Yank! is a love story based on the hidden history of gay and lesbian soldiers during World War II. It tells the story of a Stu, a Midwestern kid who writes for the (real) soldiers’ magazine Yank and his romance with a fellow soldier named Mitch. It’s also an homage to the glorious, lyrical Broadway musicals of the ’40s that my brother Joe and I grew up on… even though we were two gay kids in the ’80s in suburban South Jersey.
Joe and I had, let us say, a pretty singular childhood. Nurtured by our mother’s love of theatre – and her enormous collection of original cast albums – we would spend days at the piano and me singing at the top of my lungs. We worked through the Golden Age of American Musicals, through Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser. Did we have friends? I’m pretty sure we had friends.
But also we had these shows.
Flash forward twenty years, and Joe and I were still singing through old scores. And one day in the middle of 1947’s Brigadoon, we seemed to have the exact same thought at the exact same moment: Could we write – and would audiences accept – a new musical as sweet and sincere as the old shows were? At the time, musicals all seemed to be ironic parodies of the genre. And if we did choose to write one, what would we write about that would justify such an homage? It would have to be a show that never could have been written at the time.
Joe had just finished Allan Bérubé’s excellent history of LGBT life during WWII called Coming Out Under Fire, from which we learned the hidden stories of gay men and women during that war: how some served with distinction, their “transgressions” overlooked in the name of wartime necessity; how other were caught and punished, but how so many found each other, back at a time when each small-town kid thought he or she might be “the only one.”
It became clear to us that this period wasn’t just an interesting if overlooked piece of gay history, it was actually the pivotal moment that makes the American gay liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s imaginable. And it was also clear this history had not just been forgotten, it had been systematically erased.
And out of these two impulses Yank! was born.
First came all the research: memoirs and letters, interviews with soldiers willing to finally tell their stories. Also a deep dive into big band and jazz records (yes, I still have a record player!) as well as those delightful if propaganda-tinged “it-takes-one-of-every-kind” platoon movies that Hollywood cranked out during the war.
The show that emerged played in festivals in Philadelphia and New York, and eventually a sold-out run Off Broadway in 2010. Along the way, Yank! attracted amazingly talented people to portray these impossibly brave, impossibly young men and women, and audiences that were gay and straight, young and old, and nearest to our hearts, veterans of war. After we closed, we spent months of creative work in the hopes of a Broadway run, which yielded four new songs and a tighter second act, and led to the final version that will be premiering in Manchester.
Yank! summons up a forgotten piece of gay history – which is an inherently political act – but for me, the show will always be about the terror and joys of falling in love for the first time, the fear you’re not strong enough, and the need to be brave in love and in life. The Hope Mill production of Yank! was officially announced on the day after Trump was elected. At that moment of shock and heartbreak I wrote to a friend: “It can be hard to know the value of art in these unfathomable times, and yet I must hold true to my belief that stories about our diverse lives and histories, stories of joy and heartbreak and community, must still matter.”
I believed that every second my brother and I wrote this show, and believe it now more than ever.
Yank! is at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre from 11 March – 8 April. You can find out more about the show here.
For more great deals on tickets and shows, visit tickets.attitude.co.uk.
Words: David Zellnik