Tucked away on 45th Street, just beyond the golden glow of Times Square and New York’s Broadway theater district, is the tastefully understated Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, which, since April 26, 2017, has been the set of Bandstand — a Tony-award winning homage to World War II and what happened when the Greatest Generation finally made it home only to realize that America didn’t wait for them.
From the theater itself to the music and the costumes, everything here is rife with nostalgia. It’s hard not to yearn for the storied America of the late 1940s once Bandstand gets started. But under all the pomp and circumstance of the show rests a level of tension that is usually glossed over by movies, TV shows, and plays about World War II. It looks something like post-war trauma — as an audience member, you can feel the scars that the characters bring home with them. It’s not glamorous, and most portrayals shy away from it, but Bandstand, even with its emphasis on big musical numbers and vivid choreography, brings the lingering damages of war to the forefront.
Set in Cleveland, Ohio, the musical chronicles the journey of Army veteran Donny Novitski, who returns home planning to pick up where he left off as a singer and pianist on the path to fame, only to realize that he is a few years older, and nothing is as it was before the war. Hoping to get back on track and make it as a musician, he enlists four other veterans to start a band and enter a swing competition. While home, he meets Julia Trojan — the widow of his best friend who died in the war in a friendly-fire incident. Throughout the show, the characters all experience grief over loss of soldiers they knew; post-traumatic stress, and drinking to numb the pain; survivor’s guilt for being able to come home while others didn’t; and nostalgia for their pre-war lives and dreams.
That’s no accident.
When showrunners Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor began writing the musical, they didn’t just want to produce a show that was lively and nostalgic; they wanted it to be authentic.
Oberacker told Task & Purpose that when he sat down to script, he asked himself one simple question: “What if all of the MGM movie musicals that we know and love from the mid-20th century, which have such a huge importance in our entertainment pop culture, were actually gone through by real people?”
While the nuances of returning home from war can be hard to convey through upbeat show tunes, Oberacker and Taylor, with the help of famed Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler — used song and dance to tastefully touch on some of the real struggles that soldiers face when they leave the battlefield.
Taylor told Task & Purpose that he was largely inspired by his parents — particularly his father, who served in the Army Air Corps during the war.
“For my mom and dad and everybody of that generation, these experiences you went through and what you were feeling, you couldn’t just talk about [them],” Taylor said. “Music, and swing dancing in particular, was such an incredible outlet. I used to watch my appallingly ordinary mom and dad turn into these people I didn’t recognize when we went weddings. They would get out on the dance floor, and suddenly they’re throwing each other in the air and spinning each other around. I didn’t know who these people were and where that kind of energy and abandon was coming from.”
That is what Blankenbuehler helped them articulate on the stage.
“There were no words for a lot of what they were experiencing,” Oberacker said. “That was just fascinating to us. It’s this sort of, black hole that isn’t discussed and isn’t talked about the way it is today.”
Though much of the show harkens back to a time where Americans didn’t discuss post-traumatic stress disorder or the physical scars of combat, the pain of war then is still similar to what airmen, soldiers, Marines, and sailors experience today. Though Oberacker and Taylor chose World War II as the setting for Bandstand, they want their audiences to know that trauma was an issue for the Greatest Generation, much the way it is for Vietnam-era and post-9/11 veterans.
“The one big thing that hit us was, dating back to the Greeks and the beginning of recorded history, there has always been an issue of battle fatigue,” Oberacker said. “There has always been an issue of what going to combat in any form does to a human being and does to a human mind. This is not this new phenomenon.”
Oberacker and Taylor didn’t rely solely on their research for authenticity; to make sure they got it right, they also reached out to the veterans group Got Your 6, which certifies that portrayals of veterans in pop culture are accurate and promotes the arts as a path to healing and reintegration.
“I read through it, and I was totally blown away,” Matt Mabe, director of operations at Got Your 6, told Task & Purpose. “I thought it was brilliant — that it was moving, funny, it was really unique. I’m proud to say I was proved right.”
With the help of Got Your 6, Oberacker and Taylor introduced the entire cast to veterans whose stories helped inform the actors on how best to portray a former service member or a Gold Star wife.
Once polished, the musical was originally performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, in 2015 before being picked up on Broadway.
“I was just so glad to see the music put forth in a very direct way as a method of finding purpose and meaning in one’s new life,” Mabe added.
Mabe added that the power of the arts as therapy cannot be understated. For the characters in Bandstand, music and dancing are cathartic — just what they need in order to rediscover themselves and reintegrate into society. While the musical does have a happy ending, the road is paved with struggles for each character, whether it’s in facing mortality, grief, or guilt.
“At the end of the day, our show is about taking an adversity, whether it’s having been in a war, or getting cancer, or losing a loved one, or whatever it may be …. and turning it into the very thing that gives your life a purpose,” Oberacker said. “The way they learn how to take this adversity and give their life purpose is by telling the truth.”