BLUE PRINT SPECIALS:
THE US ARMY DID SOMETHING GOOD!
I'm learning about Victory Discs, ok, fine. Then! Along comes a History Detectives piece about THIS awesomeness right here: During WWII, aside from the whole USO wonder and in addition to the (untold and mostly forgotten) Victory Disc Program kerfuffle, the government also? Assigned likely soldiers to create Do-it-yourself musical theater kits. Per the US Army:
Likely lads filled a box with everything needed for soldiers to perform a show for their fellows, and the boxes were shipped off to corners of the globe the USO couldn’t reach. The kit, arriving in the mail call, contains [insert jazz hands] A Show!, and includes a rundown of production staff needed and their jobs descriptions, a score, orchestra parts, script, sketches and instructions to build the sets, costumes and lighting -- and this bit is key -- all drawn from stuff a fellow could find in the mess, his footlocker or the trash. I imagine the box arriving and tap shoes flying out.
For my part, I can't believe I didn't know about this. It's such a great story, and it just got tossed into the dustbin of time.
Nowadays, we curate long before anyone cares; we curate as a matter of course and with no regard for the objective quality of the preserved item. Song books are published before a single tune from the album has hit the charts or shown itself to be long-term worthwhile; every movie that made any money has a 'Director's Cut' and an 'Anniversary Edition' -- everything is presumed to be valuable. Tchotchkes, churned out by the millions, are "collectors' items".
Time was, nobody thought anyone would ever give a damn for the debris that littered the floor of the imagination, the bits and pieces that'd make a whole greater than the sum of the parts. Disney's artists' sketches of Mickey and Pluto were crumpled and trampled underfoot after the cells went to animation. Celluloid was tossed out with the office garbage. More where that came from. Like the Romans burning what they decided were obsolete items in those ancient libraries, to heat the baths.
There really ought to be a middle ground, she muttered in an aside to nobody. Guess what? We totally give a damn. This is some seriously charming shit, right here.
"Blueprint Specials" were, so far my consciousness is concerned, discovered by that PBS television show. History Detectives' reporting included the information that the Army assigned appropriate soldiers, stationed stateside, to create these DIY shows: musical theater titan Private Frank Loesser and film composer Lt. Alex North (of “Spartacus” and "Streetcar Named Desire" fame) were among the mostly uncredited soldiers who built these productions, and that particular pair collaborated more than once. History Detectives unearthed a production called “Hi, Yank!” and, further, they produced a playbill -- the show was evidently performed in Italy, by a troupe of soldiers for other soldiers, in June, 1944.
The PBS journalists also unearthed some audio and I discovered that the New York Public Library has scores on reserve. So I took myself down there to to put my eyes on things; I thought I'd extract and arrange a sample, to see how it stands on its feet. Well, Blueprint Specials sure as hell stand on their feet, but it gets better. After I surrendered my coat, bag, phone, ID and a DNA swab (nah), I was admitted to a special room at Lincoln Center, and I got photographic evidence of very big amounts of Wondrous Things.
They filled my arms with three complete Blueprint Specials. The NYPL folio contains Ok USA, PFC Mary Brown (A WAC Blueprint Special), and About Face! Flipping in a gingerly way through the books, I find a very organized Do-It-Yourself Musical Theater Kit. The first few pages contain the Standard Operating Procedures.
The SOP summarizes the job descriptions of the Program Director, the Music Director, the Drama Director, the Technical Director and the Publicity Director, and includes almost valuable piece of instruction...
I feel safe speaking for all performers when I say that the US Army should air-drop this bit on leaflets over every theater, opera house and concert hall in the nation.
The scripts are classic Loesser-brand clever. They contain bits like these:
"Where have you been and why are you limping?"
"I just got back from maneuvers and my corns are killing me."
"Well, sit down and take your shoes off."
"I can't sit down."
"I was out with the cavalry. Where do you think my corns are?"
"Mmm, Delicious. What is it?"
"A little something of my own, I call it SOS a la Yardbird...it's nothing much, really. You just boil some old rubber heels, chop up a barracks bag or two, and add pepper."
"How much pepper?"
"Just a pinch. Half a barrel or so."
Hey. The right delivery, and this will kill.
There are lead sheets, and a conductor's score, plus orchestra parts; not to mention instructions to carefully remove the staples binding the parts, to protect the scores so they can be returned to the War Department undamaged.
The kit includes sketches of sets and costumes, alongside instructions for construction....
There's a sample program and a closing questionnaire, which is extra cool...the questionnaire, meant to be sent back to the Special Services Division, asks the user to detail which numbers or scenes worked most and least well.
The back cover of the book includes instructions on the form to submit to order a show sent, along with reviews (I have as yet an unsatisfied curiosity regarding when Variety and The New York Times saw these pieces)....
Here, though, is The Kicker:
As I'm reading the script of About Face, (feeling almost.... reverent, which is not typically in my emotional wheelhouse), all 'bwa' at the jokes, I see A Numbah! called "Why Do They Call a Private a Private?" It tickles my brains. So I switch over, find it in the parts, and hunt down the singer's sheet. The tune doesn't do anything for me, so hmm. I take extra pictures of it, and then figure I'll Google it later and see what the deal is there. Thinking it'll be nothing much, surely. But then! I get home, ask the oracle, and discover that The fantastic, the incomparable Ethel Merman recorded the song!
But wait, there's more! Because Jesus really does love me (in spite of what really must seem like constant provocation): Ethel didn't just record a song from a Blueprint Special. No,
This right here is what we showbiz types call FULL CIRCLE, BABY.
I charted it, easy as pie (Thanks, I-Pad Camera!), and I sang it. I went around a little on how, exactly, to sing it, and in the end I decided it's such an old-fashioned piece...so evocative of a moment, that I will not intervene, vocally. No cute arrangements; I will do as the Romans did. Now, I would never presume to mimic Ethel Merman. But I will sing as I would were I auditioning for an "Ethel Merman Role". The distinction is specific and particular, and while I was never a Real Belter, I gave it the ol'college try....
Stage 72, New York City, July/August 2013, with Hayes Greenfield & Tom Hubbard