Nowadays, it’s pretty much taken for granted that music about “the war” will take a negative attitude towards the quoted item. But that was not always the case in this country. Well into a lucrative songwriting career, Irving Berlin was drafted at the age of 29 to fight in World War I. In exchange for being able to sleep through reveille at boot camp, he promised his commander that he would write songs for a revue to be performed by enlisted men. (Additionally, he made sergeant and avoided active duty). Yip! Yip! Yaphank! (full title: Uncle Sam Presents Yip Yip Yaphank, A Military “Mess” Cooked Up by the Boys of Camp Upton) was premiered on August 19, 1918. This past weekend, American Classics produced the first revival performance, on April 18 at Longy’s Pickman Hall.
The format of this show, while typical of its time, will surprise anyone whose understanding of American musical theater centers on Rodgers & Hammerstein. Yaphank! has no story, or even recurring characters. It’s a series of songs (mostly) connected by the theme of war. They’re sung by a chorus with occasional soloists. As staged by American Classics, 10 singers were onstage with a pianist, trumpet player, and drummer (Joe Della Penna, Andrew Cormier, and Dean Groves, respectively). They wore army-styled garb and pulled occasional props out from under their chairs. Bob Jolly served as the “interlocutor,” providing context to the songs and the original staging. (This was particularly necessary when one song introduced a series of specialty acts.) He blended a little with the action, acting as a comic foil.
The subject matter of the songs was incredibly broad. Love songs to the ladies of soldiers (“I’m Gonna Pin My Medal on the Girl I Left Behind”), mock-tributes to alcohol subsitutes (“Bevo”), drag-parodies of the Ziegfield Follies, requests to President Wilson to send jazz bands overseas to entertain the troops, autobiography on army life (“Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”), jingoistic attacks on the Germans (“The Devil Has Bought Up All the Coal” — “He’s piling it up by the ton / And, oh, what he’ll do to that Hun” — the Kaiser, naturally, once he gets to hell), true-tributes to those on KP (“Against his wishes / He scrubs the dishes / To make this wide world safe for democracy”). “God Bless America” — originally written for the show, but kept in the proverbial drawer for 20 years — was added as an encore.
The tone is consistently light and flippant. There are abundant references to contemporary culture, which gives the show a throwaway feel (which is fair, as it was only intended to be performed the one time). It insists on being fun and entertaining (as was the case with most Broadway shows in the 1910’s). The cast was full of very fine singers, but they seemed too self-aware to embrace the ridiculousness that makes early Broadway what it is. And yet, there was something a little atypical about the original production. Remember that the original performers were enlisted men? When they finished, they marched off-stage, out of the theater, to a truck which brought them to Hoboken, and from there on a boat to France. Now that’s theater.