, commissioned musical HANDS ON A HARDBODY. The production runs April 27 - June 17 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre; photo by Kevin Berne.

Aired 6/18/12 on KPBS News.

San Diego theaters have a great track record of sending plays to Broadway. We look at the latest export, the La Jolla Playhouse's "Hands on a Hardbody," and follow the path from regional stage to the Great White Way.

The musical "Hands on a Hardbody" just finished its run at the La Jolla Playhouse and now heads to Broadway. I decided to call the Playhouse's Managing Director, Michael Rosenberg, to find out what's involved in launching a play from a San Diego stage all the way to Broadway.

The Playhouse commissioned "Hands on a Hardbody" four years ago, which means they started working with the assembled creative team, including composer Trey Anastasio (Phish), lyricist Amanda Green, and playwright Doug Wright ("I Am My Own Wife").

After multiple workshops, readings and rewrites, it was time to stage the musical. "Hardbody" is based on a real-life competition in East Texas in which participants plant one hand on a truck and stand...for hours! The last one standing wins the truck.

The La Jolla Playhouse production gave creators an opportunity to improve the musical. They get a chance to see how well a character or a song worked in the show, says Rosenberg. "It’s hard to know until you get it up and on its feet in front of a paying audience to know how much you got right and how much you still need to work on."

It also gives producers from Broadway a chance to see how the play materializes from page to stage. If they like what they see, the show may get picked up.

New Yorkers will likely see a different "Hands on a Hardbody." Between the end of the Playhouse’s production of "Memphis" and its opening on Broadway, 40% of that musical had changed, including the ending. But this isn't always the case. The New York production of "Milk Like Sugar" was almost identical to the La Jolla Playhouse show.

The Broadway theater that ends up staging "Hands on a Hardbody" will benefit from all the expertise the Playhouse has invested in the production.

For example, an actual truck is on stage during the entire show. Rosenberg says the truck took some logistical experimenting. "Figuring out how that truck is going to work was literally a daily struggle for our folks as they figured out how it was going to turn and move. Is it heavy enough to stay in place once you put it somewhere but not too heavy so that actors can’t move it around?" That stage design and research gets passed on for use in the next production.

The actors from the Playhouse run will also go with the show to Broadway, though that’s not always the case.

There is financial benefit when a locally-grown show goes to the Great White Way. "Recognizing that we devoted a lot of our time, our money, our resources, our expertise to that process, the Playhouse then receives a royalty from the commercial production and then also receives a small percentage of the net profits," says Rosenberg.

It's relatively rare for a regional theater to send a premiere production to Broadway, though the La Jolla Playhouse has an impressive track record: they've sent 23 plays to Broadway.

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