'Bandstand' and the Issues with Wartime Musicals

'Bandstand' and the Issues with Wartime Musicals

Stephen Petrovich

Bandstand, a new musical directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbeuhler (of Hamilton fame) plays at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre.   It holds the distinction of winning this year’s Tony for “Best Choreography” despite a curious inability to receive Tony nods in any other categories, including Best Actor/Actress for its talented leading duo of Corey Cott and Laura Osnes.

Many theatergoers decried the fallout of the “Best Musical” nomination this year, specifically citing the Tony voters’ dismissal of several musicals (including Bandstand) in a category that is designed to honor up to five possible nominations (the voters alas only designated four musicals).  Band Stand was blatantly snubbed. 

And yet the box office at the Jacobs Theatre apparently exploded with business after Tony night.  This is in due part to its well-received segment on the telecast, notably introduced by Jill Biden.  Biden used her platform to pitch a political campaign to support military veterans.

Did I fail to mention Bandstand is about war veterans?  The action takes place in Cleveland in the latter months of 1945, depicting American soldiers returning home from the anguish of war.  Pianist Donny Novitski (Cott), unable to book any gigs at the nightclubs he used to play and haunted by a heavy post-war conscience, enlists the talents of a handful of swing musicians, all newly returned veterans. 

Determined to win a “Tribute to the Troops” contest in which bands from each of the 48 states will compete to pen the next great swing song “in honor of our boys in uniform,” the band seals the deal with Julia (Osnes) as their front woman.  A young war widow with a knockout voice (she’s also an intuitive poet/lyricist), Julia seems to recognize the deep ache in Donny and his pals.

The exploitation and disillusionment of veterans, as explored in Bandstand, provides plenty of fertile conflict here.  Troops returning from war and finding it quite impossible to assimilate (see “shell shock”) is not a new idea by musical theatre standards.  One need look no further than the tone of wartime musicals, as heralded by the great Rodgers and Hammerstein with South Pacific

The prolific composer/lyricist duo examined such wartime themes as early as 1949 with songs like “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a cynical little tune about the inevitable endorsement of nationalist bred hatred in wartime.

While South Pacific is arguably a masterpiece, other wartime musicals have struggled to voice a clear attitude towards the actual themes of war.  On the Town, The Sound of Music – even last season’s ill-fated Allegiance all attempt to delve into this sensitive territory. 

The struggle exists in the awkward dichotomy between the merciless reality of battle and a certain “panache” that typifies musicals – big flashy production numbers don’t exactly scream “World War II.”  On the Town is delightful, but it’s difficult to believe in life or death dramatic stakes when we’ve been watching Gabey and Miss Turnstiles pas de deux all over the stage for three hours.

While Bandstand works hard to redeem its band of characters as war heroes, it oscillates too frequently between happy and sad.  It's big band score and jubilant “bobby soxer” choreography do not support the dark, brooding psyche of a wartime story. 

Osnes brings down the house with her 11 o’clock anthem “Welcome Home” which she delivers with the boys on the NBC bandstand after the band has clawed their way through contest preliminaries in New York.  The verse of the song rebukes each of the boys for their respective “issues” (“Davy cracks a joke, seems to be alright / Drinks a fifth of vodka in his kitchen every night”) with the chorus crooning a variation on “Taps” (“Welcome home, my boys / Welcome home, my sons”).  This back and forth between skepticism and blind patriotism is at the crux of Bandstand.

And yet, the audience leaps to its feet at the end of “Welcome Home,” cheering and saluting the characters as if they were the latest batch of Iraq veterans returned from deployment.

If nothing else, Bandstand highlights a very pointed social issue – Does America defend its veterans after they risk their lives defending our liberties?

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Stephen Petrovich grew up in Newtown, CT and saw his first Broadway musical, Beauty and the Beast, at the Palace Theatre at age seven. Needless to say, he instantly became smitten with Broadway. As an actor, he has toured the country in Beauty & the Beast and has played regionally in Spamalot, La Cage Aux Folles, 42nd Street, Annie, and Hairspray (3x). He holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from the Boston Conservatory and resides in Jersey City with his husband, classical musician Harry Inglis. 

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