The Destiny's Child song "Survivor" has no place in the new musical The Bandstand, the period-perfect dance-heavy production at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. But the protagonist of the show is just that — a veteran of World War II who survives a difficult time in his life by playing music.
First Pics! Laura Osnes, Corey Cott and Beth Leavel Tear It Up in New Musical The Bandstand
Piano prodigy Donny Novitski is brought to life by Corey Cott, an alum of Newsies last seen on Broadway in 19th-century Paris as love interest Gaston in the revised production of Gigi. While Gaston was suffering from the ennui of the wealthy, 21st-century Donny is enduring a different kind of crisis.
"He's gained a lot of things since [going to war]," Cott said of his character. "He's gained a lot of emotional baggage that he has to deal with. The home front has moved on without him and he does not expect that, so he comes back thinking he can jump right back in to it being just like it was before. He has to face that reality in the beginning of the show and learn to work through that through the whole show." Tapping into Donny's torment was a challenge for Cott, but, he said, his character is not going to give up on any of his dreams: "He's a fighter. He's a survivor. And this show is about him fighting through it. It's not about him suffering through it…these guys that he plays with [in the band]… they are fighters, they are not sufferers. So that's been an amazing, fantastic, exhilarating thing to work with."
The Bandstand, which features book and lyrics by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor and music by Oberacker, is receiving its world premiere at Paper Mill. The 1945-set story is directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, marking a drastic change from his first offering this season, the hip-hop Broadway musical Hamilton.
The Bandstand follows Donny as he wrangles his fellow veterans to assemble a band that can compete in a national songwriting competition — and rejuvenate their listless post-war lifestyles. Each of the band members (Geoff Packard, James Nathan Hopkins, Brandon J. Ellis, Joe Carroll) plays his own instrument onstage throughout the performances, accompanied by Tony nominee Laura Osnes, who provides the jazzy, sultry vocals.
Watch The Bandstand cast in rehearsal below.
"I play my vocal cords, thank you!" Osnes laughed, adding that she plays one song on the ukulele — which was given to her by Bonnie & Clyde co-star Jeremy Jordan. "I played piano growing up for three or four years. I never was in band. I knew I wanted to sing, so I started doing choir immediately. And, I'm so glad I played piano because it helped me learn music."
Even though she does not play an instrument in The Bandstand, Beth Leavel, who plays Osnes' mother, was trained on the violin ("My mother made me take it!"), which she has performed onstage in two musicals.
Learning to play the piano was a challenge for Cott, who confessed to "idolizing" drummers and musicians as a child, especially Phil Collins. Admitting that one of his big regrets is not keeping up with piano, Cott prepared for The Bandstand by devoting eight hours a day to mastering the instrument, going so far as to equip his apartment with a keyboard and practice at various studios throughout the city. He also arrived at rehearsals an hour before the cast and stayed for an hour afterward.
"Another thing about Donny is that when you're a prodigy — a brilliant musician — you have a relationship with your instrument, sort of like we have relationships with people," Cott said. "So, I've had to figure out what that whole element of who Donny is and how his piano is his crutch. It's his thing that he uses to deal with the stuff he's going through."
Turning to music during difficult times is nothing new to Cott, who shared some of the songs he would listen to during challenging moments in his own life.
"I've never had a rough period in the sense that I went through war…so it's on a very much smaller scale," Cott said. "We all experience awful days and…or really great days and music lifts that up. There's an Icelandic band called Sigur Rós, and they've been a huge help to me. Southern gospel has been a huge help to me. The Gaither Vocal Band has lifted me up many times. Musical theatre…cast albums have lifted me up many times. When I was 14, the Rent cast album…I would snowblow my driveway or I would be working — one of my first jobs was as a janitor and I would just play that for an entire Saturday, just cleaning an office, listening to the Rent album."
Osnes had the opportunity to record one of the songs she finds most meaningful on her solo album "Dream a Little Dream," which was recorded live at the Café Carlyle: "When Somebody Loved Me" from the movie "Toy Story 2."
"I lost my mom, so that song really spoke to me a lot when I was going through that time, and I dedicated it to my mom on the album," she said, adding, "This may sound cliché, but, for me, there are hymns or worship songs. Church has been a helpful force for me when bad things have come into my life, so there are definitely songs like that."
And, art has mirrored life for Osnes, whose voice can be heard on several Broadway cast recordings, including Anything Goes, Bonnie & Clyde and Cinderella. She shared that she feels honored by the idea of her own voice providing consolation or inspiration to people.
"What's so cool to me is that now I'll get letters or tweets sometimes that are like, 'Laura, I listened to the Cinderella soundtrack and it helped me through a rough day.' To know that my voice or any music that I've done has also been an encouragement to others is absolutely mindboggling to me."
Blankenbuehler's songs of choice usually shift depending on the project he is working on at the time; one of his favorites, though, is pop star Justin Timberlake.
"I can't point to any one thing, because I'm kind of a method actor in that way. My musical styles really change depending on where I am in my life and what projects I'm working on. For example, I'm a huge fan of Justin Timberlake, and that sort of mojo that's in his music really forwards my momentum. Even here, I've emulated sort of Justin Timberlake energies in the choreography. My tastes change a lot."
"Music helps everything," Leavel added matter-of-factly. "James Taylor and the Beatles. Earth, Wind and Fire. Any music, really, just gets you out of your head."
"Sometimes you just gotta go balls to the wall and just find a song or a band that helps you deal with what you're going through," Cott said. "I think music is a universal language and it helps us process things, and that's what this story is about and it's at its core."