How Andy Blankenbuehler Unlocked the Unspoken Emotions of Bandstand Through Dance

Special Features   How Andy Blankenbuehler Unlocked the Unspoken Emotions of Bandstand Through Dance
 
The Tony-winning choreographer of Hamilton lifts the silence of war veterans through swing in the new musical.

World War II isn’t exactly forgotten. With the multitude of books and movies telling the tales of war out there, the reminder of the Great Depression, the war, and its victims overseas certainly persists. But few discuss what happened after. Inspired by an era filled with the big band music of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, magic moments such as Judy Garland’s performance in A Star Is Born, and the traditions of Golden Age musical theatre, Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor set out to create Bandstand.

Six World War II veterans return home to the States and connect with a recently widowed singer, start a band, and enter a contest to become America’s next swing sensation. Beyond celebrating classic musical theatre conventions, the cast and creative team of Bandstand hope that, through music, they lift the silence of veterans and their family members who felt pressured to keep quiet about the effects the war.

“When my parents would get out on a dance floor, they would turn into people that I didn’t recognize as a child,” says Robert Taylor, lyricist and book writer for the musical. “They were suddenly so full of this incredibly reckless energy. They were Jitterbugging and Lindying and throwing each other. That’s how people expressed themselves back then.”

For the characters in Bandstand, who deal with PTSD and spousal loss in the aftermath of the war, music heals. However, Taylor and Oberacker explain that, while creating the show, they found it difficult to find ways to dramatize the emotions of male characters in an era when men had to suppress their feelings. The two found that the secret to unlocking those emotions in director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.

“Andy Blankenbuehler really was the key,” says Oberacker. “He was like, ‘Show it in dance. Show it in the way that they play. Show it in the way that they relate to one another physically.’”

“I can’t imagine living in that era where there wasn’t an openness,” explains Blankenbuehler. “I mean, fathers didn’t say ‘I love you’ to their sons, and that’s an alien thing that I think is worth expressing. It’s yet another understanding of the building blocks that made our culture what it is and, even though we might not be like that anymore, I think it’s really important to bring that to light.

“There’s so much talk of truth [in today’s world], but I think what the truth is about is saying, ‘I feel something inside and it needs to be recognized.’ These vets came home from the war and they said, ‘I just want my life back to the way it used to be.’ I think that’s a very valid message.”

Corey Cott, who stars as pianist Donny Novitski, agrees. “I think our show, at its core, exposes and says how important it is to tell the truth, no matter how painful it is,” he says.

Tony winner Beth Leavel, who plays mom to Laura Osnes’ character, hopes audiences leave Bandstand with a greater respect for veterans. “I think [the audience] is just going to feel a connection to people they didn’t know before, an era that maybe they didn’t understand,” she says. “[Audiences are] going to come out with knowledge, and knowledge is power.”

“They lived and loved and hurt and bled the same way that we do today,” says Richard Oberacker. “They cursed, swore and drank the same way that we do today. People are the same no matter what era. They use their music to heal themselves. They use their music to find their legs again after a catastrophic war and they use their music to fall in love and to create a new family: this band.”

Bandstand begins previews March 31 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with an official opening night set for April 26. For more information, visit BandstandBroadway.com.

Joe Gambino is a writer, designer, performer and Broadway lottery loser who lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.

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