NEW YORK CITY: When actor Sandra W. Lee talks about theatre, it’s in emphatic, passionate terms. “It literally saved my life,” she says. She’s not exaggerating. Lee is an Iraq War veteran and a former Army staff sergeant. While overseas, she was struck by roadside bombs on four different occasions, leading to traumatic brain injury, and she was sexually assaulted while on a mission. Upon returning home, she had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress and suffered from depression. “I was finding myself not being able to work,” she recalls. “It was very, very difficult to concentrate.”
How did she survive? After receiving a proper diagnosis and receiving treatment, she became an actor. “It was the theatre and the people in the theatre that really saved me,” she says. “If it weren’t for them, I’d be homeless. I probably would have killed myself. It was really a very dark time.”
The theatre in question was Diamond Head Theatre in Honolulu, Hawaii. “There were days where I wouldn’t eat and shower or anything, but they’d pop over and force me to shower or eat something,” she says.
You’d hardly guess her past by looking at her today. Recently she sang Frank Loesser songs on a cold January night on the Intrepid, the maritime museum in New York City, as part of the military-themed musical Blueprint Specials, presented by Waterwell and the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Loesser—along with book writer Arnold M. Auerbach, choreographer Jose Limon, and costumer Mary Percy Schenck—wrote the short revues to be performed by the Army to boost morale during World War II. In the recent revivial, military veterans, including Lee, performed alongside Broadway stars, like headliners Laura Osnes and Will Swenson.
For Lee, a show like Blueprint Specials is proof that there is more to veterans than trauma. “For civilians to see veterans as artists, they see another face to them—they don’t just see soldier or ex-soldier,” says Lee. “There’s a lot of stigma when you say someone is a war veteran. They see an Iraq war veteran and think, ‘Oh they must have PTSD.’”
The chance to show another side of wartime experience is what drew Lee to the show. “It was great for the audience to see that a veteran may have trauma or PTSD, but they can see that I’m still a functioning person,” she says. “I’m an actor, I’m also a singer. I can dance mostly. I do other things, I am other things. I’m a human.”
The new revival of Blueprint Specials was inspired by a Wikipedia article, according to its director Tom Ridgely. “I just Googled Frank Loesser and in this Wikipedia page, at the time it was a sentence, it said that he went to the Army and wrote a musical for the Army called Hi, Yank!,” he says. Hi, Yank! had not been performed since World War II. Later, with some more sleuthing, Ridgely discovered that Hi, Yank! was written for a series of revues, collectively called the Blueprint Specials.
“They called it the Blueprint Specials because they gave out blueprints for the whole show,” says Ridgely. “It was the set, the scripts, the orchestrations, and then there were drawings for how to construct scenery, costumes, and the props out of material that soldiers would conceivably have lying around out in the field.”
A sample blueprint had instructions for how to make a female costume using a “G.I. shirt with yellow crepe paper ruffle down front and back, wide enough at top to cover pockets, tapering to waist.”
Ridgely took the revues to his artistic partner, actor Arian Moayed; the two are the cofounders of the theatrical ensemble Waterwell. “The use of these musicals was a way to help them cope through all the atrocities that they’re seeing,” explains Moayed, the show’s executive producer. “That’s a profound statement that could be utilized in today’s military: to use art as a way of coping with the atrocities of war. The downside of war is something that is rarely talked about anymore. At the time, 70 some odd years ago, that was the coping mechanism, and that idea in itself was really profound.”
Waterwell had previously been working on a contemporary musical adaptation of Sophocles’s Ajax geared towards military veterans, but with Blueprint Specials, they happened upon a more interesting idea. “When theatre pays attention to the military at all, it’s about how awful it is for the people who have to deal with it,” explains Ridgely.
While stories of trauma and re-acclimating to civilian life can be dramatically interesting, those aren’t the only veteran tales worth telling. “It’s a minority of veterans who feel that way,” adds Ridgely. “It even widens the sort of military/civilian divide in the arts, because it’s only telling one specific story.”
By contrast, Blueprint Specials tells a story these artists had not heard before, about the ins and outs of the military—everything from how you get your uniform to how women and men are supposed to treat each other. “It’s really about how someone goes from being not a military person to being a military person,” says Ridgely.
Blueprint Specials combined the four scripts that Waterwell was able to track down (P.F.C. Mary Brown, Hi, Yank!, About Face, and OK, USA). In fact, two were in the basement of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. “It wasn’t even in the New York Public Library system—they didn’t even realize they possessed this,” exclaims Ridgely. Waterwell’s production marked the first time those scripts have been staged since 1945, and their first performance for non-military audiences. The sketch-like show was tied together by an overarching story from P.F.C. Mary Brown, about a Greek goddess who comes down from Olympus to enlist in the Army.
When casting, Waterwell prioritized veterans and didn’t require acting experience. From day one, both professional and nonprofessional performers were on equal footing. Choreography, for example, was led by a choreographer and a drill sergeant. “The experiences that you have in the military, they might be different in the sense that, they may involve theatres of war, things that the average person isn’t doing every day,” says Robert Soto, a former Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “In an odd way, it’s kind of the same with the theatre world. When you bring those two worlds together, I think they both require discipline, they both require hard work, they both require you to work together.” He describes the show as a “mission.”
Soto is currently studying political science at Columbia University and wants to pursue acting after he graduates. To him, theatre about the military experience is a way to help lessen the gulf between veterans and civilians. In forcing actors and audience members to travel to the far west side of Manhattan for the show, and walk through the Intrepid—past the full-sized airplanes and walls of steel—Soto imagines they were made them feel like they were a part of the military themselves, watching shows that were put together by their comrades.
“I think it allows people to start actually asking questions, and it allows veterans to start speaking up about their experience,” says Soto. “When people start doing that, we start to see what we do have in common, and I think that can start to bring the two worlds together.”
Though Blueprint Specials ran for just six performances, Waterwell is currently in discussions with venues nationwide to remount it. In the meantime, they’re working on a cast album of the Blueprint Specials to make sure the music and the show are not forgotten again.
In the meantime, for Lee, working on Blueprint Specials was a way to integrate her old life in the Army with her life now. “It made me really want to reconnect with other veterans again and other military people,” she explains. In fact, this summer, she is performing in a devised piece about female soldiers called We Cry Havoc. “For a long time, I kept them at a distance, I didn’t want to be part of anything military-related. Some of the veterans felt similarly. This show has helped them embrace that part of their life.”