One in three veterans is diagnosed with serious post-traumatic stress symptoms, according to ptsdusa.org. They cope in a myriad of ways. Some befriend service dogs, some sign up for psychiatry sessions, some pursue higher education.
But, a brand new Broadway show called "Bandstand" is proving that music can be a just as effective form of therapy in a serviceman or woman's life when they return from duty.
"Bandstand," from director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, takes place in 1945 and follows a group of veterans as they come home from the war. Intrigued by a national talent contest, the friends decide to try their luck and form a band.
I had the chance to chat with the play's leading man, Corey Cott, just a few days after the cast’s energetic performance at the 2017 Tony’s last weekend. Cott, who stars as Bandstand's Donny Novitski, beamed about how the show honors our bravest men and women.
“For me it’s been intensely personal,” he shared.
Cott’s father was in the Air Force, once even earning the Top Gun award for his effectiveness in flying A-10 bombers.
Cott’s not the only 'Bandstand' star who has a connection to the military, however. Every person in the cast, he said, is related to a vet. They even have a veterans’ wall in the theater and take care to dedicate each show to a vet.
“At the end of the day we’re telling their story and as actors there’s nothing we could ever do to pretend or understand what they’ve gone through – especially combat vets,” he said. “We feel like it’s our duty to honor them in any way possible. Even beyond doing our show.”
The veterans in the audience feel the love. Cott explained how he and his fellow actors have sat and cried together with vets who have seen the show. A must have feature of each performance is when the cast asks any vets in the audience to stand up or raise their hands to be recognized. On D-Day, the cast even brought a group of veterans up onstage to take a bow.
The vets are “emotionally satisfied” after watching the show, Cott said. They feel like it's a "safe space to come and laugh with us."
The show does have its funny moments, but it also doesn’t shy away from the heaviness of PTSD and other combat issues.
The producers' dedication to getting veterans' stories right is obvious by its Got Your 6 certification. Got Your 6 is a non-profit group that works to integrate accurate portrayals of veteran life in popular culture. It is the first time a Broadway show has earned the group's recognition.
Cott explained how the cast and creators consulted with Got Your 6 on the script and asked honest questions. For example, Cott recalls asking one executive if he had lost anyone in combat and how he dealt with that grief?
Cott says he brings those moments into his performance in the show because his character Donny has gone through similar situations. Donny and his fellow vets first use alcoholism, prescription pills, and anger to deal with depression.
The cure? Swing music.
“Music is the driving force that allows them to cope,” Cott explained.
The music itself, specifically the harmonies and lyrics, is “incredibly healing,” he noted. In fact, many organizations today use music to help vets deal with their anxiety by expressing, releasing, or escaping from the feelings that weigh heavy on their minds and hearts.
At this point, Cott was apt to mention that 'Bandstand' is a far cry from old Hollywood, which he says did not adequately portray the extent of what veterans were dealing with.
“Our country glossed over a lot of what they’re going through,” he said. “Our play exposes the typical MGM musical format of the idea of the three sailors coming off the boat and on the town and just having a grand old time in the city for a day and then going back.”
Of course, Cott was referencing the classic Frank Sinatra film "On the Town," which features the upbeat balled, “New York, New York.”
“Our show goes, ‘no what was this really like?’” Cott explained. “What were these guys coming back and seeing their friends’ heads ripped off and seeing their friends’ arms ripped off and dealing with survivor’s guilt and dealing with abuse. What does that do to a person?”
Another challenge for the show, Cott relayed, was how to convey feelings in choreographed routines that veterans are often hesitant to share?
Judging by how "Bandstand" fared at last Sunday's Tony's, it appears that the play does a fine job answering those questions. The show picked up the award for best choreography, under the direction of Blankenbuehler, who before "Bandstand" choreographed a little show called "Hamilton."
Dr. Jill Biden introduced the troupe with a beautiful speech dedicated to our veterans. Cott commended her for "uniting" everyone with her words, instead of using her time onstage to spew partisan political views.
“Helping vets is not a partisan issue,” he said. “That is something we should all be doing.”
Cott and the rest of the cast were backstage waiting to perform while Biden made her remarks. He said it was unlike anything he’s ever experienced.
“We were just so high – it felt like we were riding on the top of Empire State building,” he recalled. “It was absolutely incredible.”
Watch their performance below for a sneak peek at what this talented cast brings to New York's Bernard B. Jacobs Theater every week. Tickets on sale now.