SHOW FOLK: In the Trenches on the New Musical “Yank!” with Joe Zellnik
Once a month, a member of the theater community will pull up a chair to our cyber table and join us for a little conversation. I’ll edit the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and post the results here every second Wednesday. For July, my I introduce…
Joseph Zellnik is an accomplished composer and author. His musical Yank! (co-written with his brother David Zellnik) tells the story of a World War II soldier falling in love with a fellow member of his platoon while facing the realities of battle. After working its way through multiple productions and readings (including an acclaimed run at The York Theatre Company in Manhattan), Yank! is slated for a fall developmental workshop in New York, under the auspices of the Old Globe and directed by David Cromer (The House of Blue Leaves), with an eye toward the 2012 Broadway season.
With highly appropriate big band music playing in the background, we recently met over happy hour cocktails to discuss the newest draft of Yank!, commiserate about the highs and lows of writing music theater…and get to the bottom of what composers really think about us lyricists.
Let’s write a song together.
I’ve often thought to myself it would be fun to write something that’s not about story so much. So much of what I do is tied in to how an actor would say a line.
I haven’t written too many stand-alone songs. I haven’t written pop.
I wouldn’t know pop if it bit me in the ass.
No. Smart cabaret material. That’s what I’m talking about.
I wish I could write a Zina [Goldrich] and Marcy [Heisler] song. I wish I could write “Taylor the Latte Boy”.
I feel like musically I could do it. If someone handed me “Taylor the Latte Boy” I could set it.
I see where all the blame lies. It’s the lyricist’s fault.
Do you like setting lyrics?
I don’t ever write music first. I always set things.
Yeah. David has occasionally written lyrics to a trunk song. He’ll say, “I thought maybe we could use this” and he’ll have written a whole new lyric to an existing tune. But the few times I’ve ever tried to jump start something…by writing a tune, it doesn’t go anywhere. Inevitably the lyric comes first. But it’s a give and take process.
…We just wrote four new songs for Yank!, one of which we’ve already cut, but one of which is a hugely important structural song at the end of act one. It’s one of those songs that once you’ve written it, you think, “How did we ever have a show without it?” It’s such a key, big moment for the love story. But it took us three and a half months to write. David wrote the verse for it. I loved the verse. I thought, “These are the right words to say.” But I was completely stymied; six weeks went by and I could not set them…Anything that I wrote that sounded like a typical 40’s musical verse diminished the words in some sense, made it sing-songy.
I’m curious about that. I didn’t see the last readings but I saw it at the York Theatre. How much did you feel tied to that 1940’s, South Pacific musical world?
I would say that musically it’s not all period. But there’s also nothing that takes you out of the period. By which I mean there’s conventional modern musical theater writing, classical harmonies. There’s nothing pop in it. There’s no Motown in it. There can’t be anything that pulls you in other directions. But there are plenty of things in the show that Richard Rogers would have never written.
What has changed since the York production?
A lot has changed. We’ve rethought the show from beginning to end now that David Cromer has come on the show. We call it the show being “Cromer-ized”. I’ve tried to think of the best way to describe it and I always take refuge in metaphor. It’s sort of like the same painter painting a new portrait of the same woman. It’s still recognizably the same person but maybe the clothes or the style are slightly different…That’s sort of what it feels like we’re doing with Yank!. Lots of the lines of dialogue are new but the arc of the story is exactly the same. The focus has been deepened and the war is much more present from earlier in the show. You understand that this love story is taking place in a world where the idea that death may be imminent is constantly a background noise in these mens’ lives. And it sort of makes the need to find happiness and reach out for what you want more extreme.
…There are some new characters. Some of the old characters have been altered in focus. In the early versions of the show there was a lot more playing with the genre conventions of World War II platoon movies. While it still is an homage to the “It Takes One of Every Kind” platoon movie, in David Cromer’s world no one is allowed to be a two dimensional stereotype.
Does he have a musical background?
He does not. This will be his first, I think, traditional musical. He directed The Adding Machine and another piece, but both of the shows like that that he directed were closer to chamber opera than musical theater. But he’s an incredibly bright man and he’s schooling himself. It’s fun to watch him discover things about how musicals work versus how a play works.
…It’s been basically a smooth and fun process. There were some things that were written into the show that are now back out of the show. But the show is stronger and better for it. You know, writing Yank! has taken up fully half of my adult life.
How does that feel?
It’s daunting. It’s a little scary. We started writing Yank! in 2000 but we stopped for about two years to work on other shows. But we finished it then in 2004. NYMF was 2005. New version was written after that. Brooklyn was in 2007. We tried to raise money for Off-Broadway and finally got to Off-Broadway in 2010. And then, Broadway, fingers crossed, will be 2012.
It’s amazing how long this process takes.
You have to love what you’re writing. Partly because you’re going to be forced to rewrite it again and again.
And so, even though there are some days we can’t believe we’re writing new songs for Yank! still, we love writing Yank!. To tell us that we have to write a new number for it isn’t exactly punishment.
What do you hope happens next for Yank!?
So much of what we write has to do with history, but usually things that have been forgotten from the historical record. We would love for people to know the story, that gay men and women served in World War II. And we’d love to restore to the canon of great theatrical love stories–to have a gay love story be a part of that.
But we don’t view the show as a gay musical. We view it as a musical. We view it as a love story. It happens to be a gay love story and we don’t apologize for it being a gay love story but it’s not meant only for gay people. Plenty of straight audiences have embraced it and get caught up in the story and hope that the lovers get together.
What is it like to work with your sibling?
I’m a middle child so it’s perfectly natural for me to collaborate. I think middle children grow up knowing that they’re not the center of the universe.
There was a project that I tried to write book, music and lyrics on but I couldn’t do it. Being alone in a room is no good for me. I need someone to yell at and argue with. I need someone to blame and I need someone to not let me get away with lazy stuff.
What’s the first song you ever wrote together?
We wrote a song called “Epicurean”. I was 13 and David was 11 and he was influenced by repeatedly listening to Evita so it was kind of a Tim Rice-y lyric. Sort of cynical and wry.
[laughter] 13 year old cynic.
He was 11! The music was completely subpar Sondheim mimicry and not at all the way I write now. But it doesn’t sound like anybody else’s first song.
I never went through the singer/songwriter phase, writing semi-autobiographical songs. I’ve written maybe one in my life and I’m not going to tell you about it.
Oh, come on! Tell me that title, at least.
It’s called “It Isn’t Going to Happen”. The typical maudlin romantic sort of thing I wrote in college.
And did it happen?
It did not. It wasn’t going to happen. It didn’t. I’m not dumb!
What’s your favorite part of the process?
I think it’s Dorothy Parker who said, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” I definitely am partly like that. My favorite part of the process is having written it, working in the rehearsal room at the moment when something catches fire and you think, “This is really working.” I tend to have those moments welling up with emotion during rehearsals. By the time we get to opening night, I won’t say I’m over it, but I tend not to well up with pride at watching something I’ve written. It happens that third or fourth time you do something and the actors know it very well, suddenly commit to it, and it takes flight. And you think, “Wow, we did that. We got it right.” That’s the moment I like best.