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Longwood students revive obscure Irving Berlin musical for Veterans Day

The famed composer wrote "Yip Yip Yaphank" while stationed at Fort Upton on Long Island, including his most famous tune, "God Bless America."

The obscure musical Irving Berlin wrote a century ago while training at Camp Upton will be resurrected this weekend at Longwood High School in Middle Island.

Students are to stage three performances of Berlin's "Yip Yip Yaphank" — a musical revue about life at the former Army training camp — to mark Veterans Day on Sunday, which also is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

Longwood music and fine arts director John Gallagher said he stumbled upon the show about four years ago while researching the history of Berlin and his most famous tune, "God Bless America."

“I paid attention to the fact that 'God Bless America' had been written 100 years ago, and I thought maybe the kids could sing it at a recital,” Gallagher said. “Then you dive in even further and you say, 'You mean, there’s an entire musical?' ”

Berlin, then a 30-year-old Army sergeant, wrote the show in 1918 while stationed for training at Camp Upton, now the site of Brookhaven National Laboratory. It was performed at the camp for several months and raised $80,000 for the Army before the war ended.

The show later enjoyed a brief run on Broadway before fading into obscurity. But "God Bless America" and another song from the show, "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," went on to become two of the celebrated composer's signature songs.

Gallagher said children throughout the school district are involved in producing the play, from art students making publicity posters to home economics students making breads that had been served at Camp Upton. Copies of Berlin memorabilia, such as his driver's license and War Department papers, will be displayed before each performance.

Medford playwright Sal St. George was enlisted to write a script to supplement the show's songs, including "Mandy" and "The Girl I Left Behind." Gallagher said he hopes the show is a hit with audiences.

“There was some doubt whether we could do this,” he said. “It’s not a classic. It’s not ‘Guys and Dolls,’ it’s not ‘Hairspray.’ … How well are people going to respond to this Yip Yip thing?”

Gallagher said 60 students are in the show's cast, crew and pit orchestra.

Cast members Jonathan Arkay, 17, and Lindsey McCoy, 16, both of Middle Island, said they didn’t know much about Berlin’s connection to Long Island before doing the show. They said they were happy to help resurrect a piece of local history.

“It means a lot to people in Yaphank,” said McCoy, who plays reporter Polly McGuire.

Performances are 7 p.m. Friday, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday at the high school, 100 Longwood Rd., Middle Island. Admission is free with the donation of nonperishable food. For information, call 631-345-2960.

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