I’m sitting in “On the Town” rehearsals watching young couples fall in love in wartime 40s New York, and all I can think about are my grandparents. My grandparents were married in 1945. My grandfather was enlisted in the air force. He had just finished bombardier school and had three days leave before being sent to radar training school in Arizona.
They got married. In the Bronx. It was raining. Everyone said the rain was lucky. They had one night in the hotel they were married in before they both left for Arizona, and then Texas. The rain really was lucky; by the time he finished radar school the war was over. He was never deployed.
But just like the sailors in “On the Town,” there is no way my grandparents could have known what lay ahead. I can’t imagine the sense of urgency and immediacy that must have overshadowed their wedding. The sailors in the show have 24 hours in NYC before they get back on the boat, and neither they, nor we, nor their newfound loves have any idea where that boat is going.
On the first day of rehearsal, John Rando sat the cast down to talk about the show. He spoke about how Leonard Bernstein famously said that most of the art in the 20th century came out of despair. Despair and hope. This show is a piece of that historical memory. Rando spoke about why we have to tell this story…that it is a reminder of the price of freedom and the price of love. These sailors are fighting against tyranny and oppression, but in order to do that they must make a huge sacrifice. They must leave the women they have come to love.
Two days later, I’m walking to rehearsal and the streets of Pittsfield are lined with hundreds of people holding American flags. A soldier from Dalton, the next town over, has been killed fighting in Afghanistan. His body is being carried in a processional on the way to the church for a funeral service and mourners are lining the streets out of respect. He was 24 and leaves behind a young wife. I’m working on On the Town, a happy and fun musical that celebrates the lives of our enlisted instead of mourning them, that shows the hope and optimism and love that these people had. And I realize that I’ve been thinking about everything in a 1940s mindset, not thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan and the fact that we are still in the midst of two wars. This town’s grief pulls me back to modern times.
I just worked on “An Iliad” in Boston with Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. There is a moment in the show where the poet is listing heroes from the Peloponnesian War and turns to the audience to remark, “Who’s the biggest war hero now?” The audience is silent. We no longer celebrate war heroes like they did in ancient times. Half the time people forget that we’re even at war. We forget the men and women that fight every day to ensure our freedoms. But the people of Pittsfield haven’t forgotten; for them these wars are very real, and the wounds are fresh.
And that’s why doing this show is so important. Doing this show, right here, right now. In Pittsfield, MA as they continue to mourn the loss of Army Spec Mitchell Daehling. Because as John Rando said on that first day of rehearsal, it is a reminder of the price of freedom. Through song and dance and love and happiness, we remember all they were willing to give up for a better world.
The sailors getting on that boat don’t know if they will never hold their loved ones again, like the fallen Pittsfield soldier, or if they’ll be lucky like my grandparents and have a rich loving full life together. But they get back on the boat either way. They get back on that boat so that we can have the same song and dance and love and happiness that they just did.
In the original production, the show opened with the Star-Spangled Banner. It wasn’t until later that an overture was added. John Rando has put the national anthem back where it belongs. Reminding us of what we are fighting for and why those soldiers get back on the boat. And just how much we have to thank them for.
“Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”