REVIEW: “Bandstand: The Broadway Musical”

bandstandAmong the artistic industries suffering the hardest during the COVID-19 crisis is the Broadway community. Unlike with film and TV, Broadway has nearly nothing “in the can” that they can roll out to fill the time all of their theatres are shut down. No shows can be performed while all the theatres are closed and nobody can gather to see them. So, what is Broadway to do? Answer: release some of the musicals they’ve professionally filmed over the years. Which is where Bandstand enters. Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and featuring a book and lyrics by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor and music by Richard Oberacker, Bandstand tells the story of a group of PTSD-suffering World War II veterans who, after returning home from the war, form a band and compete in a nationwide songwriting competition. The show opened on April 26, 2017, and closed on September 17, 2017, playing only 166 performances. The musical was filmed towards the end of its run and shown in movie theaters in November 2018. Yet most of the public, even the theatre-going public, probably haven’t heard of it. With its early closure, its mixed reviews, and its lack of any major Tony nominations, Bandstand would seem to the definition of a flop destined to rot in obscurity. But does it deserve that reputation? From a financial standpoint, sure. But from a creative one? I’d argue the opposite. I’d argue that Bandstand is one of those forgotten treasures that hit Broadway at exactly the wrong time. It’s a show filled with captivating characterizations and excellent music and is well worth a watch. (Spoilers for Bandstand follow.)

Bandstand (directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, lyrics by  Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor and music by Richard Oberacker)
1945; as America’s soldiers come home to ticker-tape parades and overjoyed families, Private First Class Donny Novitski, singer and songwriter, returns to rebuild his life with only the shirt on his back and a dream in his heart. When NBC announces a national competition to find the nation’s next great musical superstars, inspiration strikes! Donny joins forces with a motley group of fellow veterans, forming a band unlike any the nation has ever seen. Along the way, they discover the power of music to face the impossible, find their voice and finally feel like they have a place to call home.

Bandstand’s best element is its characterization. As the musical promises, it tells the story of six World War II vets, led by Donny (played by Corey Cott), and of Julia (played by Laura Osnes), the widow of Michael, Donny’s deceased best friend from the war. But instead of painting a rosy portrayal of these veterans, Bandstand presents a far more accurate one: each of them are suffering from some kind of war-related mental illness. As Julia details in the second act’s finale, “Welcome Home (Finale),” these illnesses include chronic pain, amnesia, cognitive issues, OCD, alcoholism, insomnia, trust issues, and survivor’s guilt. Definitely not a rosy picture. Additionally, the show explores Julia’s struggle with life after the death of her husband; her search for answers and her struggle to move past the shadow cast upon her life by his death. These ideas are pretty dark ones for a mainstream musical to explore, but they are also very meaty ones, providing the actors with a lot of great material to play with.

The heart of the show is the relationship between Donnie and Julia, both of whom are connected to each other by Michael’s death. Prior to his death, Donnie promised to look in on Julia from time to time – a promise that Donnie keeps throughout the show. What’s interesting about these characters is that they are blatantly set up as the show’s romantic leads, but the show patiently takes its time in getting them together. Oberacker and Taylor are careful in giving both characters the time and space to grieve the loss of Michael before thrusting them together as a romantic pair. What is captivating about this relationship is getting to see these two characters bond over this shared trauma, grow from it, and eventually be able to move on. It would have been very easy to write the two of them as a conventional romantic duo, but it’s far more interesting depicting them the way Bandstand does.

Much of the show revolves around Donnie’s need to do right by Michael. This drives his quest to find success with his music and it drives his desire to incorporate Julia more into his life. An equal amount of the show is devoted to Julia’s character journey, taking her from a widow left behind in the shadow of her late husband to a woman who takes what she wants and ensures she gets it. It’s an utter delight to see Donnie and Julia force each other to address their trauma and grow together, all of which makes their eventual relationship all the more believable. Cott and Osnes do a great job of selling this dynamic. Their chemistry is immediately palpable, but they are both so immersed in their respective characters’ minds that everything they do feels entirely authentic to what someone in their shoes would do. They bring a lot of emotional truth to their roles, as well as some powerhouse vocals.

Unfortunately, this means that Donnie and Julia get the vast amount of the show’s focus. This is understandable, given that they are the main characters, but it’s a bit of a shame that it deprives us of getting to see more of the rest of the veterans because all of them are immediately captivating and sympathetic. While none of them are given a lot of time to shine, Oberacker and Taylor do a marvelous job of making each of them feel distinct from each other and fully developed as people. All of the veterans get adequate exploration into their lives and all of the actors give amazing performances, truly making these characters feel alive – even if they aren’t on stage much. Bandstand’s characters, and their respective characterizations, are easily the best aspect of the musical and it’s pretty impressive that a show with such dark ideas did as well as it did on a mainstream Broadway stage.

