Interview: YANK! David & Joseph Zellnik, creators of the musical
YANK!, the musical, recently had its UK premiere in Manchester, and it transfers to London's Charing Cross Theatre from July 3 to August 19, 2017. The poignant gay love story is based on the true, hidden history of soldiers during World War Two, and the London production coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. We talked to the show's American writers, brothers David Zellnik (book and lyrics) and Joseph Zellnik (music) about bringing the show to Britain.
Tell us about how you linked up with the new Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester to present the UK premiere of this show.
JOSEPH: Actually, it was our wonderful (and indefatigable) producer, Katy Lipson, who brought the show to the Hope Mill, where she has an ongoing relationship. We first met with Katy in several years ago in New York – she had heard about the Off Broadway production, loved the cast album (which was released in 2014), and requested the script. By the time she made it to our side of the pond, she had fallen in love with it and announced her desire to produce it in the UK.
DAVID: Her feel for the show and passion to make it happen over here was inspiring, even though it took a few years to find the right venue to launch the show. But as soon as we met with Katy, Joe and William from the Hope Mill, and director James Baker we just felt: this is the right team.
What are your hopes for the transfer to the Charing Cross Theatre? Is it a bigger stage, and have you had to expand or amend the production?
JOSEPH: Actually, we'll have to punt on this one. We aren't really involved in the technical aspects of transferring the production. Though we will say that the Charing Cross will be the largest venue Yank! has yet played in terms of seats (our off-Broadway home was tiny) and we've beefed up the number of musicians in the pit from 5 in New York to 7 in the UK, which gives the music and even more lush, big band sound.
DAVID: For us, though, the hopes for each production are the same, no matter the venue – that the story touches audiences, that they go on an epic journey with our main character Stu, that they swoon over this era's music and dance the way we do, and that they get a glimpse of a period in LGBT history that was all but erased from the history books.
JOSEPH: Also of course we want it to be a big hit and run for years!
Have you changed the script or story for a British audience?
DAVID: Short answer: no.
JOSEPH: Longer answer: we did wonder, prior to Manchester, if the story and its style – a sincere, heart-on-your-sleeve 1940's lyricism – might be too American for modern British audiences. There's always the question of whether a show can reach across very different theatre cultures and traditions. We've been thrilled and surprised to find that the reactions to Yank! have been just the same over here as back home... audiences still get exactly what we're going for.
Joseph's music is described as an homage to Rodgers & Hammerstein and indeed the show has echoes of South Pacific in WWII Pacific setting and themes - how have younger audiences responded to the music in particular?
JOSEPH: The score for Yank! was a real labor of love for us. Though we grew up in the 80s, we spent our childhood immersed in Golden Age musicals and swing music, and part of the reason we wanted to write this show was to pay homage to these musical styles that we love.
DAVID: We loved the way old musicals had moments of quiet charm and simplicity. Looking around us at the time we were starting to write the show (around 2000), it seemed like new Broadway musicals were all ironic and struck this pose of making fun of the fact that they were musicals. Happily, that's a trend that seems to have passed, with heartfelt new Broadway hits like "Hamilton," "Dear Evan Hansen," and "Come From Away" that are anything but ironic.
JOSEPH: From the start, one of our goals was to make sure that the songs in the show wouldn't just be imitations – we wanted to make sure that our personalities were still present in the sound of them, and try to use them to sing about subjects that couldn't have been written about in the 1940s.
DAVID: I was certainly inspired by the wordplay and slang of the era, which I think modern audiences get a kick out of. And of course Oscar Hammerstein does looms large over the lyrics. Writing some of the love songs, I found I was inspired by something he said: he said that in the theater he didn't cry at sad songs he would cry at songs of youthful optimism.
JOSEPH: In terms of how younger audiences respond to the music? Well, it's an interesting thing we noticed during the show's New York run. For older audiences, the music was a way in but some of them struggled a little with the frank depiction of a gay love story. While for younger audiences, seeing two men kiss was no big deal, but for some of them this was their first experience of the joys of big band music. Happily, they love it!
