As London welcomes LGBT+ war-time love story Yank! to the Charing Cross Theatre, writers Joseph and David Zellnik on why its place in the city is key for this 50th anniversary year.
When we started writing our musical Yank! in the early 2000s, you couldn’t serve openly in the US military as an LGBTQ soldier, and for a politician, backing marriage equality was a losing proposition. At that moment in time, it felt vital to be working on a piece that focused on the experiences of the gay men and women who served during World War 2 – history that was not just overlooked but had been actively erased.
To be clear, first and foremost, YANK! is a love song to the Broadway musicals of 1940s, the exuberant pop music of the era, and the grit and romance of classic wartime movies…but it is also an attempt to stitch queer stories back into the larger narrative of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ Which, of course, makes the show political too. It’s political to write a sexy tap number where a gay 19-year-old learns the secret rituals for finding ‘guys like him’. It’s political to write a swoony, lyrical ballad about a couple settling down in a little house after the war, but to make it about two men.
Perhaps because of this, YANK! has granted us a unique vantage point to observe as the political and cultural winds have shifted in America. We watched a walkout during the kiss at the first public performance of YANK! in 2005 – Why is it that gay romance seems to offend bigots more than gay sex? Yet by the 2010 Off-Broadway run, no one walked out and audiences’ had grown more diverse.
Now here we are in 2017, in the U.K., ready to open the most beautiful version of the musical yet and, in some ways, living in a world that’s never been better for LGBTQ people: in both America and the U.K., we can now openly serve in the military and marriage equality is the law of the land.
It was presumably with this thought in mind that a friend asked us, as we were packing our bags in New York, a surprising question: “But guys, don’t you wonder if the show is still, you know, relevant?”
The question took us aback because YANK! is what is has always been – a story about the two scariest things we can imagine: going to war and falling in love for the first time, something relevant for everyone, gay straight and in between.
But that’s not why David answered: “Yes. It is.”
In a world where intolerance is on the rise, where there are powerful forces who want to return to some earlier imagined ‘better’ era, Yank! matters. In a world where facts are losing ground to hateful fictions, telling the forgotten story of how gay men and lesbians not only fought with honour in WW2, but found each other in large numbers (a circumstance that – after the war – created the gay culture and communities that made the liberation of the 60s and 70s possible), YANK! matters.
And so, while it’s been fifty years since the decriminalisation of gay sex in the U.K. and the bigots have moved on to some new targets (and some old standbys), we believe that telling this history and this story remains a vital act.
YANK! is a reminder of a terrifying time of struggle that is happily behind us…but it also tells a sweet, funny, unabashedly romantic story about finding courage within yourself that you didn’t suspect was there.
And that’s something that will never date.
Joseph and David Zellnik