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How Broadway's 'Bandstand' tapped modern-day vets to get post-war life right

March 23, 2017 (Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel)
In the search to pay proper tribute to the heart, soul and sound of post-war popular music, the team behind a new Broadway musical found another story to tell – one of veterans home from war, seeking new purpose and a new outlet for their passions.

And just like they did with the songs and dances, they were going to sweat the details.

That’s why “ Bandstand,” which opens April 26, became the first Broadway production to seek and receive “6 Certified” status from Got Your 6, a nonprofit group that largely works with Hollywood productions to ensure fair portrayal of veterans on screen … or, in some cases, on stage.

“The more we were writing, the more we wanted to honor the truth,” said Richard Oberacker, who composed the music and co-wrote the musical’s “book,” or narrative structure. “You honor the given circumstance. That’s actor talk, but you’re truthful to what’s going on around you, and you have to honor that. … 

“We started doing the research, and we realized we had a show on our hands that had the opportunity to tell the truth about what was going on at that time, with these vets.”

The veterans in question form a band and enter a radio contest. But the quest for instant 1940s celebrity – think “American Idol,” but with more fedoras – wasn’t just about the music.

“The whole idea was to put together this group, the band, who were wonderful, regular people who had different kinds of problems,” said producer Roger Horchow, a Korean War veteran whose Broadway production credits include revivals of “Annie” and “Gypsy.”  

“And there was no kind of counseling. And I loved the idea that playing together, forgetting their problems – getting together and playing in a band brought its own kind of therapy.”

Horchow, 88, said that while working on the material brought back memories of his military service, he felt a stronger bond because of his father, who’d served in World War I and World War II. Another producer, Tom Smedes, recalled his dad returning from long days at work running the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albany, New York.

“He was always fighting for veterans’ rights in the hospital,” Smedes said.  “It’s something that means a lot to me personally, so I’m thrilled that we can produce this show, but also do it accurately.”

GENERATION CONNECTION

Smedes reached out to Got Your 6 after seeing a piece in the New York Times on the organization. Members of the group suggested minor tweaks to the script, and they also arranged a meeting between principal cast members and veterans of modern conflicts.

“It was really amazing,” Oberacker said. “The actors had done all the research in terms of the 1940s, they were armed with all this incredible detail, facts and newsreel stuff, and then they came face to face with people who lived it – granted, 70 years later. …

“Literally, the next day they walked into rehearsal, the show felt different.”

Understanding the roots of the period’s popular culture has helped the show’s producers steer clear of what Oberacker called a “glossed-over, song-and-dance” representation of the era. Swing, he said, was the heavy metal or hip-hop of a generation of service members who carried the burden of post-traumatic stress largely in silence.


“It was the language of aggression,” Oberacker said. “It was the language of sex. It was the language of f---king. You get out on the dance floor and you really work it out.”

SONGS, NOT SERMONS

While show creators have worked to accurately depict the post-war experience, there’s also the matter of putting on a musical – as Horchow put it, the show “honors the veterans, but it doesn’t overdo it. It’s very upbeat.”

Along with singing and dancing, cast members play their own instruments, Oberacker said. Laura Osnes – a Tony-award nominee who recently starred on Broadway as Cinderella and won a reality-TV contest to claim the role of Sandy in the 2007 Broadway revival of “Grease” – portrays a war widow who sings lead for the band of veterans led by Donny Novitski (Corey Cott). 


Director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is fresh off a 2016 Tony Award for choreographing “Hamilton.” Readers at Broadway.com put the show on a top-10 list of most-anticipated 2017 debuts

The show has been on stage in various forms for nearly two years, but its Broadway run will begin with previews March 31. Discounted military tickets are available; more information is online at http://bit.ly/BandstandOffer.
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