A show like this would really benefit from a big Broadway or West End style production but do you think the subject matter might still be a barrier to winning over a mass audience?
JOSEPH: We think every person can relate to Yank!. To me, themes like first love and the courage to facing your deepest fears… everyone has a stake in a story that wrestles with those.
DAVID: For me, the reason Yank! feels fresh is you've never seen anything quite like it, the mash-up of old-fashioned styles and more modern content like this. And if you're going for something that hasn't been done…well there's always going to be people who don't get it, or want something safer. For me, the barriers we have faced with Yank! (it's too gay!) are inextricably bound up with why so many audiences – gay and straight – have fallen for it.
JOSEPH: We truly believe the show could play anywhere – so if the West End or Broadway comes calling, we're game!
It's called a WWII love story, and it is told in the style of many musicals of that period the only difference being the central lovers are male. How big a challenge was it to make the central relationship real for its time and not looked at through the prism of today?
DAVID: I do think younger actors need sometimes need to go down the research path I did…they need remember that Yank! takes place in a time when awareness of homosexuality as a category, be it praised or punished, was simply less understood – by gay people, too.
JOSEPH: In some respects, that meant that there was less overt homophobia than later on, because men could just hold hands and hug without fear that it would look gay. If you look at pictures of how many presumably straight buddies treated each other, it looks very "gay" to us.
DAVID: On the other hand, for many gay men and lesbians, the army was the first chance they had to find each other and discover gay/lesbian culture…so in that way, WWII set the stage for the big gay civil rights movements that came later.
What are you working on now? What's next?
DAVID: We're just recently completed a new musical called Ruth and the Panda, again a fictionalized story inspired by historical events that have now been almost forgotten. The show tells the story of a larger-than-life woman who was the first person to successfully bring a live panda out of China in the 1930s, sparking a worldwide panda craze. It's really one of those incredible stories that is only believable because it really happened.
JOSEPH: Though the time period is similar to Yank!, the score doesn't include as much pastiche. The sound is much more symphonic and with Chinese influences.
DAVID: We're really excited about the show, and can't wait to share it with audiences.
Is this your first time working in London?
DAVID: This is our first production in London, though it's one of our favorite cities and we've long hoped to do a Show here.
JOSEPH: We've both visited numerous times, and I actually stayed in London for a few months at a time back in 2000 and 2004 while working on some mystery novels. It's a place we always enjoy coming back to!
What do you enjoy about living & working here? And is there anything you miss from home?
JOSEPH: Sadly, we'll only be over her for a few weeks this trip, and most of those days spent inside the Charing Cross Theatre. But we are looking forward to hitting some of our favorite spots around town.
DAVID: And to spending some time far away from Donald Trump.
Has anything funny happened to you while you've been here?
JOSEPH: We won't arrive for a few days yet!
DAVID: I did have one memorable interaction - more sweet than funny - when I arrived in Manchester for the Hope Mill production. I took an Uber from the airport and my driver, an older man from (he said) Pakistan but with a thick Mancunian accent, asked what I was in town for. I mentioned I had written "a World War II love story" and he said, "Right, is that the gay one? My wife and I have tickets!" I felt like a star.
How does working in the UK compare with New York?
JOSEPH: Really, I'd say the experience is pretty similar. I will say that we were blown away by the amazing performers over here. New York prides itself on the musical theatre talent pool, but we think the Brits can give them a run for their money.
DAVID: We were especially impressed by how good their American accents are! The characters in Yank! – a Brooklyn dockworker, a Boston "Southie", a Tennessee hick, etc. – call for number of specific dialects, and before we arrived in Manchester we were a little worried about that.
JOSEPH: The only little slip up was that some actors did keep saying 'whilst' instead of 'while'. But that's all settled now.
Is it easier to get a new musical staged here than in the USA?
DAVID: Getting a musical on is hard everywhere!
JOSEPH: Every time someone falls in love with your show enough to make it happen feels like a dream come true.