In December of 1969, the United States held its first military draft lottery in almost three decades. It would decide the fate of young men across the country as the U.S. was sending more and more soldiers into Vietnam.
This is the setting for Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre’s newest show, Fortunate Sons.
With music from Grammy winning artist Paul Williams, based on a book written by Eric R. Cohen and Marc Madnick and directed by Michael Unger, the musical follows an ensemble cast through the turbulent times around the first Vietnam draft.
Williams, who was 29 and eligible at the time of the draft, says this time period was terrifying for him and that even though he didn’t end up going overseas, he grew to have great respect for those who did.
“I opposed the war, I did not believe we had any business in Vietnam,” he says. “[Fortunate Sons] really honors both sides of this argument. The people that went, the people that didn’t go because it would have been morally, just, unacceptable for them.”
Cohen says that while writing the book they focused on this event of having to watch your fate be decided live on television and calls it “the first, worst reality show.” After he and Madnick began writing about the experience of the young men who had to watch, they began adding the people around them into the story.
“We sort of realized it would be most powerful as an ensemble, so to add their parents and a sister for two of these brothers, and then you know, another friend and just find a way to connect them all in ways that went beyond the draft,” says Cohen.
The play is meant to be a cross section of what society was like in America during this time and Unger says that the characters in the show can be extrapolated out to represent the millions of people going through the same things.
“You really fall in love with the characters and it is an ensemble piece, there’s no one that sticks out more than the other, so it’s a really well-crafted book I think, and Paul’s music — well, it’s Paul’s music so that’s going to be wonderful no matter what,” he says.
Williams says that Fortunate Sons also offers a view into issues that still face America to this day. He compares the footage from Vietnam played on the nightly news during the war to the country having to watch the murder of George Floyd.
“There was a certain point where the horror of what we were seeing [during Vietnam] became common place. One of the things that happened to us in the last nine months, ten months, is because of this horrific virus, we were all captive audiences that observed Floyd’s murder, the knee on the neck and we could not turn away,” he says. “There’s a connection between what we observe as a collective unit, whether its people around the world, the people that observe that horrible act or a family watching young men die for a war that we perhaps should have never been in.”
Watch the first staged concert reading of Fortunate Sons Feb. 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m. for free through Skylight Music Theatre.