A prolific songwriter, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio quietly spent part of the past two years working on a score for a new musical – an adaptation of the documentary Hands on a Hardbody – which will debut this spring in La Jolla, California. With a book written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright and dance numbers choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (Black Swan), Anastasio certainly isn’t the only marquee name involved with the project. But his involvement will, no doubt, be of interest to a rabid audience of Phish-heads who may not necessarily be known as avid theater-goers.
Playwright Wright tells Rolling Stone that he was “surprised” when Anastasio expressed interest in getting involved, but was nonetheless “stunned” when the guitarist quoted musical riffs from Gypsy at their very first meeting.
“A lot of rock & roll artists have tried their hand at writing for the musical stage and failed,” says Wright. “It’s a very tricky medium. Songs play a very specific role in the theater; they have to reveal character, forward the show’s narrative, and amplify its key themes. Music can’t exist onstage merely for its own sake. But Trey intuitively understands this; he’s not just a musician, but a born storyteller. He knows how to employ music to achieve dramatic ends.”
For his part, Anastasio has always put himself in new situations, from assembling acid-jazz ensembles (Surrender to the Air) to composing symphonic scores and performing with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic. He once toured as a member of Dave Matthews and Friends, and his own solo band continues to explore the possibilities of big band jazz rock.
With Phish, Anastasio has always incorporated diverse elements of barbershop, bluegrass, jazz fusion, funk, folk…and, yes, even Broadway. In this exclusive interview, he tells Rolling Stone why working with composer Amanda Green on the score for Hands on a Hardbody has still been an entirely different experience.
What made you decide to want to do this project?
I’ve always loved musical theater. It’s a bit of a family tradition. My grandmother was a single mother of two, living in New York City in the Forties and Fifties, and she took my mother to see many Broadway plays. They saw Mary Martin, John Raitt, Gypsy, South Pacific, Oklahoma, everything. When I was growing up in New Jersey, my mom would regularly take my sister and I into the city to see shows. I have many fond memories of standing in the half-price ticket line in Times Square and going to matinees. At home, there were always soundtrack albums playing. Lots of Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story, Hair and other shows.
Even before moving to the city from Vermont permanently seven years ago, my wife Sue and I made a point to continue the tradition. We take our daughters and my nephew to Broadway shows regularly. It makes me so happy that they love the theater today.
I was introduced to Amanda Green a few years ago by a mutual friend who thought that we would enjoy writing together, and he was absolutely right. Everything clicked from the very first day. We wrote three or four songs over the course of a month or two, at which point Amanda explained to me that she and her friend Doug Wright had been working on a musical – Hands on a Hardbody. Apparently, they were looking for a third collaborator and had been exploring various options for the music. She invited me to join them on the creative team. I was honored and thrilled. They are both phenomenally talented artists and I was particularly attracted to the idea of a play about a group of hardworking people from an economically depressed region, struggling together over many days without sleep, to win a truck. Considering the problems in our country today, it seemed like a relevant and very American story.
What was the most unexpected challenge of writing your first real score?
It’s been a steep learning curve. I’ve learned that in the theater the story is everything. Every lyric, every line and every musical gesture has to propel the journey of a given character or the overall plot. We’ve had workshops that take place over two or three week periods. In the workshops, actors run thru each number with minimal props and blocking. Sometimes a song doesn’t land the way we expected it to. The solution is often not what I would have anticipated.
In one case, there was a song that Amanda and I had written that we were particularly excited about. When the actor sang it in the workshop, it didn’t have the same emotional impact as it did on the demo. Amanda, Doug and I huddled up in the hallway to talk about it. I suggested re-writing the song, but Doug disagreed. He explained that in this case, he didn’t think that the issue was the song. He felt that the character needed a few more lines of dialogue to set the song up, so that the audience understood the intent behind the song before they heard it. He changed the actor’s lines, we ran it again and it was stunning. This was a complete revelation to me. In the past, I’ve habitually led with the music. I’ve learned so much from this experience.
Did writing theatrically minded music throughout your career – including Gamehendge (a sort of rock opera that Phish has performed) – prepare you to write for the stage, or was it a whole different experience?
I’ve certainly dreamed of doing this for my whole life, but I would have to say that it was a whole different experience. The actors are so creative and talented and fun to be around. Everyday, during the workshops, we would go downtown to a little room near Union Square, six days a week, from 10:00 a.m. till 6:00 p.m., and listen to twelve phenomenal singers pouring their hearts and souls into our songs in glorious harmony – two feet in front of our heads. It’s indescribable.
Did you learn anything new about songwriting that you expect you’ll take with you?
The experience will certainly affect future songwriting. These songs are, by their very nature, far more direct emotionally than many songs that I’ve written or co-written in the past. Writing for singers other than myself, or another band member, has been incredibly liberating. And on top of all that, working with Amanda and Doug has been like attending a master class. Even the concept of writing in the best range for a given singer was something that I didn’t give much thought to before. Now I understand that transposing a song a half step can effect the believability of a lyric. Who knew?
How was working with Amanda Green different than working with your longtime collaborators and songwriting partners?
Meeting Amanda has been an absolute gift, as has meeting and working with Doug; I’ve learned so much from both of them. I’m not sure how it’s different. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with so many great collaborators in my lifetime. I’ve always loved the experience of working together with other people toward an artistic goal.
Of course, anyone who writes knows that ultimately the majority of your time is spent alone in a room with a piano or a guitar, no matter what the project is. Ernie Stires, my mentor and composition teacher, used to say to me, “Composition is a lonely business…” Maybe that’s what’s different and so exciting about this. Working on a play is a vibrant and collaborative business. Everyone from the choreographer to the music director to the director to the writers work together toward the same goal, and everyone chimes in on everything.
It’s so refreshing. People are constantly huddling in little circles, asking questions. It’s satisfying and challenging on so many levels. I’m very grateful to be a part of this team.
‘Hands on a Hardbody’ will premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif. on April 27th.