Thursday, March 29, 2007

The singing dancing Army Reserves

Watching those Army Reserve recruiting commercials during the NCAA tourney I couldn’t help thinking that must be a tough sell. But at least the USAR is farming out their campaign and not trying to do it in-house. They’ve tried that in the past. I was a part of one such brainstorm.

Staging a musical.

Back in the 70’s I was in an Armed Forces Radio Reserve unit (my draft number was 4) and to get reservists to re-enlist some General had the brilliant idea that maybe a stage show of singing, dancing weekend warriors with no training or talent would entice them to sign up for another six years. This same General had devised battle strategy for Viet Nam.

Our unit was assigned this task. A group of us had three days to write an entire musical. I wrote several sketches with fellow reservist Joel Siegel (Yes, the same Joel Siegel who reviews movies on GOOD MORNING AMERICA.) We chose a take-off of WEST SIDE STORY. Our songs included “Re-Up” (“I just met a soldier who re-upped…”), “I Feel Pity” (for anyone not making that extra forty dollars a month), “Officer Candidate”, “When You’re a Troop” (you’re a troop all the way, from your first cigarette till your last grade in pay), and “Somewhere” (“Sign your name and you’re halfway there, a pension waits and is yours to snare”) I still can’t look Stephen Sondheim in the eye. When the army says it will teach you a skill I never thought it would be soft-shoe in combat boots.

For the next THREE years five of us fighting thesps went around to reserve battalions on the west coast and performed this extravaganza, usually to crowds of 200 utterly mystified soldiers who sat wide-eyed with their jaws scraping the ground.

Today shows are preceded by an announcement to turn off your cellphones and beepers. Before our shows the audience was warned that hecklers would be disciplined. And even with the threat of having to scrub toilets with a toothbrush many were compelled to lob verbal grenades our way.

Once, in the middle of the “I Want to Serve in America” dance number, I remember thinking if we did this in Alabama they would storm the stage and kill us.

I guess the USAR figured the mens (sic) would respond to an all-star Bob Hope type USO show. They didn’t realize however, that there is a big difference between Ann Jillian (pictured right) and Ken Levine in a wig.

I’d say roughly 4,000 bewildered grunts saw this show performed. The number of troops who re-upped as a result? Zero.

As a result, the project was scrapped before we could “bring it in” to New York, as they say. It's one thing for a show to close in New Haven. But the 23rd Armory in El Centro?

It was very disappointing. The least a young man can expect after eight weeks of rigorous basic training is a Broadway career.

Oh well… I pass the baton and Ann Jillian wig to Madison Avenue. But if you decide the problem was not the idea but the show we selected, I’m happy to consult when you stage WICKED.


Anonymous said...

The show was doomed without having some lovely ladies up there.

The show should have been lovely ladies mingling with the audience and performing in VERY close proximity to them.

Like Tony and Tina's Wedding, but with handjobs.

That's how the SEC and Big 10 get recruits, so why not Uncle Sam.

VP81955 said...

But if you decide the problem was not the idea but the show we selected, I’m happy to consult when you stage WICKED.

No, no -- what you do is blend the two. Ladies and gentlemen, Kristin Chenoweth in "Private Benjamin ... the Musical!"

Anonymous said...

"For the next THREE years five of us fighting thesps went around to reserve battalions on the west coast and performed this extravaganza..."

Wow... and I thought John McCain suffered during the Vietnam War.

On the plus side it must have made any rejection you faced in Hollywood seem mild by comparison.

Are performers eligible for the Purple Heart?

Anonymous said...

What is it that George Carlin said about "Military Intelligence"?

Anonymous said...

Ken, I've enjoyed many a post of yours but that was..... beautiful.

The Curmudgeon said...

"[T]here is a big difference between Ann Jillian... and Ken Levine in a wig."

I should hope so.

For your family's sake, if nothing else.

Anonymous said...

Don't sell yourself short, Ken. I bet you look better in Ann Jillian's wigs than she does today.

By Ken Levine said...

You'd be surprised. Ann Jillian looks GREAT today. She truly does.

Anonymous said...

No offense meant. I know that Miss Jillian is a brave and classy lady. I was just going for the joke.

By Ken Levine said...

None taken. Hey, wait a minute, I'm NOT Ann Jillian, just her in a wig.

Anonymous said...

Nobody re-upped?

After reading that description, I'm surprised nobody defected.

Anonymous said...

Sangria... I just drank some booze called Sangriahhhhh. (hic)

Where do I enlist?

Anonymous said...

After reading this, I am even more convinced in the rightness of my belief in the fundimental strength of the United States, as it survived its most vulnerable period...when Ken Levine was given the responsibility of defending it.

And you don't have to feel ashamed in the presence of Sondheim...Stephen's done a few things he probably isn't proud of himself. For example, allowing GYPSY's "All I Need Is the Girl" to be rewritten, for performance as a duet by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello on an episode of HULLABALOO. Or licensing "Comedy Tonight" (from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) to Chrysler Corporation for use in Plymouth advertising. I can direct you to an aircheck on Reelradio where you can here them singing "Fury A Go-Go"

(not to mention his TOPPER scripts)

Anonymous said...

Did you ever write a M*A*S*H epidsode as funny or was it rejected as too unrealistic?

Maybe the problem was source material. SOUTH PACIFIC seems like more of a natural for a military show. You know--"Bloody carnage is the life I love (boom boom boom boom)"

Anonymous said...

When's the movie coming out?

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of the episode of MASH where Hawkeye, Trapper, Henry, and Hot Lips performed "My Blue Heaven" at a camp charity talent show. The audience, having endured the dreadful, off-key performance, stormed for the door when Henry yelled "One more time!"