A new musical about gays in WWII releases Jonathan Tunick-orchestrated cast album.
by Barrett White
Jonathan Tunick, renowned musical orchestrator, is one of 12 EGOT winners, having received acclaim across the EGOT spectrum including the 1977 Academy Award for A Little Night Music, the 1982 Emmy for Night of 100 Stars, the 1988 Grammy for “No One Is Alone,” and the 1997 Tony for Titanic, in addition to his numerous Drama Desk Awards. To have your orchestrations by Tunick is no small deal, so one might imagine the excitement David and Joseph Zellnik experienced when Tunick agreed to orchestrate their WWII musical of love and war, Yank!
The Zellnik brothers grew up listening to the sweet music of 1940s Broadway, dusting through old sheet music and books—a pastime that continued into their adult years. As they matured, they began to notice that many contemporary Broadway musicals no longer have that sweetness or melodic flow that they once had. This led the Zellnik brothers to begin writing their own musical.
While searching for adequate subject matter to flow into their newfound theme, Joseph was just about to read Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Berube, which has come to be known as the central history for gays and lesbians in America. Berube’s book discusses the secret history of gay servicemen during World War II, covering nearly everything from why this period in gay record was erased by history books to about how this wasn’t just an interesting chapter for gay people, it was the pivotal chapter in which gays and lesbians first met each other, formed organizations, and found some resemblance of a culture that roughly 25 years later would come to a head at the Stonewall Inn.
“That felt like, if we can combine a story that could never have been told then, but tell it in a style that we love, then maybe something magical might happen with the union of those two,” David Zellnik says.
One of the ironies of Yank! is that it doesn’t progress strictly like a 1940s musical. In order to capture the essence and spirit of the golden age musical, but keep the plot relevant to modern audiences’ tastes, Yank! does not move like something you’d see at a performance of Brigadoon or Oklahoma! “For example, the title song, Yank!, sort of sounds like an old-fashioned jazzy 1940s song, but it actually—over the course of seven minutes—moves us over several weeks of basic training, and I can’t think of any 1940s shows where one number does something cinematic like that,” Joseph Zellnik says.
“History nerd” cannot begin to describe David Zellnik. To further bring Yank! to life, David finished Berube’s bestseller and got to work compiling stories upon stories for the playwriting process to begin.
“I read a ton of people’s histories of WWII, memoirs, a lot of straight memoirs, too,” David Zellnik says. “There weren’t that many gay memoirs, actually, and this was in the early 2000s, so the Internet wasn’t what it is now, so I did a lot of solicitations of trying to find gay veterans, especially of that era, willing to talk to me. I had a lot of people send me letters. A lot of that stuff didn’t technically make it into the final version of the show, but it all grounded the show really deeply, because what I was really trying to avoid was any sense that this was ‘wish fulfillment,’ any sense that ‘oh, wouldn’t it be great if this key moment in our American [history] actually had gay content.’”
“All the characters in Yank! are fictional, but all of the types of experiences they have sort of emerge from real history, especially all of the outlandish things,” Joseph Zellnik adds. “One of the things that we’ve found over the years is that some people refuse at first to believe that these things actually happened—that there were gay men who were out during WWII and had a lot of gay sex, and found each other, and formed networks. They basically thought that if this had happened, we would know about it.”
As World War II dragged on, two things happened in the gay community: more and more gay people found each other and began to network, but also, they believed that any day now, we’re going to have freedom. They had no way of knowing that the 1950s were coming, and that social conservatism and the Red Scare would all but wipe out and cover up the publicity of the gay community.
“There were lots of homosexuals arrested during the war, being charged with being ‘sexual psychopaths,’” David Zellnik says. “Under the increased acceptance of psychiatry, the army started asking people if they were gay. Before 1940, you could be arrested and kicked out of the army for sodomy, the act, but [there was] no concept of gay identity within the law. So in 1940 you get recruiters asking recruits, ‘Are you a homosexual?’ which led to a whole other class of people. Had I joined the army, I would have known, ‘Oh, I’m not alone, I’m not a freak. There’s actually a class of people—maybe misfits, maybe hated—but there is a class of people that is known and discussed, and I belong to it.’ The army helped create this identity, though they didn’t intend to.”
The Zellnik brothers’ immeasurable attention to history feeding into their script paid off— just two years before his death, Berube met with the Zellnik brothers when Yank! was in its first incarnation at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005. After watching the performance, he gave the brothers his blessing for the show. “I was terrified. [T]he ideas are completely from [Berube’s] research, and [Berube] said, ‘I think the guy you interviewed would be happy that he made it into the show.’ And that guy of course had already passed away. So it made me happy,” Joseph Zellnik says.
The musical’s bittersweet non-Hollywood ending does not draw on some sort of cheap pathos. Though the lovers are star-crossed, the story is genuine, and the emotions are grounded. “Had we used that ‘happy ending,’ I think it would have come across as wish fulfillment,” David Zellnik says. “I mean, as much as Yank! is a love song to a sort of sympho-lyric drama, there’s a sort of brutal realism in both Yank! and that world, and I think it would have felt false to a lot of people.”
Also depicted in the show is this frequently encountered trait of the Pacific tours of WWII of the “world of only men.” “The necessary way to understand homosexuality and gay culture in the army is that it was a world of only men. [T]his is why we set it in the Pacific, and not Europe,” Tunick explains. “Because in Europe, there were tons of women, but in the Pacific, you had this really bizarro world of sometimes islands of only men.”
To stage this “bizarro world,” Yank! has a cast of 13 actors, only one of which is female, further illustrating this land where the only connection to women and home would be the radio, though the female roles range from radio muses to women on the homefront, and even [the few] women in the Pacific. Lending her vocal talent to the new Tunick album is none other than the exceptional Nancy Anderson. “She can do Dinah Shore, and then do Betty Hutton, and then do Jo Stafford, and then do Helen Forrest. [S]he introduced me to some of that, then Joe and I listened to a ton of that, and we knew that she could do it. Not imitations, because she makes them her own,” David Zellnik says. “She just knows it in her bones. But [Nancy is] the women.”
Yank! The Original Off-Broadway Recording with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick is currently available to download on iTunes and Amazon Mp3.