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By Linda Buchwald
As the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” becomes a very real possibility, the musical Yank!, which follows gay men and women in the military during World War II, is especially timely. The show already has a cult following, not just in the audience, but in its cast and creative team as well.
Yank! is currently playing Off Broadway at the York Theatre Company, and the production has been a long time coming. Artistic director James Morgan fell for the show when he saw it at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn in 2007, and he started working immediately to create a team that could extend the show’s life. “We helped connect it to the producers and connect the producers to each other,” he says. “To find these people who believe in it as much as we do is very exciting.”
Morgan isn’t the show’s only long-time fan. Brothers Joe and David Zellnik (who wrote the score and the book and lyrics, respectively) have spoken frequently about the artists that have stuck by them through years of productions and workshops—including director Igor Goldin, choreographer Jeffry Denman (who also plays Artie, a gay reporter for a military magazine), and Nancy Anderson, whose various roles were written with her in mind.
Even people who resist the show tend to be sucked into its orbit. Consider actor Bobby Steggert: When Yank! premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005, he was asked to star as Stu, a young solider who falls for a fellow Army private. “I stupidly turned it down,” he recalls. “I just didn’t get it on the page and then went to see it in the festival and kicked myself because I thought it was so beautifully done.” Steggert was approached again for the Gallery Players production, and this time, he accepted, even though it meant “schlepping it out to Brooklyn” for little pay.
Steggert says he’s drawn to the show because “there are so few original musicals that are structured and written with such intelligence and elegance and style.” He also enjoys the challenge of portraying a character changes greatly over the course of a show.
Of course, he almost missed his chance to play Stu at the York. Steggert was recently seen on Broadway as Mother’s Younger Brother in Ragtime, and when he negotiated that contract, he was not granted a leave of absence for Yank! He made the difficult decision to do Ragtime instead.
That show closed prematurely, however, which let Steggert return to his Army uniform. “Though I loved Ragtime, and I’m so proud of that production, I feel really lucky to be working on something I care about so much,” he says.
As Steggert gets older, he finds himself relating differently to Stu’s journey. “It’s become a little more difficult, because as I get older and wiser, I have to remember the incredibly naïve place where he begins. But at the same time, what he gains is understanding of his own strength and his identity as a man,” he says. “In the past few years, I personally have gained more strength and have come into my own manhood, so while the beginning might be harder for me to adjust to at this point, where he ends up is something I understand more.”
Though he doesn’t know what the future holds for the musical, Steggert says he would be happy to continue as part of its ever-growing, ever-faithful team.
Linda Buchwald is an assistant editor at Scholastic. She blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.