Forget Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller: This Band Can Really Play the Music of WWII

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Bandstand

Donny Novitski is a young combat veteran of World War II who was a musician before the conflict began. He’s back home in Cleveland now in the autumn of 1945 and intent on putting together and all-veterans big band to win a national contest. The prize is getting his band into a Hollywood movie. He and his musicians have to win the preliminary contest in Ohio, though, and that turns out to be a lot of work and angst.

At the same time, Donny needs to visit Julia Trojan, the widow of his best buddy in the war, Mike, killed when a grenade went off near both of them. He does not want to tell Julia about the sad, bloody and accidental death of her husband, “not a movie” as he says, but, at some point, he will have to do so.

These two plots make up the story line of Bandstand: the New American Musical, a sensational new play about post-World War II America that opened last week in New York at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on W. 45th Street. The dynamic musical not only recreates the big band sound of the 1940s with all new music, but provides a fascinating look into the lives of the returning soldiers and the women and friends they left behind them when they went off to war.

The vets in Novitski’s band work together, and widow Julia, a choir singer, joins them as their lead singer. They finally jell and win the local contest. The victory leaves ashes in their mouths, though, when they find out that there is no expense money to get them to New York for the final contest. That’s where the local townspeople in Cleveland come in. Everybody likes Donny, Julia and the guys and people start donating money. The band plays different gigs in Cleveland to raise additional funds for the trip East. Will they get to New York? If so, will they win?

The big beat music of the show, and its tender ballads, are good, very good, but it is the complex personal stories of Donny and Julia, and the guys in their band, in the book by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, that make the play so successful. Will Donny fall for Julia, his best buddy’s wife? Will she fall for him, much as she apparently does not want to do so at the start of the show? Can the guys in the band, who did not know each other, ever stop battling and get along? The way they interact with each other, and their fight to win against all the odds, is the heart and soul of the musical, just as it was the heart and soul in the real lives of people at the climax of World War II.

Throughout the play, people keep insisting that very soon things will be “the way they were” before the start of the conflict. They never are. All American lives were changed by the war. My father spent four years in the war and told me that everybody wanted to go back to the way things were, never realizing how much things had changed. How could life in America ever be the same?

One thing the play stresses, and nicely, is that the GIs of World War II had to do what they wanted with their lives and not worry about just making money, as many were intent on doing. Can they go back to pre-war America? No. They can create a new America, a better America, by the way they live their lives though.

The music, by Oberacker, with lyrics by Taylor, sounds very much like the old Tommy Dorsey/Glenn Miller/Benny Goodman music, but it is not. The music is all original. Some of these songs are fast and some slow, and some really tender. The final, “Welcome Home,” about what life in the war was really like, will shake you to your core.

Bandstand is a sharp and perceptive show about history. You learn much about the lives of the returning vets and the new America in which they find themselves. They all go back to a profession, and are all astounded at how much their professions have changed. They go back to an old America and discover a very new America.

The play does not really get into the history of the rise and fall of the big bands in Cleveland or in the U.S. Few of the big bandleaders are mentioned or many of the men and women who worked as lead singers for them, although some, such as Frank Sinatra, are. It starts just as the band era is coming to a close.

The big bands were given much credit for building patriotic fires wherever they played during the war, but they had problems. There was a recording strike in 1942 that hurt the bands. Many musicians, like the play’s Donny Novitski, left their bandstands to go into the war. Some of them were in bands in the war, but many were not. Travel in America became problematic as the 1930s and early '40s rolled by. Bands played a hectic schedule with one-night stands in towns far away from each other. Sleeping conditions in cheap hotels and often as not on crowded trains and buses were poor. Many bands had African-American musicians and because of segregation in most of the U.S., they had to find separate housing. Music was changing, too, and the crooner era, and star bands, such as Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway, were starting to fade away. When Novitski’s band won the national contest it was one of the last big splurges for the bands.

One interesting aspect of the history in the play is women in the work force. An enormous number of women went to work in the defense industry during the war and filled domestic jobs, too. In the play, Julia is a sales girl in a large Cleveland department store. She lives with her divorced mom and helps pay the bills, like so many young women in that era.

Director Andy Blankenbuehler, who also handles the choreography, has done a stellar job with the show. He makes it sing and swing at the same time. He gets memorable performances from his two stars, bouncy, talented and yet driven Corey Cott as Donny and lithesome, lovable and enormously gifted Laura Osnes as Julia, who grows on you as the play unfolds. They are backed up with a fine ensemble of singers and dancers, especially the guys in the band.

This is a play about World War II but it could be about the GIs of ay American war. They are all the same. They fight and die for their country and hope that someone will appreciate what they do. They should know that today we all appreciate what they did and continue to do, and very much so.

PR0DUCTION: The play is produced by Tom Smedes, Gabrielle Palitz, Terry Schnuck, Tom Kirdahy, Roger Horchow, others. Sets: David Korins, Costumes: Paloma Young, Lighting: Jeff Croiter, Sound: Nevin Steinberg. The play is directed by Andy Blankenbuehler. It has an open ended run.

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