After years of discussion and rumors, sporadic Phish performances of a couple of its songs, and a well-recieved debut run on the West Coast, the Hands on a Hardbody musical is now on its feet and in previews on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. So it seems a great time to share some reporting on the show. Before the show's initial run at the La Jolla Playhouse last spring, I sat down with collaborators Trey Anastasio, Doug Wright and Amanda Green in New York City to talk about the creative process behind the show, for an article in American Theatre that ran in the May 2012 issue. The discussion was in "roundtable" format, with me asking leading questions meant to get the three artists to run with it. Below is an excerpt, or you can click through to the full piece here.
JEREMY GOODWIN: In strict résumé terms, Trey seems the odd man out in this trio.
TREY ANASTASIO: But I grew up around a lot of musical theatre. My grandmother was a single mother and she raised my mom in the ’40s and ’50s, and they went to every show, and it became sort of a family tradition. So when I was growing up in New Jersey, my mom used to take my sister and me to shows almost weekly. She was editor at Sesame Street Magazine and knew a lot of creative New York people. As I grew up, I used to hear around the dinner table that the ultimate dream of creativity is to be on a team working on a Broadway show. So to be asked to be part of this team was such a thrill.
As a matter of fact, I used to get made fun of in the early years of Phish—people would say some of the music sounded kind of “Broadway.” I grew up sitting around my record player listening to West Side Story and South Pacific and Hair.
DOUG WRIGHT: When I first met Trey, he gave one of the most thrilling and insightful treatises on the overture to Gypsy that I think I’d ever heard!
ANASTASIO: That was on perma- loop in my house, growing up. Musical theatre is the one place where you can find all the great elements of American music history. If you think about someone like Leonard Bernstein, and what he brought to his scores—it was popular music, but also serious composition, and development, and all those beautiful things.
AMANDA GREEN: Trey and I were working together [on songs for Phish] at the same time Doug and I were working on Hands on a Hardbody. Doug and I had looked for about a year for a composer partner, and there was nothing that was a fit. And one day Trey and I were writing and I had this lyric from the show with me, and, ha!—I just wanted to slide it over. As I got to know him and his enthusiasm for the musical world, I realized this might be the perfect fit.
This man just dives in headlong—there’s no testing the waters. We got into a room, I said, “Here’s the opening number. Boom—go!” And he just took off. This music came flying out of Trey.
ANASTASIO: I went through the process of making full-band demos of every song—sort of imitating Jesus Christ Superstar, which had an album before it became a show. There’s so much discovery I’m used to making in the studio or in the band practice room, so as a way of orchestrating, I decided to go through that extra, extra exercise. We went up to the Barn, my studio in Vermont, and had a bunch of very talented friends come in.
WRIGHT: For me, as the non-musical member of the triumvirate, it was so cool! Trey and Amanda were up there making these huge decisions about the music. They had the most amazing people, like guitarist Larry Campbell [who has played with Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Cindi Lauper and Emmylou Harris, to name a few]. I just watched these two pound through the score; I watched these amazing musicians improvise; and they were able to orchestrate the score in the most thrilling and dynamic way.