In general, gay men love musicals, and many write, direct, design and choreograph them. Yet very few openly gay musicals (as opposed to those with just a gay sub-text or a gay character, like Cabaret or Kinky Boots) succeed on Broadway. The exceptions include La Cage aux Folles, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Fun Home and The Boy from Oz. Not so for off-Broadway, which has played host to scores of in-your-face gay shows including, in 2010, Yank!, which has finally arrived via Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre at the enterprising Charing Cross Theatre in London.
Conceived as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the 1940s and 1950s, with rousing chorus numbers, torch songs, tap routines, romantic duets and even a dream ballet, it breaks with tradition by being a boy-meets-boy love story between a sensitive, sexually unsure 19-year-old called Stu (Scott Hunter) and a handsome hunk Mitch (Andy Coxon), who takes an instant shine to him and protects him from some of the more homophobic members of their squad. Although Mitch has a fiancée back home, he’s clearly attracted to Stu and in a tender getting-to-know-you love scene, allows Stu to kiss him – passionately.
But the course of a full-blown romance, so dangerous in a hostile barrack-room environment, faces an inevitable setback when Stu, who wants to be a writer, is recruited to a cushy desk job away from the front as a journalist for the forces’ weekly magazine Yank. His mentor is an unashamedly gay photographer called Artie (Chris Kiely). Months later, though, when Stu and Mitch are reunited after Mitch is wounded in battle, their dream of shacking up domestically after the war in a picket-fence cottage somewhere in the Midwest of 1945, is simply unrealistic, legally as well as morally.
Like Julie and Billy in Carousel and Anna and her king in The King and I, there is no happily-ever-after for Mitch and Stu. Mitch, after recovering from his injuries, marries his fiancée and dies an alcoholic in his early 40s. We never learn what happens to Stu.
Yank! begins with a present-day prologue in which a young man has discovered in a junk shop the uncensored diary Stu kept throughout the war. The show, in essence, is the diary brought to life. It ends, movingly, with the new owner reflecting on the poignant story we’ve just witnessed.
The book is by Joseph Zellnick and the score by his brother David. With its accurate and tuneful parodies of songs from the big-band era, Yank! does its best to navigate the clichés and the predictabilities of the plot. The result is both poignant and entertaining without saying anything new about the military’s hostile attitude towards homosexuals in World War II.
With limited physical resources, director James Baker, assisted by choreographer Chris Cuming and designer Victoria Hinton, does a resourceful job creating the illusion of a full-scale Broadway production. The unglamorous barrack-room settings are colorfully contrasted with the occasional ”production” numbers when, courtesy of the excellent Sarah- Louise Young – the only woman in the cast – she adds a touch of pizzazz to the proceedings with a series of cameo roles most notably as a popular radio singer. Her torch song "My Soldier" towards the end of Act Two is an excellent song, excellently sung.
Hunter and Coxon nail their roles as the doomed lovers both vocally and dramatically. And there’s good work from Kiely as the photographer who probably saved Stu’s life by getting him officially posted to Yank magazine.
I was less impressed with several of the barrack-room squaddies whose variegated accents were, quite frankly, risible. No excuse for this. Also, several cast members had beards. Was this allowed in WW2? Those details notwithstanding, Yank! has its heart in the right place and I wish it well.