Show of Force

In the campaign to bolster troop morale, the military deploys a tactical weapon: The songs of Saturday Night Fever

Army public affairs specialist Ken Plant describes The U.S. Army Soldier Show as a "Broadway-style musical." Yet it is difficult to imagine what the target audience for such a production might be among the troops. Perhaps, I speculated, the show is a clever way of tiptoeing around the "don't ask, don't tell" regulation: If a GI comes out of the auditorium delightedly humming about the Rum-Tum-Tugger being a serious cat--whomp! Into the stockade.

In fact, Plant was overselling the production. Comprising extended medleys of 50 popular songs and little else, the show is far closer to what you might find aboard a Disney cruise ship than along the Great White Way. But I am not enough of a tactician (or a sociologist) to make head or tail of the surgical strike that unfolded in the University of Minnesota's cavernous Northrop Memorial Auditorium this past Friday, as the show rolled in for a rare public performance. After sneaking into the section reserved for the sponsors (the VFW, maingate.com, and USPA & IRA Family Financial Planning), I was bewildered to find myself sitting next to a Japanese man named Fujita whose connection to the military was as nebulous as my own. I smiled at him, he smiled back at me, and then we turned to watch the maneuvers without comprehension.

I had a slight advantage over Fujita in that I had spoken to several of the performers before the show: Sgt. Myra Austin, Pfc. Carmilia Davis, Spc. Brian Dosch, Spc. Krisandra Jackson, and Transportation NCOIC Ssg. Karla Thomas. They are a young, eager group, and they hold themselves with that sort of stiff-shouldered formality that is impossible for civilians to reproduce. Dwarfed by the hangar-sized stage of the Northrop, the soldiers explain that they've come from Army bases that are scattered to the four winds: Fort Lewis, Washington; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Huachuaca, Arizona. And further afield, too: Some have transferred from Korea and Germany, having responded to a general call for auditions. They've left their positions as 77F2HH7 Petroleum Supply NCO, or 71D Legal Specialist, or 27X3H Patriot Intermediate Maintenance Repairer to sing and dance onstage in front of other soldiers. Save for a few shows like this one at the Northrup, which are meant for the general public, The Soldier Show plays in gymnasiums and civic centers for other enlisted GIs and veterans.

The soldiers I meet have all had experience performing--"in church choir," they universally answer--as well as some credits in regional musical theater. Sergeant Austin has taken the stage with a female vocal group called Pure Essence. She, along with the others, speaks of pursuing a career as a performer after leaving the army--a career choice that would necessarily be easier than the Soldier Show, which sounds every bit as grueling as basic training.

The cast of 18 is, for the most part, its own tech crew: They must mobilize the show's sound and lighting systems, which takes most of a day, and after performing they must disassemble it. The soldiers talk fondly about a forthcoming four-day leave--the only such break during their six-month tour. And this is the first year such a vacation has been granted.

Even the auditions seem like they could induce shell shock. Typical actors find themselves nauseated at being asked to do a cold reading during an audition, but these soldiers were required to pass a Class A inspection and a physical training test, in which failure to wear a uniform properly or do a set number of pushups could cost them the role. Out of the massive work force that is the United States Army, this audition process has uncovered performers who are experienced at musical theater, physically fit, briskly efficient, and uncommonly tidy.

And what use does the U.S. military make of these special forces? With 50 songs, The U.S. Army Soldier Show covers a great deal of musical ground, such as...a medley from Saturday Night Fever?! Yes, an extended medley, including "Stayin' Alive," "Jive Talkin'," and "Night Fever." This is followed by boogie-woogie cowboy songs, a soldier performing an elaborate (and technically proficient) human beatbox routine into his microphone, and a celebration of boy bands that includes songs from the Temptations, the Osmonds, the Jackson Five, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, the Backstreet Boys, and (let me catch my breath!) 'N Sync.

This is a lot to try to make sense of, and I found myself nothing less than baffled on Friday while searching the stage for clues that would help me comprehend the meaning of it all. The Backstreet Boys? Has boot camp given way to plain old camp? What did it mean when the male soldiers sang love songs to the females (dressed in Oriental and Eastern European garb), begging them, "Give a soldier half an hour"? Could it be that everybody who works on this project is oblivious to the subtext of prostitution?

They are oblivious, I am certain: The U.S. Army Soldier Show is no more an exploration of the contradictions of the American military now than it was when it began in the second decade of the 20th Century, when Irving Berlin organized conscripted performers to sing that they "hate to get up" for reveille. The intention of this operation, as one of the performers told me, is "morale."

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