THIS IS THE ARMY
On July 4, 1942, Irving Berlin’s all-soldier musical This is the Army opened on Broadway before touring the US, making an Oscar-winning Hollywood film, playing the London Palladium, and visiting the front lines of World War II.
On Veterans Day 2017, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of this troupe of Broadway soldiers who became the first racially integrated US Army unit, had openly gay soldiers who risked military prison, and avoided brushes with death as they brought their vaudeville show to the war’s most dangerous combat zones.
HuffPost "as it turns out, This is the Army remains a morale booster today for very different reasons"
Newsday "10 best things to do this weekend"
Forbes "really interesting to see the history, see the struggles and military issues, the issues of race we still talk about now"
Playbill "this concert presentation will weave songs from the musical with a behind-the-curtain story of the soldiers involved"
BroadwayWorld "many performers were bringing their talents to the battlefields, but there was nothing else like the logistics of bringing a full-scale Broadway show to the front lines"
Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Jason Ferguson
Based on “The Songwriter Goes to War” by Alan Anderson
Presented by special arrangement with Rodgers and Hammerstein
Directed and Produced by Jason Ferguson
Musical Direction by Daniel M. Lincoln
Excerpt from Barry Singer's review of
'This Is the Army' at 54 Below
"The revived This is the Army possessed a new book written (as well as produced and directed) by one Jason Ferguson, a young theatrical with an intriguing resume: mounter of plays in offbeat settings around London (a room over a pub, an old train tunnel), also an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director apparently, and a bit of a social media savant.
Ferguson’s concert version wedged Berlin’s originally massive musical onto Feinstein’s tight nightclub stage with a cast of six and a five piece band. Reductionist, however, it was not. Utilizing as it’s source material a charmingly candid memoir, The Songwriter Goes to War, written by This is the Army’s original stage manager, Alan Anderson, the hour-long production explored the show’s backstory while giving full voice to Berlin’s legendary score. Knockout renditions of, among others, “This is the Army, Mr. Jones,” “God Bless America” and “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” were delivered by performers standing in for Alan Anderson, Kate Smith and Mr. Berlin himself (Tommy McDowell, Ally Bonino and James Penca, respectively), while also illuminating lesser-known gems from the score like “What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear” (well put over by Elijah Caldwell).
Mostly, though, the new version dwelled on what, in retrospect, may be the most compelling aspect of This is the Army: its ground-breaking offstage social engineering. Many African-American performers populated the original cast, thus creating, by default, the only integrated military unit in America’s fiercely segregated armed forces. The equality and independence of that unit was preserved, protected and defended by Berlin personally against the racism of superior officers, who would not permit black and white soldiers to perform together onstage. Offstage, at least, Berlin demanded they be free to fraternize, travel and bunk together. The Army grudgingly acceded.
This is the Army’s cast of showbiz soldiers also inevitably numbered quite a few who were homosexual. Again protected by Berlin, they were free, if they chose, to come out, within the company’s confines. Many did, the first openly gay soldiers in U.S. military history.
These facts were nicely dramatized by the new production without over-statement. In fact, they proved unexpectedly moving, both for me and for my daughters, Lea and Sara, ages 14 and 12, who dug the great songs in This is the Army but really leaned forward with special empathetic attention when the plight of the show’s black and gay original cast members was touched upon. It made This is the Army matter in a way that nether Winston Churchill nor Irving Berlin could have imagined.
Berlin intended the show as a morale booster for the Allies and their soldiers. He would ultimately donate every penny that This is the Army grossed to the Army Emergency Relief Fund — more than $2 million (over $30 million today). As it turns out, This is the Army remains a morale booster today for very different reasons. What went on in front of the curtain seems secondary to the breakthroughs behind the scenes. It’s a shame, really, that Winston Churchill did not get to ask Irving Berlin questions he actually was equipped to answer; questions about his show, This is the Army. That might have turned into quite a conversation." - Barry Singer, Huffington Post