Yank! [PS Classics]
The parade of CDs of new musicals with intriguing, tuneful, literate and unconventional scores — which has recently brought us Giant; Far From Heaven; Fun Home; and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 — continues with Joseph and David Zellnik's Yank!
This musical, about two soldiers in World War II, is sort of an Army counterpart to "Brokeback Mountain," and its controversial nature of the plot helps explain what has been a disheartening production record thus far. The piece was workshopped at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005, produced by the Gallery Players in Brooklyn in 2007 and the Diversionary Players in San Diego in 2008 and finally reached Off-Broadway with a York Theatre production in 2010. The latter was well-received by audiences and press, as a result of which it was optioned for Broadway and a new director — the estimable David Cromer — came in to further develop the show.
The Cromer production was announced for 2011 and then 2012, but has since been withdrawn — leaving Yank! a much-talked-about major new musical that hasn't been produced in its final version. This has not prevented the Zellnik Brothers from taking it to PS Classics and making a cast album featuring the Cromer-supervised revisions, performed by most of the York cast and augmented by newly-commissioned orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick. Another stage in the Yank! saga will presumably follow, but at the moment we have the cast recording to savor. We have grown accustomed to World War II musicals featuring pastiche scores, so much so that I walked into Yank! at the York with caution. Pastiche musicals can be entertaining ( Dames at Sea) or not ( Over Here!); in most cases, though, they tend to grow somewhat wearying, especially when the librettos aim for something more weighty than parody. The Yank! opening number, "Rememb'ring You," initially sounds like just another World War II 'missing you' ballad. It turns out, though, that the Zellniks have something more in mind. The song fits what is to come and becomes the musical theme; at one point, they weave it into a scene as the GIs write letters to the girls back home, which only accentuates the hero's awkwardness as he writes to his soldier boy.
The opening is followed by the lively "Yank," an uptempo song with an insistent beat which supports a full scene, setting the story and getting it rolling. Next comes a second musical scene ("Polishing Shoes") in which the hero's dramatic predicament is clearly demonstrated. The two authors' abilities are ably demonstrated in "Click," a song of seduction with David's smart lyrics set to Joseph's toe-tapping music — and not just in a vague sense; the Zellniks' characters use tap as code for evading Army regulations; the wolf (as it were) teaches the lamb (as it were) to click his way through taboos to exhilarating effect. Then comes the aforementioned "Letters," after which the first act ends with another evocative pastiche-like ballad ("Blue Twilight") leading to an impassioned and awkward love declaration, "You, You."
The second act includes a third upbeat-and-tuneful Army-guy song, "Your Squad Is Your Squad," but the treasure of the show is something called "A Couple of Regular Guys." This is one of those 'one-day-we'll-live-in-a-little-white-house' songs; ironically so, in context, as such a happy ending was unthinkably impossible in 1944. Joseph Zellnik gives it a long melodic line, with the main musical phrase stretched out across eight bars before it resolves. And it is exquisite; one of the most effective new musical theatre songs I've heard in years. Stylistically, it seems to be influenced by late-period Jerome Kern; "A Couple of Regular Guys" fits in musically and lyrically alongside "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," which is high praise indeed.
The Zellniks and PS Classics have splurged on the music department, bringing in Tunick to create a full set of orchestrations. Broadway's preeminent orchestrator is a man of many musical moods, needless to say, but the results suggest that he had a swell time with Yank! Music director Rob Berman, who started with the show back at the NYMF in 2005, leads a ten-piece orchestra including some of Broadway's finest pit musicians.
Most of the York cast is on hand to recreate their roles, albeit performing altered material. Standing out is Bobby Steggert, who, since his performance at the York has been in constant demand (including major roles in Giant, Big Fish and the current Mothers and Sons.) Steggert carries the show, with strong support from Ivan Hernandez (as the 'other' man, singing "Rememb'ring You" and "A Couple of Regular Guys") and Jeffry Denman as the photographer at Yank Magazine who teaches Steggert's character to "Click." (Denman's choreography for the song is prominently recorded.) The central gimmick of the show is the presence of one actress playing multiple characters and singing five songs, with Nancy Anderson doing a droll job.
So here is a full recording of what at this point remains something of an unseen musical. Let us hope that some enterprising producer, or one of the important regionals, listens to the CD and realizes that they must bring Yank! to their audiences.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)