ANGELINA: What you looking at?
BILL: Nothing. I’m not – I’m just – um – not at you.
MARIE: (to Bill) Honey, I don’t mean to butt in but you are going about this all wrong. If you can’t say something clever – and I mean uniquely clever – then you gotta be straight. Tell her you find her attractive and ask her if she’s going out with someone. Or if she’s currently married.
BILL : (protesting to Marie) No – I – I – I –
MARIE: (to Angelina) Sweetie, are you married?
ANGELINA: (enjoying this) No.
MARIE: You got a boyfriend?
MARIE: (to Bill) There – see? (to Angelina) Do you find this young man attractive?
ANGELINA: (a teasing smile) No.
MARIE: Okay, fair enough. But would you go out with him if he asked?
MARIE: On what?
ANGELINA: (a teasing smile) On if he’s got a truck.
Eye on the Prize sung by Kia Goodwin and Nick Mills. Music and Lyrics by Matty Selman.
THE STORY: Eight people stand around a pickup truck, each holding one hand on the truck for as long as humanly possible. One by one they drop out. The last one standing wins the truck.
THE BACKSTORY: Not exactly an obvious premise for a musical. Certainly not a lot of room for dance. But the rightness of this idea struck me so insistently (I was having a massage at the time) that I figured it could only be the stubborn muse of inspiration.
S.R. Bindler’s terrific documentary Hands On A Hard Body introduced me to this American phenomenon which had been going on, research told me, since the mid-80’s. It seemed to me the perfect metaphor for life in America in these times. The contestants are always, inevitably, poor, and the truck is often worth no more than $15,000. (One wealthy woman once asked me, “Why would anyone stand around for five days putting themselves through hell just to win fifteen thousand dollars?” Wake up, lady, I wanted to say, and ask your gardener or maid this question. Read Nickel And Dimed.)
For once a play of mine could not be plot-driven. It all hinged on the people, on our liking them and understanding them and rooting for them, so that whenever one contestant dropped out we were both saddened and (assuming we were rooting for someone else) elated. Matty and I traveled to the New Harmony Project, a playwrights’ development center in New Harmony, Indiana. We were asked to put the play in full development, with a cast and director – and this before either of us had written one word. He composed an opening song, I developed eight monologues, and we began.
During that first amazing spring in New Harmony (2001) we found the first forty minutes of the show and the kernel of our nine characters (eight contestants and one God-like announcer). The following year I traveled to observe a Hands On contest in Evansville, Indiana – then returned home to finish the play. In May 2004 Matty and I traveled once again to New Harmony, and workshopped a completed script. It was subsequently workshopped again at the Sarasota Festival of New Plays, hosted by the Florida Studio Theatre, in May of 2005, and given its first rudimentary production at Indiana University’s musical development program in the summer of 2006. Then, in May 2007, it received its first full production at the Barnstormers’ Theatre in New Hampshire, and won several New Hampshire Theatre Awards, including Best Musical Production and Best New Play. (The Broadway production of the musical Hands On A Hard Body was related to ours only in subject matter.)
ANGELINA: KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE PRIZE – / BE THE LAST PERSON STANDING – / AND BY SUNRISE LIFE WILL BE LESS DEMANDING – / HOLD ON – HOLD ON – / TO WHAT YOU BELIEVE – / AND YOU BELIEVE / IT’S WAITING THERE FOR YOU –