Blueprint Specials: Soldier Musicals

by Michael S. Eddy

Did you know that Frank Loesser wrote musicals for the Army? Not seen since 1945 – and never staged for an American stateside audience, the newly rediscovered Blueprint Specials: Soldier Musicals were the talk of the NY theater community earlier this year. The Blueprint Specials are a missing piece of both theater and military history, that again demonstrate the importance of the theater arts as a way for soldiers to express themselves.

Written by composer Frank Loesser, along with book writer Arnold M. Auerbach, choreographer José Limón, and costumer Mary Percy Schenck, the shows were all but forgotten until a single sentence on Loesser’s Wikipedia page intrigued Waterwell co-founder and director, Tom Ridgely. It simply stated ‘He went to the Army and wrote a musical called Hi, Yank!. Ridgely discovered there had been a series of shows and found four of them – P.F.C. Mary Brown, Hi, Yank!, About Face, and OK, USA. Two of the shows were even discovered in the basement of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, who, because they weren’t in the library system, didn’t even know they had them.

Originally produced by the Special Services Division of the War Department, the series of plays from 1944 and 1945 were created with the intention of engaging active duty service members in ‘GI shows for GI audiences’. The revue style shows, were designed as ‘blueprints’ for soldiers to easily follow in the field as a way to boost morale. The Army packaged and distributed them as a complete script, with score and orchestrations, instructions for how to put on the show and included detailed drawings for how to construct scenery, costumes, and the props out of the materials soldiers would have available to them out in the field. The idea was to boost morale to troops fighting overseas. In areas that the USO shows could not reach, the Blueprint Specials let the troops entertain themselves.

This past January the Blueprint Specials were staged on the USS Intrepid in New York City by Waterwell in partnership with the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. The cast included military veterans along with Broadway stars, including Laura Osnes and Will Swenson. The success of the six sold-out performances has Waterwell looking at remounting the show in venues around the country. They are also working on a cast album to help share the music and ensure that the shows don’t get lost to history again.From the Archive of the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum