12/29/2020 BANDSTAND Broadway on Demand
The boys are coming home, the flags are flying high.
And mom has baked her special apple pie.
You hug your girl when you walk through that door.
Before you know it, it'll be just like it was before.
2017’s Tony Awards broadcast brought with it an excerpt from a new musical that arrived with no advance word and with nary a notion of what it was about. Bandstand opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on April 26, 2017, just “under the wire” for Tony consideration, receiving two nominations (for Andy Blankenbuehler’s compelling and energetic choreography – which it won –and Bill Ellliott and Greg Anthony Rassen’s highly evocative swing-era orchestrations – which it didn’t win). Thanks to a lukewarm reception from the New York Times, it ran for less than 5 months, closing in September.
Which is definitely a shame, because, judging from the filmed performance now available on Broadway on Demand, it is an infinitely memorable production that deserved a long run, and, hopefully, after pandemic restrictions subside, a long life in regional theatres.
In a nutshell, this is a musical about PTSD in the Swing Era, a time PTSD was yet to be defined, with sufferers advised to simply “man up and get over it.” World War II has just ended, and many men “coming home:” are having trouble adjusting to a peacetime life clouded with wartime memory. Donny Novitski is a young veteran suffering intense survivor’s guilt. He is also a talented pianist and songwriter, who desperately wants music to allay his sleepless nights and flashbacks to the Solomon Islands campaign that cost the life of his best friend, a fellow musician, a drummer known as “Rubber” Trojan” (yes, it was a time to embrace the adolescent boy within).
When the gigs fail to appear and the sleepless nights fail to go away, Donny learns of a contest, a “National Swing Band Competition in Tribute to the Troops,” and he puts together a band of veterans: Jimmy Campbell on Sax, Davy Zlatic on bass, Nick Radel on trumpet, Wayne Wright on trombone, and Johnny Simpson on drums. All are suffering from some form of PTSD – Davy is a raging alcoholic (he was part of the squad that freed Dachau), Wayne is a compulsive family man, Johnny was in a jeep that rolled three times leaving him a few cards short of a full deck. Nick is a middle school teacher who is almost constantly in a rage. But all their demons fade to background noise when they play, their shared love of music giving them all a few precious moments of peace and renewal.
When Donny finally looks in on the Julia Trojan, widow of his best friend (as he promised he would), he finds a kindred soul, haunted by grief and blessed with perfect pitch, and (Voila!) the group has its vocalist.
As they progress through the levels of the competition, it soon becomes apparent that their status as “war heroes” gives them a leg up on their competition; the fact that their talent is miles ahead of the pack is just a bonus. And it becomes equally apparent that the competition is really a scam to acquire talent and music at no cost, that the organizers “guarantee” Hollywood, but deliver only broken promises, signed-away rights, and an off-key Frank Sinatra singing their song while they end up footing the bill for their competition-related transportation and housing.
And there’s still that secret, the real truth behind the “friendly fire” death of “Rubber,” that threatens to alienate Julia and tear the group apart (soon known as “The Don Nova Band”).
This show is wall-to-wall music and dance, filled with wit and heart, and more energy than you’re likely to see in a video format. Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, the show features a marvelous ensemble cast and chorus, who slip into and out of small roles with the ease of a bobbysoxer squealing at the latest Sinatra wannabe. Heading the cast are Corey Cott and Laura Osnes as Donny and Julia who have remarkable chemistry, both as actors and as band “front singers.” Ms. Osnes has two solos that rip right through the guts; she left me standing and clapping, even though I was alone with my computer at the time. The first is a heartfelt ballad about the loss of her husband (“Love Will Come and Find Me Again”) which quickly becomes the band’s “signature” song. And then there’s the finale, “Welcome Home,” that categorizes the bands’ traumas with an ironic “Welcome Home” sentiment, designed to be a song Sinatra will never want to sing, but effectively summing up the show’s many levels of emotional ambivalence, delivering it in a kick-ass shake-the-rafters finale.
As the Dan Nova Band, Joe Carroll (Johnny), Brandon James Ellis (Danny), James Nathan Hopkins (Jimmy), Geoff Packard (Wayne), and Joey Pero (Nick) are all terrific actors and musicians, playing their own instruments and creating remarkably distinct and idiosyncratic characters. (Mr. Cott supposedly spent many months training to play his own piano solos). Joining the cast is Broadway Treasure Beth Leavel as Julia’s wise-cracking mother, whose second-act “Everything Happens” ballad beautifully bridges the gap between the grief of “What happened” with the hope of “what’s next.”
In fact the entire score (Music by Richard Oberacker with book and lyrics by Mr. Oberacker and Robert Taylor) is a stick-in-the-ear joy, filled with rhythm and style evocative of the late forties, but with melody all its own, a perfect wedding of period and contemporary that deserves a permanent place in all of our musical libraries.
This show will only be available to watch on Broadway on Demand until the 31st, and I regret taking so long to catch up with it. Although there’re no plans yet for it to hit any other streaming services, I daresay, it may just be available to watch or rent or even buy soon enough. Another promise of 2021!
Finally, to all veterans, I can only offer the finale’s moving chorus:
Welcome home my boys
Welcome home my sons
Welcome home my husband
Welcome home my love
Welcome home, welcome home
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Bandstand #BroadwayOnDemand
For more information on PTSD and on Veteran’s issues, the producers recommend he following organizations and sites:
Got Your 6
(Worked with he cast and creators to ensure they got the details right)
T*A*P*S (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)
TAPS provides comfort, care and resources to all those grieving the death of a military loved one. Since 1994, TAPS has provided comfort and hope 24/7 through a national peer support network and connection to grief resources, all at no cost to surviving families and loved ones.