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. Yip! Yip! Yaphank! was premiered on August 19, 1918. This past weekend, American Classics produced the first revival performance, on April 18 at Longy’s Pickman Hall.
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.
The subject matter of the songs was incredibly broad.: love songs to the ladies, mock-tributes to alcohol, drag-parodies of the Ziegfield Follies, requests to President Wilson to send jazz bands overseas to entertain the troops, autobiography on army life, jingoistic attacks on the Germans … “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). 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.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. [Click title for full review.]
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