Seven decades after World War II, the popular music of that era remains vital.
“That music is part of our culture,” says Bud Forrest, creator and conductor of “In the Mood,” a musical revue that plays at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Nov. 19-24. “In the 1940s everyone was listening to the same kind of music, and it still touches a lot of different heartstrings.”
“In the Mood” pays tribute to the music of the late 1930s and 1940s with a collection of over 40 songs, performed by a 13-piece big band and six singer/dancers who re-create the iconic sounds of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and the Andrews Sisters, among others, and swing to the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug.
Given the age of the material, it seems natural “In the Mood” would appeal to older folks, but Forrest says he’s been amazed by the range of ages in the audience.
“This is our 20th year of touring this show,” he says on the phone from a stop in Wisconsin, “and while we do see older veterans, we also see baby boomers who remember this as the music of their parents and teenagers and 20-somethings who want to see authentic swing dancing. Although they all come for different reasons, by the time they leave they all feel connected to the people and the emotions portrayed in these songs.”
Even though “In the Mood” is a musical revue, director and choreographer Alex Sanchez says he and Forrest created an arc for the show that he hopes connects the audience to the experience.
“We don’t want audiences to simply sit back and listen,” Sanchez says. “We want them to be drawn into this world at this particular moment in time.”
The first act takes place in the late 1930s and includes songs like the “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “We Git It.”
“It’s all about a nation picking itself up, about young people coming into their own, feeling hopeful about the future,” say Sanchez.
The music in the second act focuses on World War II and includes “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)” and “Over There.” “Everything we’re singing and dancing about in the second act reflects how the war has affected us,” says Sanchez. “What does it mean to be in the armed services, to be stationed far from home?”
Songs like “Stardust,” “In the Mood,” and “Sing Sing Sing” resonate with audiences because they have a strong emotional core, says Forrest, adding, “the big brass section in the String of Pearls Big Band Orchestra raises the energy level a notch or two.”
“I like to say that the band is the seventh principal performer in the show,” says Sanchez. “Their emotional connection to the music is just as important as the singer/dancers.”
To many of the young singers and dancers who perform in the show, World War II and the 1940s may seem like ancient history, so Sanchez creates scenarios for them.
“We have a kind of psychological boot camp at the beginning of rehearsals,” he says with a laugh, “and we talk about what it was like to be 18 to 20 years old in the 1940s. Their age group in the 1940s was born during the Depression and grew up with no guarantees. By age 21, they were already taking on the responsibilities of marriage and kids, and then suddenly they were thrust into a war and sent thousands of miles from home.
“I really try to immerse them in the era,” Sanchez says, “so they’re not just presenting a song, but we can get underneath the music and the lyrics to a story and the emotion behind it.”
Both Sanchez and Forrest say an unexpected bonus of the show is the connections the performers and audience sometimes make with their families.
“I’ve had several dancers say they got to know their grandparents better by talking about what this music meant to them in their youth,” says Sanchez.
“The band is right on stage,” says Forrest, who plays piano, “and we can see the audience and the way they respond to this music.” Veterans in the audience are recognized during the second act, providing “a wonderful feeling of community spirit.”
“I’m not presuming to be Shakespeare,” says Forrest, “but I know this show touches a chord in people. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but I never take this for granted. It’s amazing to be part of something that has that impact.”