Yank! Hits the Stage

3.29.2010

By Michael Luongo


It can be hard, at first, to tell the difference between Joe and David Zellnik, two gay brother playwrights behind Yank!, a musical about gay soldiers who fall in love in World War II, which made its off-Broadway debut at the York Theatre Company in February.
David, 38, writes the songs while Joe, 40, writes the music -- and they say they've never been competitive about anything. Except coming out to their parents.

'David always beats me at these things,' was Joe's big complaint about that Saturday before Mother's Day in 1990. Joe, home for two days from Duke, was mulling the decision. David, a New York University freshman, simply came home and announced it immediately to his mother. 'We came out at the same time to each other, and to our mother,' Joe said, adding that David ran upstairs and came out to his father for the both of them.

Still the clues were there all along -- from Mommie Dearest imitations to stealing their sister Miriam's Barbies.

To sit with the two as they talk about their lives and work is like being with a long-married couple. Turns of the head and eye glances balance their conversation and comments. Coming out to their parents was not much of a problem, says Joe. 'They said they knew one of us was gay, but they disagreed on which one.' The two describe their mother, Laura, as an Auntie Mame who wanted the children, born in New York City, but raised in Cherry Hill, N.J., to think of themselves as living in exile. She was, David says, like 'Mama Rose yelling at her own inner Gypsy.' When Joe decided to quit piano lessons, he recalls, his mother climbed under the kitchen table and threatened to stay there until he changed his mind. 'She was there for a good three hours.'

Beyond honing their talent, their mother made sure that her dream of seeing their work on stage became reality. 'She bankrolled the first production of Yank! in 2005,' says Joe. 'It was a showcase production and she was in an assisted living facility, so it was not like it was money she had. She could not have been more supportive.'

She died the next year. Their father, Herbert, had died in 2000, the same year David began research that would form Yank!, inspired by Allan B'rub's 1990 book Coming Out Under Fire, about gay men and women fighting World War II. The first staging was at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival, before a run at Brooklyn's Gallery Players.

The brothers had collaborated before, on First in Flight, a children's musical about the Wright Brothers, and City of Dreams, about fin-de-si'cle Vienna, from which their family fled the Nazis.

Yank! takes its name from a World War II magazine produced, according to David, 'for the soldiers by the soldiers [telling] the story of the war from the soldier's point of view.' The name was also 'also a racy double entendre.'

The story is told through Stu, a photographer for Yank! afraid of being discovered as gay. He falls in love with Mitch, a more conventionally masculine soldier.

'People always ask if the story is real or if the story is fictional,' Joe says. 'I say the story is fictional; the character, Stu, is fictional; but none of the things that happen to him are fictional.'

The brothers hope the play sheds light on a period that laid the foundation for Stonewall by allowing gay men from across the country to find each other and establish themselves in the large coastal cities in the war's aftermath. More than 60 years later, with the United States embroiled in two wars and 'don't ask, don't tell' making front-page news, Yank! offers an elegant and long overdue meditation on the sacrifices of an earlier generation of gay servicemen, whose role in World War II demands to be viewed with dignity and respect.

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