Bandstand. Music by Richard Oberacker, book and lyrics by Oberacker and Rob Taylor. Directed & choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Bernard Jacobs Theatre, May 2017.
Bandstand is a profound and original show. “The New American Musical” — as it’s being billed — tells the story of World War II veterans who come home from carnage and use music as a method of coping with the horrors they saw. There have been plenty of stories told about World War II, but never before have we seen an in-depth look at the struggles our veterans faced when returning from the most heroic battle ever fought. This may not sound like fodder for an uplifting Broadway musical, but I assure you it is.
The plot follows Donny Novitski, a young musician who lost his best friend in battle. When he returns home, society no longer has use for him, regardless of the heavy price he has paid. When a “tribute to the troops” contest is advertised for the next famous swing band, he arranges a six-man group comprised entirely of men who fought in the war. We also meet Julia Trojan, a gold star widow whose husband was Donny’s best friend in the Pacific. After developing a mutual bond, Julia joins the band to turn both of their lives around.
Corey Cott (as Donny) is Broadway’s newest superstar. Cott graduated from Carnegie Mellon and went straight to New York after landing the lead in Newsies. Since then he has played the male lead in Gigi and has worked on this show from the ground up. He brings everything this character requires, including beautiful chops on the piano (an instrument he didn’t play before this role), a gorgeous singing voice, and tremendous acting. Novitski isn’t the nicest or kindest guy (due to his unnamed PTSD which doesn’t allow him to sleep), and Cott perfectly balances showing a flawed protagonist who we consistently empathize with. Laura Osnes (Julia) is perfect in her leading role. She brings a sensational singing voice but also a true vulnerability to the character.
The supporting cast is highlighted by the other five men in the band who all play their own instruments live on stage. We see brilliant performances from the quadrupally talented Joe Carroll on drums (a simple man who pops pills to relieve his severe back pain), Brandon James Ellis on bass (an alcoholic who drinks to forget what he saw liberating Dachau), and James Nathan Hopkins on sax (the glue that holds them together).
The score is fun and catchy, led by two emotional show-stoppers “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” and especially “Welcome Home”. The latter has a haunting chorus while revealing the struggles our heroes face. The direction and choreography by Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler masterfully mixes the pain the veterans are in while also featuring impressive dancing. At one point, we see men (representing inner demons) literally hanging on the backs of the vets, and then fall off as they take pain pills or pick an instrument.
Even though it takes place in the 40’s, Bandstand feels incredibly relevant. To paraphrase one line in the show, “all they want is to wave us around like flags, we’re not props.” We must realize that both then and now, it’s easy to just praise the troops and honor them at ballgames, but what they need more than anything is opportunity. Bandstand tells an important story we never get to hear and does it perfectly. By the end of the show, you may be crying, you may be saluting, you may be deep in thought. But one other thing you’ll be doing is smiling, after witnessing an evening of tremendous musical theater.