Behind-The-Scenes Look at the Broadway Show "Bandstand"
"Bandstand" will come to Hershey Theatre on Feb. 28-29
Cream Rises to the Top: The Making of "Bandstand"
Article written by "Bandstand" staff
When writing partners Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor were thinking of ideas for a new musical, they asked themselves a question – what would happen if you merged the style and passion of a golden age musical, like "South Pacific" or "On the Town," with the grit and reality of "The Best Years of Our Lives," William Wyler’s Academy Award-winning film about World War II veterans attempting to adjust to civilian life? So, the two men began to explore what that could be. The result was the musical "Bandstand," which combines a rich swing-inspired score, with the story of a group of veterans and a war widow, who form a band to compete in a national broadcast radio contest. Each character is dealing, in their own way, with moving past the trauma, guilt and wounds they suffered, as a result of the war.
“We began with a series of recognizable story beats and then we basically followed the truth,” says Richard Oberacker, who wrote the music for 'Bandstand' and collaborated with Robert Taylor on the book and lyrics. What would veterans who came back from that experience, with all the emotional challenges they would be dealing with, and, if they were musicians, what would they need to make themselves feel back at home in society again? What would they have to say? What would their music sound like?
"What would veterans who came back from that experience, with all the emotional challenges they would be dealing with, and, if they were musicians, what would they need to make themselves feel back at home in society again? What would they have to say? What would their music sound like?"
To stage the piece, Oberacker turned to an old friend from theater camp in Ohio: Tony award-winning director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. This was before he did musical staging for the worldwide phenomenon, "Hamilton." “I had been looking for a piece to do about World War II,” Blankenbuehler says. “I'm really passionate about the 1940s and passionate about that generation of Americans, and all the sacrifices made because of war.” He adds, “Also, I love the fashion, I love the sense of work, integrity, and the American spirit. And, of course, I love the music and the dance that came with it. So, I was really excited about it.”
The trio did a deep dive into not only the period, but the kind of unexpressed emotional life of members of the Greatest Generation. Oberacker points out that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a contemporary term. He says many World War II vets “didn't understand what it was they were grappling with, because there was no vocabulary with which to even begin to address it. There's no Oprah, there's no Wounded Warriors organization, there's none of that.” The two writers got in touch with a non-profit called Got Your 6 (military parlance for “got your back”), who arranged for them to meet veterans who told their own stories and looked over the script for inaccuracies. “It was a match made in heaven,” says Oberacker. “In those conversations, we were able to find nuggets of more truth, more reality, more humor.”
Blankenbuehler explored ways to physicalize the veterans’ experiences in dance and movement. He took swing dance steps and slowed them down. “All of a sudden, you see the stress in somebody's shoulders,” he explains. “You notice how deeply dug into their legs they are. They're so low to the floor that they look physically like they're in so much angst.” And, in one stunning transition, he also came up with the idea of the veterans literally carrying their dead comrades on their backs. “What is weighing them down? Mostly it's their fallen friends. Every step I take, this ghost is taking this step with me.” Broadway professionals were taken with Blankenbuehler’s complex, impressionistic choreography, awarding him the 2017 Tony Award for his dances.
The creative team points out that while contemporary audiences may look on swing music through the lens of nostalgia, in the 1940s, it was cutting edge. “When it was actually happening, swing music was the rap and rock and roll of its day,” says Richard Oberacker. “It was the youth culture. It was transgressive. It was naughty. It was angry. It was sexual.” Andy Blankenbuehler adds that the exuberant musical idiom works perfectly for the show’s troubled characters: “For these servicemen, they find this passion in swing music and putting into music things they can't say in normal conversation.”
It’s not surprising that the lead characters in "Bandstand" are musicians – both Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor are professional musicians themselves. Oberacker is music director for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas hit, Ká, while Taylor regularly plays violin and viola in Broadway pit orchestras and chamber ensembles. Taylor says the interpersonal dynamic is something he can completely relate to: “When you are a member of an ensemble and everyone is dealing with their own family issues or personality problems, you find a way of meshing and creating music and actually coalescing as a unit. You find a way through the music and through humor.” But in making their major characters actual musicians, who can play the score and improvise jazz licks – as well as act, sing and dance – they created a true casting challenge. “The important thing is the emotion the audience is getting,” says Blankenbuehler. “And ultimately, that's also the hard part of casting, because in "Bandstand," we had to find these men and women who could play music really well, who could speak. But there has to be something inherently emotional about them.” He says it was a long but rewarding process to put together the cast for the Broadway show and it’s been an equally long and rewarding process to find the cast for the tour.
Much of the emotion of "Bandstand" comes from the relationship between the two lead characters, Donny Novitski, a pianist and songwriter, and Julia Trojan, the singer/lyric writer who joins the band. Donny was the best friend of Julia’s husband, and was right beside him when he died in combat in the South Pacific. And he is carrying massive guilt about the circumstances of his buddy’s death. So, needless to say, their relationship, which grows from friendship to collaboration to genuine love, is fraught. Blankenbuehler says Donny is a complicated, driven character, who’s initially hard to embrace. “That was always an obstacle working on it, because we wanted to not make him unlikable, but we wanted to understand how broken he was inside,” Blankenbuehler explains. “So, there has to be something about him that has a yearning, that is pure and not egocentric.”
What brings Donny and Julia together is the way they work out their feelings, by writing and performing songs together. The first song they collaborate on is called “Love Will Come and Find Me Again.” “I found the story about art healing the soul the way in,” says Blankenbuehler. “So, for these men and these women, yes, they were dealing with these deep, deep, deep wounds. But the story that I want to tell is there is a way out. There is a way forward. In our lives today, if we're really stressed about work or if we really feel like we've hit a dead end in life, there are ways forward. There are therapeutic things that make our hearts and our souls turn to fire and they lead us forward. That's the story that I wanted to tell.”
And it’s a story which the Ohio-born Blankenbuehler says resonated for New York audiences, which included young people, who discovered the show through social media, to veterans. He hopes it will resonate for audiences across the country, as "Bandstand" tours. “We always believed that this show would have a big impact in Middle America, especially to a very patriotic audience. And so, I'm excited for it to play places like Texas and Oklahoma and Ohio. I know that there is an openness through the middle of our country that's gonna be really moved by the piece.”
Hershey Theatre opened in September 1933. It has established itself as the area’s premier performing arts center, presenting the finest in touring Broadway shows, classical music and world-renowned entertainers.