Yank! is the all-singing, all-dancing, all-prancing musical about a clandestine gay romance in the US military during World War 2. Originally written in 2005, it’s had various runs in the US before getting its UK premiere earlier this year at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. After enjoying a first taste of transatlantic success, the production will now hit London for the first time this summer, running at the Charing Cross Theatre from 10th July to 19th August.
We spoke with David and Joseph Zellnik, the brothers who wrote the script and songs respectively for the show, ahead of its latest incarnation.
How did Yank! originally come about?
David: Well, we joke that the first step in writing a gay musical is to have a gay brother! Joe and I spent a lot of time when we were younger around the piano, playing and singing songs from the golden age of musicals – shows like South Pacific and Oklahoma. We loved them, and decided we wanted to honour them by writing a new piece that paid tribute to them in style and tone. At first though, we didn’t have any idea about what the plot would be.
Joseph: We did decide right away the story would have to be something different than the standard ‘boy-meets-girl’ story, because shows like that had already been written in the 1940s (and were still being performed). Luckily, around that time, I read “Coming Out Under Fire” by Allan Bérubé, which explored homosexuality in the US Army during World War II. I shared it with David, and we both thought it was the perfect subject matter for a new 1940s musical – one that could be sweet, funny, heartfelt and sexy, an unabashedly romantic love story for two men.
David: So then I started conducting research, getting in touch with gay veterans who had served in World War II. I really enjoy folk history and that side of things. That’s when I came across the real Army magazine “Yank” which was by the soldiers, for the soldiers. I thought this would be a perfect vehicle to ground a soldier’s eye view of World War II.
When you were doing research for the show, did you find that queer lives could thrive under the surface, or was that not the case?
David: The simple answer is yes – a lot more than people now remember. For many gay men and lesbians, the army was the first chance they had to discover each other and gay/lesbian culture. The army unwittingly encouraged this because in 1940 for the first time, they started asking recruits if they were homosexual. For some guys this was the first inkling they had that there were other men like them! Actually, some of this history was actually better known in the ‘40s – Newsweek Magazine published a story called “Homosexuals In Uniform” back in 1947 – but this stuff was intentionally left out of later histories of the war.
Joseph: Looking back at some of the stuff we found, to our eyes, some of it looks very gay. There were a lot of just flaming men!
Joseph: Exactly! While there was an awareness of homosexuality in some spheres, for a lot of people in the 1940’s it was something that simply never entered their minds. In some respects, that meant that there was less overt homophobia than later on, because men could just hold hands and hug without fear that it would look gay.
Have you had a lot of military people coming to watch Yank!?
David: One of our biggest worries when we were writing it was that Veterans wouldn’t approve, or would think we were besmirching the military. After all, gay sex and relationships were still illegal in the army at that time. However, we’ve had very positive receptions from those who’ve see it!
The first run of the show was in 2005 and Obama repealed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell legislation in 2010. Did that change the show at all, or was it just a pleasant coincidence?
Joseph: It was never our intention to write a political show, though of course rescuing a hidden history does have political dimensions. When the DADT repeal came – and also when gay marriage went through – Yank! kept being brought up in the discourse surrounding it. But the changing context didn’t mean that we needed to change the show. After all, it’s primarily a love story.
David: It’s funny really, but when I was watching it again in Manchester, it was a different theme that I found most moving and relevant in terms of what’s going on right now in the USA. You see, one of the other great sources of inspiration for Yank! was the ‘It takes one of every kind to make a platoon’ propaganda movies that Hollywood pumped out during the war – so in Yank!, you’ve got a soldier from the Deep South, a dockworker from Brooklyn, an Italian immigrant and a gay soldier (of course this last one would never have actually been included in the mix back in the 1940s) all coming to respect each other and realising that a strong America needs all of them. This aspect actually made me cry to see it this time. We’re definitely seeing a move away from this ethos under Trump.
Have you had to change anything for UK audiences?
David: Not really, no. I’ve made some tiny tweaks to the script, but only to help it work better with this production.
Joseph: Before the Manchester premiere, we were quite nervous if YANK! would work over here, but we were so thrilled at how UK critics and audiences embraced the show. And we’re super excited this amazing team of producers will be taking this production to London.
David: We were especially surprised at how well the cast did the regional accents called for in our show (as we mentioned before, the coming together of different types of Americans is a quite important part of the play!) Thanks to their work, we found that nothing got lost in translation!
YANK! is on from 3rd July – 19th August at the Charing Cross Theatre. Tickets here