Bandstand’s other greatest aspect is one that was probably equally hard to sell to 2017 audiences: its authentic 1940s-style score. It seems pretty safe to say that big band/swing/jazz music isn’t exactly popular on the contemporary Broadway stage. Most of today’s Broadway sound is a mixture of pop/rock songs, Sondheim/Andrew Lloyd Webber-style songs, and hip-hop influenced music. Bandstand falls into none of those categories. Its closest comparison is probably in some of Sondheim’s work. “Everything Happens,” a song sung by Julia’s mother in Act 2, felt very reminiscent of something the Witch might have sung in Into the Woods – both in lyrical quality and in terms of the song’s composition, and much of the show’s lyrics feel very Sondheim-esque in their deep exploration of the traumas and darkness of the characters. But, aside from this comparison, Bandstand’s music stands unique against the music of the shows that came out at the same time.

In this case, unique is a very good thing. Bandstand’s music is authentic for the time period and it absolutely makes sense for the show to be written in this style as a good chunk of the songs are sung by the characters within the world of the show, as part of a performance by Donnie’s band – with the cast literally playing the instruments on stage during these numbers. As is the case with musicals like Chicago and Cabaret, both of which feature a similar mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic songs, the usage of in-universe musical numbers helps explain away the songs that are less plot-driven and more spectacle-based. And those in-universe songs are believable as the “pop hits” they are supposed to be, which is always a plus for a musical like this. Ultimately the biggest joy of Bandstand’s music is that none of the songs are bad – even the show’s requisite love ballad, a genre of song that I typically am not fond of, is a delight from beginning to end. A musical lives and dies based on its music and Bandstand is filled to the brim with excellent music – just as you would expect a show about musicians to be.

However, Bandstand isn’t without its problems – most of which can be overlooked, though. The actual plot of the show is a bit predictable, though the show’s characterization largely makes up for that. It may be pretty easy to predict various plot points – pretty much everyone could have predicted the solutions to many of the plot’s conflicts the moment they were introduced – but the show’s character exploration easily makes up for that. While it may have been nice to have a less predictable plot, it’s not too much of a deterrent in the end as good, meaty characters will always be more important than a complex pot to me. Additionally, Bandstand often walks a fine line between tones, veering from bleak subject matter into tension-defusing comedy. For some, this balancing act might not have worked, but it felt perfectly natural to me. Every joke seemed rooted in the characters’ experience and every time the writers decided to use humor to diffuse the situation felt both appropriate and needed. Bandstand is certainly a bleak show, but it mostly balances that bleakness with some well-timed humor.

The show’s biggest problem, and one that is much harder to overlook, is its frequent usage of significant time jumps. Both acts of the show feature musical numbers in which multiple months pass all at once, quickly moving the plot along to the show’s next important plot point. This isn’t inherently a problem, and there are some positives to the show doing this. It keeps the story moving along at a pretty brisk pace, ensuring that the show’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime goes by in the blink of an eye. But it does rob certain moments of the room they deserve to breathe. It can be a bit distracting and jarring speeding through time the way Bandstand often does. I personally didn’t find this to be hugely problematic, but it was certainly something that proved noticeable and might have been worth avoiding if at all possible.

At the end of the day, Bandstand is a great show. It features a beautiful score, complex characterizations, and some killer performances from its cast. While its music may not be what’s currently popular on Broadway, it’s good nonetheless. Bandstand is simply a great musical, but it’s one that happened to hit Broadway at exactly the wrong time. The same year that Bandstand opened and closed on Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away opened. At that year’s Tony Awards, Dear Evan Hansen won the bulk of the awards, sucking all of the attention away from the season’s other musicals. In that context, it’s understandable that Bandstand slipped between the cracks. But thankfully, it has been recorded professionally and that recording has been released publicly. It’s a great recording, competently directed by Lorenzo Thione. Unlike many professional recordings, the camerawork doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the show’s original staging and Blankenbuehler’s original direction and choreography is given plenty of room to shine. It’s one of the better recordings and a great way of preserving a musical that was unfairly ignored during its initial Broadway run. Hopefully, this recording leads to more people discovering Bandstand and appreciating it for the excellent show it is.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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