Yank! A World War II Love Story is a 2010 off-Broadway musical focusing on gay, lesbian and heterosexual U.S. service members of more than 70 ago. The critically acclaimed musical penned by brothers David and Joseph Zellnik has its belated Chicago premiere this month courtesy of Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center.
Music director Robert Ollis saw the York Theatre Company's staging of Yank! eight years ago and wanted to work on it immediately.
"Of course was drawn to the music," said Ollis, highlighting the traditional Broadway sound of the Zellnik score. "But also the story itself is powerful and that's the reason why I love it the best."
"My father was in World War II as an 18-year-old when he started serving, and that's one thing you see with this is how amazing these young guys were thrown into these battles at such an early age," Ollis said. "You get a sense of the diversity and the different experiences the men faced by being in a squad like this."
Although the characters in Yank! are fictional, the musical drew its inspiration from real-life veteran accounts in the late Allan Berubé's 1990 book Coming Out Under Fire, which in turn inspired a film documentary of the same name in 1994. Yank! also takes its title from a weekly service members' magazine of the 1940s.
Yank! focuses on the budding romance between new recruits Stu ( Matthew Huston ) and Mitch ( William Dwyer ). Both are initially uncertain about their sexuality as they go through basic training, but a strong connection develops before they are shipped out to battle in the South Pacific.
Yank! also has a few story detours. One involves a worldly Yank! magazine photographer named Artie ( John Marshalll Jr. ) who schools Stu on big-city gay subculture. There's also an interview with a lesbian military secretary named Louise. It's one of many female roles ranging from longing girlfriends back home to sultry torch-song singers that are all played the cast's sole woman, Molly LeCaptain.
Back in 2010, Yank! was positioned for a Broadway transfer with former Chicago-based director David Cromer at the helm. Yet some of the musical's political urgency fell by the wayside once the Obama administration repealed the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of barring LGBTQ soldiers from openly serving that same year.
The uncertainty around the unfulfilled Broadway transfer of Yank! meant that the regional rights to the show were tied up for some time. ( The show's cast album wasn't released until 2014. ) In the meantime, Pride Films and Plays staged the acclaimed world-premiere musical Under a Rainbow Flag in 2013, which similarly dealt with gay soldiers during WWII.
Pride Films and Plays executive director David Zak admits that the company held off on pursing Yank! since it covered some of the same territory of Under a Rainbow Flag. But now with the current presidential administration's attacks on trans soldiers and the LGBTQ community in general, Zak said the time is right to stage Yank!
"It's weird because we didn't think we'd be doing a piece about war," Zak said. "But you can't help but think about it when Donald Trump tweets every morning."
Zak said there is also a lot of renewed in interest in Yank! since the show had its successful British premiere last year in Manchester and London.
Both Zak and Ollis have enjoyed the rehearsal process with the young company of Yank! Zak has particularly appreciated one cast member who has been free with sharing his own experiences of being openly gay and serving in the military.
Zak and Ollis also admire Yank! For its ability to open a window to a chapter of LGBTQ history that is often neglected in schools.
"While most of the story is about the romance and about the interactions of the squad, there is one part where one of the soldiers is arrested for same-sex activities and encounters intense questioning and harassment and imprisonment," Ollis said. "It brings up some of the more serious consequences that happened to some of the soldiers."
"World War II really changed the landscape," Ollis said. "A lot of people who were growing up in small towns came together and went to big cities and met other people from different parts of the world that they never would have met. It furthered the realization that there was a gay community out there."
Pride Films and Plays' Chicago premiere of Yank! A WWII Love Story runs from Thursday, Jan. 11, through Sunday, Feb. 18, in The Broadway space of the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Previews run through Sunday, Jan. 14, and are $25. Tickets for the regular run are $30-$40 with discounts available for seniors and students. For more information, visit PrideFilmsAndPlays.com .