In honor of Memorial Day, Playbill takes a look at a selection of plays and musicals that have featured the stories of service men and women. How many have you seen?
Yip Yip Yaphank (1918)
Irving Berlin wrote this musical revue while he was a recruit during the first World War. He wrote songs like “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” and “God Bless America” for the show, though the latter was cut. The show featured recruits as performers and featured acrobatics, jugglers, men dressed as Ziegfeld girls and Berlin as the reluctant soldier who didn’t want to join in. It was first performed in July at Camp Upton’s Liberty Theatre and moved to the Lexington Theatre. At the end of the run that fall, the men were marching off the stage and into war.
This Is the Army (1943)
This musical comedy was also written by Berlin, along with Casey Robinson and Claude Binyon. The U.S. Army drafts song-and-dance man Jerry Jones, where he stages a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank. But during a show, the troops are immediately deployed to France. Wounded in the war, Jones ends his performing career, but he does survive. Twenty-five years later, his son Johnny enlists in the Army and stages another musical for the troops. The film version starred Ronald Reagan as Johnny.
On The Town (1945)
With music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show was based on Jerome Robbins’ 1944 ballet Fancy Free. Three American sailors get shore leave for 24 hours and, naturally, each falls for a different woman. The show bowed on Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre December 28, 1944, directed by George Abbott and starring John Battles as Gabey, Cris Alexander as Chip, and Adolph Green as Ozzie, with Nancy Walker as Hildy, Sono Osato as Ivy, and Betty Comden as Claire. The most recent revival played the Lyric Theatre in 2013. The show features songs like “New York, New York,” “I Can Cook Too,” and “Lucky to Be Me.”
All My Sons (1947)
Currently enjoying its third Broadway revival, the Arthur Miller play first debuted on Broadway in 1947 at the Coronet Theatre. The show focuses on the Keller family: Joe Keller owns a plant that manufactures and ships airplane parts—and did so during World War II; his son Chris has made it home from the war, but younger son Larry is still missing. The original production won the Tony Award for Best Play for Miller and Best Direction for Elia Kazan. The Roundabout Theatre Company production playing the American Airlines Theatre is currently nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play.
Mister Roberts (1948)
Based on the 1946 Thomas Heggen novel, the play by Joshua Logan opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre February 18, 1948. The play chronicles stories aboard the USS Rotanin and USS Virgo in the South Pacific during World War II. It starred Henry Fonda, David Wayne, Robert Keith, and Jocelyn Brando. The work won the Tony Award for Best Play that year.
South Pacific (1949)
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein collaborated with Joshua Logan for their hit musical based on James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. The show tells the story of American nurse Nellie Forbush, stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. As she falls in love with a French ex-pat and plantation owner, she must decide if she can accept his mixed race children. The show also follows the romance between Lieutenant Joe Cable and a young woman, Liat, native to the island. The musical gave birth to tunes like “A Cockeyed Optimist,“ “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Younger Than Springtime,” and “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.”
Stalag 17 (1951)
The three-act play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski debuted at the 48th Street Theatre on Broadway in 1951 and ran for 472 performances. The drama portrays a group of American airmen held as prisoners of war in Nazi Germany; tensions escalate when the men begin to believe that one among them has been an informant to the opposition. The play was directed by José Ferrer.
Miss Saigon (1991)
The musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil centers on the love story between American soldier Chris and the woman, Kim, he meets in a bar during his service in Vietnam. While the show has become controversial due to its depiction of the War and the Vietnamese people, the recent 2017 Broadway revival did make changes to reflect the devastating effects of the American presence in Vietnam. It also worked towards a greater authenticity overall. The original production made a star of its Kim, a young Lea Salonga, who won a Tony Award in the role. Likewise, Eva Noblezada launched her career in the role in London before transferring to Broadway and earning a Tony nomination for her performance. Fun fact: The show played the Broadway Theatre both of its runs. The score features songs like “Movie In My Mind,” “Sun and Moon,” and “I’d Give My Life for You.”
A Piece of My Heart (1991)
The play by Shirley Laura premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in the early 1990s and was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, eventually becoming a staple of regional theatres around the country. The true story follows five nurses and a country singer who travel to Vietnam to entertain the troops. But the play shows each woman before, during, and after her tour overseas.
Written by David and Joseph Zellnik, this musical follows the story of a young man drafted during World War II who becomes the photographer for Yank Magazine, created by and for servicemen. Though it premiered in the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival in 2004 and was workshopped in 2005, the Gallery Players presented a full production in 2007 starring Bobby Steggert. In 2010, it played the York Theatre and earned two Lortel nominations and seven Drama Desk nominations.
White Christmas (2008)
Based on the 1954 movie musical that starred Bing Crosby, the musical began at the St. Louis Muny in 2000 before eventually bowing on Broadway in 2008. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis met in the armed forces under the auspices of General Waverly. After the war, the two became song-and-dance superstars. When they learn that General Waverly’s inn is failing, they decide to put on a show to raise the funds and keep the General on his feet—but not before some madcap comedy, misunderstandings, and Irving Berlin music. The production was nominated for two Tony Awards: Best Choreography for Randy Skinner and Best Orchestrations for Larry Blank.
The OG servicemen sacrificed their lives during The Revolutionary War, depicted in Broadway juggernaut Hamilton. The musical features an intricately choreographed battle in The Battle of Yorktown, complete with commanding officer General George Washington. The musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail, tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton from his native Nevis to his emigration to the U.S. and his role in forming the national treasury and the U.S. Constitution.
The musical directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, written by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, was the first theatrical piece to be certified by Got Your 6 for its authenticity in its depiction of war and the men and women affected by it. The story follows musician Donny Novitski, who returns home from World War II having lost his best friend in battle. When he returns home, his pins his hope on winning a radio contest and puts together a band of veterans; when he meets the widow of his best friend, he might have just found the lead singer to take them to the top—and a complicated romance. The musical, starring Corey Cott and Laura Osnes, won Best Choreography for Blankenbuehler.