The Zellnik brothers: ‘Yank! is a rare example of a show saved by a critic’

David and Joseph Zellnik

Musicals can take their time to reach an audience. Dreamgirls – a smash hit on Broadway when it premiered there in 1981 – took an astonishing 35 years to reach the West End. And London is yet to see the 2009 Pulitzer prize-winning Next to Normal, eight years on from its Broadway premiere.

But this year, a series of New York-born musicals are heading our way: An American in Paris, launched in Paris in 2014 ahead of a Broadway transfer in 2015, is now in previews prior to officially opening at the Dominion on March 21. Hamilton, which launched at Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre in February 2015 before opening on Broadway that August, is headed to the Victoria Palace in November. Those are relatively fast transfers; by contrast, The Life – Cy Coleman’s 1997 Broadway musical – comes to Southwark Playhouse next month, with the same director, Michael Blakemore, at the helm.

And this week, a musical that premiered Off-Broadway in 2010 also reached these shores, not in London, but at the increasingly enterprising, The Stage Awards-nominated Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. Yank! was originally workshopped under the auspices of the New York Musical Festival in 2005, and had an outing at a theatre in Brooklyn in 2007 before receiving an Off-Broadway production at York Theatre in 2010.

It subsequently announced a Broadway run, with co-producer Stuart Wilk stating in a press release at the time:

We’re thrilled with the entire run at the York – from the record-breaking advance sales to the sold-out run and extension, to the sensational critical and audience response. Now we’re eager to bring Yank! to an even larger audience. We’re encouraged by the success of other non-traditional musicals on Broadway. And while we’re not an overtly political musical, we’re mindful of “don’t ask, don’t tell” moving to the center of the national discussion. There has never been a better time on Broadway for a singing, dancing, tapping wartime love story that just happens to be about two GIs.

That production never, in fact, happened. Seven years later, the show has turned up in Manchester instead. Its co-writers are composer Joseph Zellnik and his younger brother, David. Both were born in New York (where they now live with their respective husbands) and grew up in New Jersey.

When I met them earlier this month, in a bakery and coffee shop on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, they told me how they both grew up singing songs from old musicals. As Joe puts it, he played the piano and David sang. “We would work our way through our mother’s sheet music. And one day we were singing Heather on the Hill from Brigadoon and I thought, could we write something like this, that uses charm and sweetness and light in this way?” This was around the turn of the millennium and, Joe notes, “Broadway felt very ironic at the time, with shows like The Producers and Urinetown.”

 David picks up the theme: “But what about shows like Carousel and Oklahoma! and The King and I and Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow? Those were the kind of shows we wanted to write.”

Joe interjects, “Those shows already exist, so there was no reason to write them again. Oklahoma! is still here. But what if we could write a show that they couldn’t write in the 1940s, but gave us a reason to write in this style? I came across this book called Coming Out Under Fire, which was about gay servicemen and women in the Second World War. David and I are both history buffs and we love World War II history, but we knew nothing about this. It had been completely erased.” 

Thus began their journey to write what would become Yank! “As we began writing and workshopping it, we discovered that the closer we hewed to the older musical models, the more subversive it became – by not putting quote marks round the gay stuff, to merely have two lovers singing a love song to each other who happened to be male, was a very Hammerstein sort of thought.”

A scene from Yank! at the Hope Mill Theatre. Photo: Anthony Robling

They’re equally sanguine about the long and still ongoing journey the show has taken to reach the American and now the British stage. “We originally did a very different version of the show for New York Musical Festival in 2005 for just six performances, but then we rewrote it completely,” explains David. That it went further happened to be thanks to the someone who had reviewed its NYMF run for a website. “The show is that rare thing where a theatre critic was the saviour of it – he’d loved it and approached us about 18 months later, to ask what was happening with the show. He was then artistic director of a small basement theatre in Brooklyn, the Gallery Players, and he wanted to do it there.”

Joe continues: “That got some Off-Broadway producers interested, but it took a couple of years for them to raise the money.” Then it opened at York Theatre, located in the basement of St Peter’s Church in the Citicorp building on Lexington Avenue, and a five-week initial season was extended to seven: “We could have run longer, but it was closed so we could take it to Broadway,” he adds.

Then followed another round of workshops and attempts to finance it. “We got very close twice before collapsing,” says David. “But it’s really a miracle that we got as far as we did. We’re not really known, and it’s a gay love story set during World War II without contemporary pop music.” Today, Joe adds, “I would have loved to have gotten to Broadway, but we knew the odds against when we went into this and trying to get there wasn’t wasted. I don’t regret at all the many reasons we tried to get there. First of all, the show is better now than it’s ever been – we have a great version now that’s better than it would have been; we would never have gone back and added new songs.”

In 2014, they realised that for the show to have a chance of any further productions, they needed to produce a cast album – and so they reconvened the Off-Broadway cast and went into the recording studio. As Joe points out, “We knew having an album would be the key, and that’s exactly how Katy Lipson [who is producing it in Manchester] found it, when someone passed the album to her.”

So now, finally, the show is receiving its British premiere. And they’re delighted it’s in Manchester rather than London: “It might have just got swallowed up in London and no one noticed it, but Manchester is more scrappy and can-do, so people may start paying attention,” hopes Joe. “This has always been the little show that could; it is yet to become the big show that has done. And that’s why Hope Mill feels really right.”