World War II from the perspective of American Musical Theatre

World War II from the perspective of American Musical Theatre

In September 1939, Nazi Germany attacked Poland, which quickly progressed into World War II. Originally, the United States decided to remain neutral, until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. At this point, the United States declared war on Japan, and in turn, Germany declared war on the United States, causing War World II to quickly grasp the nation in its claws. 

Assuming the citation (George Q. Flynn, The Draft, 1940–1973) is correct, 50 million men from 18 to 45 were registered for the World War II draft. The Selective Service statistics page gives the total inductions during WWII as 10,110,104, which would make the percentage around 20% were drafted based on registration. World War II was fought over differences left unresolved after World War I. Over 400,000 Americans perished in the four years of involvement in the war, an American death rate second only to the Civil War. Twelve million victims perished from Nazi atrocities in the Holocaust. Overall it was a dreadful period of history.

Through this generation came a change in the American Musical Theatre. Listed below are just a few examples:


              “This Is The Army”

                  by Irving Berlin

This Is the Army is a 1942 American wartime stage musical written by Irving Berlin, designed to boost morale in the U.S. during World War II. There is also a 1943 screenplay by Casey Robinson and Claude Binyon was based on the musical by Irving Berlin, who also composed the film’s 19 songs and broke screen protocol by singing one of them. The movie features a large ensemble cast, including George Murphy, Joan Leslie, Alan Hale, Sr., Rosemary DeCamp, and Ronald Reagan, while both the stage play and film included soldiers of the U.S. Army who were actors and performers in civilian life.

Plot Summary:

In World War I song-and-dance man named Jerry Jones is drafted into the US Army, where he stages a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank. It is a great success, but one night during the show orders are received to leave immediately for France: instead of the finale, the troops march up the aisles through the audience, out the theater’s main entrance and into a convoy of waiting trucks. Among the teary, last minute goodbyes, Jones kisses his newlywed bride Ethel farewell.

In the trenches of France, several of the soldiers in the production are killed or wounded by shrapnel from a German artillery barrage. Jones is wounded in the leg and must walk with a cane, ending his career as a dancer. Nevertheless, he is resolved to find something useful to do, especially now that he is the father of a son. Sgt. McGee and Pvt. Eddie Dibble, the troop bugler, also survive.

Twenty-five years later World War II is raging in Europe. Jerry’s son Johnny enlists in the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. He tells his sweetheart Eileen Dibble that they cannot marry until he returns, since he doesn’t want to make her a widow.

Johnny reluctantly accepts an order to stage another musical, following in his father’s footsteps. The show goes on tour throughout the United States and eventually plays Washington, D.C., in front of President Roosevelt. During the show it is announced that this is the last performance: the soldiers in the production have been ordered back to their combat units.

Eileen, who has joined the Red Cross auxiliary, appears backstage. During a break in the show she brings a minister and convinces Johnny that they should marry now – which they do, in the alley behind the theater, with their fathers acting as witnesses.


This musical and movie came out at a time of great struggle in regards to the US army. As the Great Depression finally comes to an end, and the effects of World War II start to fill the United States. This idea is also reflected in American Musical Theatre through “This Is The Army,” as America’s way of swaying and promoting their views about the war. Personally, I feel as though the plot glorifies both World Wars, and tries to appeal to the American patriotic spirit in its society, rather than undercover the blatant truth that was actually occurring in the world today. Through song and dance, this production could have played a strong role in affecting (or brainwashing) the views of America’s in regards to the wars.


Cultural Appropriation in Musical Theatre History

Cultural Appropriation: the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.

Now from first glance, you may not think cultural appropriation seems like a big deal- other cultures are incredibly cool, why wouldn’t I want to use elements from them? The problem with cultural appropriation throughout history is that they misrepresent cultures, and oftentimes base their actions, speech, clothing choice, etc. completely on racial or cultural stereotype. This is incredibly disrespectful to the culture because it is taking away the true culture and hiding under this stereotypical misrepresentation.

  • In my American Musical Theatre class, we talked in depth about it in regards to:
  • Blackface
  • The Mikado
  • ShowboatBy studying these instances of cultural appropriation throughout theatre, we can also take a step back and view the ways that we negatively culturally appropriate today, such as:
  • The romanticizing of Native American life through costume, stories, children’s dolls, etc. Think about it. Have you read a Thanksgiving children’s book lately? Well if not, I ask you to take a look at the picture to the right. Did the pilgrims and the Native American’s really eat together in harmony during Thanksgiving and then help each other out? No. The Europeans slaughtered the native peoples. But, it’s much easier to view it like this, isn’t it? But, for who?
  • The cultural appropriation of traditionally African hairstyles, for example dreadlocks. Dreadlocks are very sacred to many African countries, especially because of the huge role it plays in the religion of Rastafari. But in today’s society, many people disregard the fact that it has any cultural significance, and forcefully add dreadlocks to their hair. Now, this topic is incredibly controversial. Is it morally just to allow only one race to indulge in a given culture, but not another? Therefore, is it right to shame white people for culturally appropriating dreadlocks? These are just some of the common controversial questions on the subject, and it can often be hard to determine where the line may fall.The cultural appropriation we see throughout American Musical Theatre should not be anything new to us. We are still living in a society that negatively culturally appropriates. But, by reflecting on these ideals through American Musical Theatre, it teaches us to become more aware of it in our world today.

Idea for Interdisciplinary Nonprofit Theatre Company

Heart To Heart Nonprofit Theatre Company

World. Community. Self.

Using art to promote change


Open M-F and weekends for performances

9am-4pm- Adult classes and workshops

4pm-9pm- Youth/Teen classes and workshops


Rehearsals for FIVE annual mainstage productions would

take place throughout 9am-9pm M-F, as well as workshops or other written performances throughout the week.

Just a few of our offerings:

-Empowerment and Exercise Dance Courses (similar to Zumba, with an empowerment perspective twist)

-Workshopping Opportunities for Playwrights, Composers, Musicians, Choreographers, etc.

-Interdisciplinary Weekly- How to use performance art in different mediums

-Guest Artist workshops

-World Dance and Social Awareness in Art courses

                                                                                  …and many more!