La Jolla steers 'Body' to stage tuner

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright has teamed with lyricist Amanda Green to turn the 1997 documentary “Hands on a Hard Body” into a stage musical.

Tuner was commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse, where it will have its initial run. Also involved in a development capacity is Gotham-based Playwrights Horizons. The musical will be produced by Kevin Morris, Robb Bindler and Chapin Wilson.

Considered a cult favorite, the docu chronicles an annual endurance contest in Longview, Texas, in which 24 contestants compete for a new pickup truck. The winner is the person who stands upright longest with one hand always on the truck. The contest depicted in the docu ended after 77 hours.

Wright, who grew up in Dallas, was familiar with the annual contest and saw the film, which hasn’t been in DVD circulation for years. He felt that the hopes and backstories of the contestants lent themselves to stage treatment and brought it to Green, the Jonathan Larson Award-winning lyricist whose credits include “High Fidelity.”

“What could have been a comical look at a local eccentric tradition and a sendup of Texas stereotypes became a powerful metaphor for the nature of success and failure in America,” Wright said. “For each character, the truck represents something different. There is a devoutly religious contestant for whom this is a test of faith, there is a returning champion defending his manhood, a bike-riding young woman for whom this is a ticket out of a small community to chase larger dreams.”

The $35,000 docu was financed by Morris, a principal of the Century City law firm Morris Yorn Barnes & Levine. Morris owns the picture with Bindler, who directed, and Texas native Matthew McConaughey, who paid to have the print blown up to 16mm so it could play the festival circuit.

Morris said there have been several approaches to adapt the docu, but the owners resisted. The principals were in talks with Robert Altman to turn the contest into a narrative film, but Altman died before anything happened.

Wright has worked with Playwrights Horizon on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “I Am My Own Wife” and the musical “Grey Gardens.” La Jolla Playhouse showcased “I Am My Own Wife” and commissioned Wright’s adaptation of the August Strindberg play “Creditors,” which will premiere at La Jolla Playhouse later this season.

“Commissions are a core component of our artistic mission, and we couldn’t be more excited to help originate this new piece based on a trenchant slice of Americana that explores the most exuberant and most troubling aspects of our competitive spirit,” said La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley.

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