(Bloomberg) -- It can feel as though Broadway needs a space safe from geopolitics lately, and one musical about America's post-World War II era is hoping audiences will flock to a feel-good show about veterans, swing music, and the good old days of radio.
Enter Bandstand, a musical written by Richard Oberacker (music, book, lyrics) and Robert Taylor (book, lyrics), which dons the mantle of national pride without any contemporary hangups. It takes place in 1945 after GIs have returned home from WWII's European and Pacific theaters and focuses on their struggles to fit in and reacclimate to home. The central characters, a group of veterans and one songbird of a gold-star widow (Laura Osnes), form a band to compete in a national radio competition. Hamilton's Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler directs the show and does the choreography.
A Voice That Joins
The gang is brought together onstage by Donny Novitski, played by the doe-eyed Corey Cott, a rising Broadway star who learned to play the piano for the role. Cott's Novitsky has just returned from combat in the Solomon Islands and is having trouble finding work. He tries to get through his post-traumatic stress disorder by boozing and writing songs, but he can't forget how he witnessed the death of his best friend. That friend happened to be the man who was married to Osnes' character, and fate soon conspires to bring the two together.
Cott, 27, graduated from Carnegie Mellon's competitive musical theater program in 2012 and moved right into starring roles on Broadway, taking over from Jeremy Jordan as the lead in Newsies. He followed that with a much-hyped (but short-lived) turn as Vanessa Hudgens's love interest in the critically panned revival of Gigi. Now he's practicing piano two hours a day in Harlem, where he lives with his college sweetheart wife Meghan Woollard. (He proposed from stage after singing a song at their senior showcase.) Woollard is expecting their first child on April 28—the show opens on April 26. Cott says he's been drinking a lot of coffee in preparation for what's coming—unlike his character.
"[Novitsky] comes back from the war, very much broken but hopeful that he can jump back into this life that he left before the war, which was—in his mind—destined for stardom," explains the young actor. "He's a prodigy singer/songwriter/piano player, and his whole life, all he's wanted to do is make it big and be the next Frank Sinatra." But no one is lining up to hire him—nightclub owners have moved on to younger talent while he was out fighting. Then NBC announces it will host a televised competition to honor the troops, and the winning song will be featured in an MGM movie. Novitsky begins rounding up a ragtag group of musicians (those actors all play their own instruments, too) to create an all-veteran band.
The audience at a preview performance responded viscerally to the struggles of the men, at times even standing and applauding in the middle of the show. And Osnes, a Broadway stalwart who has headlined such blockbuster shows as Cinderella and South Pacific, brings particular heart as the band's eventual lead singer and songwriter. Although it's among a slew of big April openings, the show is likely to appear on Tony nomination lists.
The Political Season
One hardly needs to run through the ways in which politics and Broadway have been uncomfortable bedfellows lately. Most famously, there was last fall's fracas between the cast of Hamilton and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently invited President Trump to see a performance of Come From Away, an unselfconsciously optimistic musical about a small Canadian town that opened its doors to thousands of stranded travelers on Sept. 11, 2001. Trump declined, preferring to visit the grave of populist president Andrew Jackson, and sent his daughter Ivanka in his stead. Lynn Nottage just won a Pulitzer Prize for her hard look at society in struggling, formerly industrial Pennsylvania—a raw and hyperrelevant subject after last year's election. And even producers of Miss Saigon, a revived camp extravaganza about a low point in American history, inserted a new laugh line referencing Trump.
But in Bandstand, there are no bad guys anymore—only good people who need to be shown how to help each other. The actors play characters all struggling to deal with hurt in different ways, and the creators want to offer some hope that healing can come from relying on one another.
"At its core it's a story about the redemptive power of music and how we can express truths through music that we can't express in words otherwise," says Cott. "I'm also passionate about being as honest about veterans' stories as we can and how we can serve that and thank them for that in some way. It's extremely patriotic. That's the reason I'm doing it. "