The wars that are ripping the culture apart around the world really come down to a single question: was life a little bit better not so long ago, or not? It’s the “Again” part of the exhortation on those red baseball caps, promising a return to a promised land just on the other side of the hill, a place where a simple peace reigns, one somehow devoid of thorny questions around race, class, gender, and sexuality.
The golden glow of this notion of nostalgia infuses Bandstand, the new Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor musical opening this week at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway. It is perfect piece of theater for the Age of Trump, a hymn to small town, Midwestern values, patriotism and faith. It is also resolutely old-fashioned, cynical despite its syrupy storyline, and seemingly calibrated to hit its audience precisely in its comfort zone.
Donny Novitski has returned shell-shocked to Cleveland from the horrors of the war in the Pacific when he decides (as one does, I suppose) that it is his new mission to enter and win an American Idol—style (or, to put too fine a point on it, The Apprentice) music competition.
Novitsky (Corey Cott) sets about to round out his swing band with fellow vets returned home from the war. The group gets a late addition in the form of Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes) a golden-voiced singer who Donny has pledged to look after since Michael, her husband and his buddy, didn’t make it back from the battles in Papua New Guinea. Assuming you’ve seen any Broadway musical ever performed, you can probably guess where the story goes from here.
Bandstand is more than competently pulled off. A couple of the musical numbers really do jump, the sets are lavish, the choreography a feat. Cott is far too sweet-natured to pull off the driving ambition and tormented war weariness that Donny is supposed to embody, but Osnes is a real talent, as is Beth Leavel, who plays her mother, and the rest of the cast more than holds their own.
The show, however, is a bit of a shock. It is not the shock of newness, but the shock of seeing something performed that so resolutely remains walled off from even the present state of politics and culture.
Despite its hoary reputation, Broadway has been the home of rather relentless explorations over the last decade. Hamilton, the most well-known of these more recent entrants, melds the music of the moment with the story of America’s founding.
Fun Home was a deeply moving lesbian coming of age story based on a graphic novel. The rock musical Spring Awakening pushed the boundaries of adolescent sexuality. Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 is a pop opera that originated at a downtown theater, borrows its storyline from Tolstoy and ropes the audience into its production. Dear Evan Hansen is a daringly original work about teenage anxiety and depression in the social media age.
Bandstand by contrast, is the kind of show you take your parents too, or more likely your grandparents, after they walked out of The Book of Mormon at intermission because it was too raunchy. The show takes place in 1945, and it really could have actually appeared on Broadway that year and not looked out of place. Beats sitting at home and listening to Jonathan Schwartz on the radio, I guess.
There are threads left hanging here that could be wrapped up to make a far more interesting work of theater. Donny chafes at the reverence with which the culture lionizes veterans—”I hear Julia singing that word ‘hero’, I wonder who that guy is”—and in which these vets then become dispatched by various entities for their own uses, such as, in the case of the bandstand competition, to sell aspirin.
But there isn’t a hint of self-reflexivity behind that matinee idol face. Julia is singing about heroes, after all, because Donny helped her write the song. He fills out his band with fellow vets because he thinks it will help them win sympathy points in the musical competition.
It’s a cynicism we are familiar with—trotting out veterans at election time to signal patriotism and duty, but then forgetting about the scourge of veteran homelessness when in office—but it’s also a cynicism that goes unremarked upon in the show.
Which is why nostalgia has its uses. The citizens of the imaginary past never have to answer the questions we put to them. I’d want to know, for example, how Donny and his bandmates felt about playing a music rooted in African-American culture refashioned for white audiences. But Taylor and Oberacker don’t seem bothered by this question either. The only person of color in the show plays a waiter.
There is a character named “Roger Cohen” who makes a brief appearance, a nod to the fact that perhaps something good came out of winning this war, but did they really have to make Cohen a shyster producer who tries to gyp the band out of their winnings?
Perhaps the producers thought that their humor would offset some of these concerns, but unfortunately there isn’t any, unless you count the kind of wisecracks that are clearly bummed from a sixth graders naughty book of jokes. If you haven’t heard the one about the giraffe that walks into the bar, or the pirate with a steering wheel attached to the front of his pants, you just don’t know enough 11-year-olds. I half-expected the play to reach out and see what that gold coin was behind my ear.
Bandstand is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, NYC. Book tickets here.