Working in the Theatre: The Blueprint Specials

[opening music] [orchestral music] [Tom Rigedly] One evening when I was at home making dinner and the opening song for “Guys and Dolls” got in my head out of nowhere, but it’s a catchy tune, and I just found myself wondering what else Frank Loesser had written. I looked them up, and on his Wikipedia page there’s about a sentence that says, “Then, he went and joined the army and wrote this musical called “Hi, Yank!” for the Army.” So, I just found myself wondering what that show was. [“The Ballad of Rodger Young” playing] [Victor Hurtado] Tom himself contacted Army Entertainment and got a note back from Army Entertainment last February letting him know that Army Entertainment functionally wasn’t doing theater or music and theater anymore. I, as director of Army Entertainment, had no idea what was in our military entertainment DNA at all. So, I was fascinated: “Frank Loesser is part of our DNA, Private Frank Loesser. How do we not know that?” [Arian Moayed] When Tom Ridgely, our artistic director of Waterwell, found that these up musical even existed, it took some digging of libraries across the country to be like, “You know, if you look in that box, dig deep in there, there is one of these original blueprints!” We were able to find these musicals from one of the greatest American musical writers ever. [Rigedly] What we found was what the Army called a “blueprint special,” a kind of complete do-it-yourself theatre kit. It was this very thick book, documents, that had the score, the complete orchestration for fifteen-piece jazz bands, as well as designs for costume and scenery and suggestions for how to construct those things out of materials that soldiers might conceivably have at hand. [trumpet music and singing] [Moayed] These musicals that were commissioned by the US Army in 1944 included work by Frank Loesser, by Arnold M. Auerbach, by even Jose Limon, a towering figure in modern dance history. Everyone at Waterwell decided that it was the best thing to do to find them, put them together, and find a way to give them a voice here in New York City, and the best way to do that was to get these lost musicals on this aircraft carrier called the Intrepid. [Rigedly] We knew we were doing it in a museum, so we knew the historicity of this piece would be what was cool about it. Going through a time machine, that you’d be seeing something like what the soldiers would have seen all those years ago. [singing onstage] [Hurtado] The “blueprint specials” was created to boost the morale of the soldiers. The shows were put together and they were presented in bases near New York, and then they were packaged up as blueprints. The soldiers themselves would put them on for their fellow soldiers. A lot of the material is admittedly a little subversive. [upright bass music] [Rigedly] I would say that the first day of casting was when I thought that this was going to be a really special experience. We cast a few actors ahead of time and we were seeing a combination of civilians and military people. The military people, a lot of them mostly veterans, we’d found through an organization called Cammo that Victor runs. Victor was there in the room with us and he just was able to instantly connect with these people on a level that none of the rest of us could because they had this sort of shared history and shared understanding. [Laura Osnes] During World War II, it was the first time in history that women became involved serving in the Women’s Army Corps. I play a Greek goddess named Pallas Athene who was the goddess of strength and war. She decides she wants to leave Olympus to head down to Earth to join the Women’s Army Corps in World War II. [onstage dialogue] [Will Swenson] I play the part of Jupiter, the Roman god. I married Pallas, and Pallas takes an interest in military and she decides that life with me it’s just far too boring and redundant. We have a little fight, and she decides she’s gonna go enlist in the WAC, the Women’s Army Corps. Typically as actors, we’re in our theatrical creative bubble and we work with a lot of the same people and we go through the same process, but I’m working with the vets. They’re not necessarily professional actors and I’m just having exposure to the people who were mysterious to me in the past has been really enlightening. I had a certain sense of you know what military people in general might be like. [Jennean Farmer] I think the show is really important because I think sometimes people who aren’t a part of the military, they have specific ideas of what people are like. We have dreams, we have hopes, we want to be open about our experiences, and I think it’s really important to be accessible. But, when I was reading the play there was still that sense of community amongst the women who were in the Women’s Army Corps in the script. The same thing to place when I was in boot camp: there is this sense of community because you’re learning how to work together. So, for me, that was what was resonating as far as my experience in the military and as far as what was in the script. [Moayed] It’s a miraculous thing that’s happened. World War II was often called “the last great war,” also one of the most brutal wars, and in 1944 the US War Department thought it was important to have musicals written by privates to be performed by soldiers during battle on their off time. The reason they did that was to boost morale, so if you think about it, in 1944, the US War Department thought it was important to you have musical theater as a form of art therapy for people living in some of the most dire situations. [explosions and music] [Rigedly] The “blueprint specials” are soldier shows, and that’s a tradition that goes back all the way to World War One and Irving Berlin. That’s just as an official capacity as far as the US Army concern, but as long as people been fighting wars, soldiers have been entertaining themselves in one way or another. [tap dancing and music] It’s clearly something that is necessary for them to cope with the stresses of being away from home, being between incredibly unstable often violent environment, and there’s something about the community or the escape or the act of creation that entertainment and culture and art provide that nothing else really can. [onstage music] [Hurtado] Army Entertainment as of January 5th functionally ceased to exist. So, the funding for programs for the soldier show, for any sort of talent competition, anything to do with with entertainment “by the soldier for the soldier” or for the families was actually defunded. As a soldier myself and as a veteran who benefited during the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties when programs existed in a huge way, on Fort Hood, Texas, we had theater programs. I was in Camelot, Carousel, and big musicals, and all of us were artillery men an infantrymen. These sort of program made those of us that were artistic but also brave military service members that made us whole. Slowly since that time, these different programs have been losing value among the leadership of the military, particularly the theater program. What theater does is it pulls you away from where you are in your situation in a way that that anything else can’t because it puts you in somebody else’s shoes, it puts you in another location, and in a way that if you really respect your craft will pull you out completely. It’s called “getting into character.” Getting into character pulls you out of being a soldier just for a moment. What I think that our nation can learn from theater is how to put themselves in other people’s shoes, whether it be a military character or a minority character or any character can actually change your perspective. [tapping] [Osnes] It’s just been amazing and such a gift to us, to get to be working with them and hearing their stories. They’ve all been very open, and I think it’s been kind of healing, I would hope, for the servicemen and women to be involved in something like this where they’re getting to share their experiences through art. [Farmer] While I was in the military I never saw a show like this while I was in Iraq from April ’03 to ’04. There were boxing matches! Because when we do our jobs, we have a certain duty, and I believe that when we’re doing our jobs we have to be focused, we have to put on the mask of being strong, of showing strength, and once we’re done with our jobs, we have to have some type of way to let go. [Hurtado] It’s become something that on paper seems frivolous. “Who needs troops singing and dancing?” They miss the point that it’s troops singing and dancing in a way that communicate to other troops, to other contemporaries. [onstage singing and music] [applause] I’m passionate about this piece because even though this was seventy years ago, I can see myself in the situations. I, in my unit, there was a “sad sack” that I was in charge of that I loved and took care of and help get through the military. We see ourselves and our colleagues in every single one of these characters. Even though it was seventy years ago, the passion and the mission of a soldier never changes and we will always recognize ourselves in these works. [dialogue] [Rigedly] Part of this was just to figure out what can we do to bridge the gap, or call attention to the fact that this is important, that it does have value, and that is ought to be preserved? [Maoyed] This divided country that we live in right now needs more opportunity to see both sides of the equation, to see what it seems for civilians to see military life, for military life to civilian life, and see what it means to to have a cohesion art form that can really express America and patriotism in a way that hasn’t been seen in a very long time. [Swenson] There was a need a bridge between the sort of two worlds of this project. All great civilizations are remembered for their wars and for the art. Which one do you want to be remembered for? [triumphant music]

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