- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Twyla Tharp’s Broadway musical “Movin’ Out” looks at a war that happened more than 30 years ago, but today’s headlines give it a wrenching new relevance.

Her Vietnam-era show, set to Billy Joel’s haunting musical comments on that period, arrives at the National Theatre next week for a monthlong run. The highly successful Tony-winning musical is entering its third year on Broadway, and the touring company coming here has been on the road all year.

Ms. Tharp — who moves with great elan between high art and pop art, creating for the world’s great ballet companies, Hollywood films and a TV special on Mikhail Baryshnikov— completed “Movin’ Out” just before the September 11 attacks.

“My little company was actually the last performing group at the World Trade Center,” she says. “We had a sense of what it meant to be between those two towers. A few days later, I saw the second one go down.”

In that instant, the world changed. “In one sense, it didn’t really impact ‘Movin’ Out,’” Ms. Tharp says, “but I think ‘Movin’ Out’ acted as a kind of gauge: It’s been a constant since it opened, but the world around it has been changing radically.”

Through it all, Ms. Tharp’s focus has been on the plight of returning soldiers.

“I feel that the Vietnam vets have been a very brave lot,” she says. “The theme of the piece is ultimately beyond our immediate time. It’s the notion of return. Any warrior coming back to his home is going to have a mountain to hike.

“The thing I know is that these guys were drafted and when they came back they were treated as if they were mercenaries. There has never been, as far as I know, any time in history — Huns, Romans, Goths, I don’t care who — where men have been drafted and then the culture has turned around and treated them that way.”

Ms. Tharp found Mr. Joel’s songs a guiding force in structuring her work. When she approached him about using his music for a show that would have no dialogue except the lyrics of his songs, she took Homer’s opening line in “The Iliad” and updated it.

“Sing to me, Muse, of the rage of Achilles” morphed into “Sing to me, Billy, of the rage of a generation of Long Island men” — the protagonists of “Movin’ Out.”

“The verities of human nature are such that war is fought and men have to come back and try to deal with being civilians again,” Ms. Tharp says, “and what does that mean after you’re trained to be a killer? That’s the reality, isn’t it?

“There’s a section in the second act with the song Billy wrote specifically about the vets called ‘Goodnight Saigon,’ and it’s a nightmare projection of the principal character recalling one of these hellish war scenes. And you can feel the men in the audience — you can feel them — sometimes they’re sobbing; everybody is just torn up.”

For her illuminating look at their war — and for her entire body of work — Ms. Tharp received the President’s Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America this year. “I know from speeches at the award ceremony that they see themselves as unfortunate forerunners of the soldiers in Iraq,” she says. “Some of today’s soldiers are in the reserves, which is different from the draft, but in any case, if you’re missing a limb, you’re missing a limb.”

Ms. Tharp says she doesn’t have any illusions that “Movin’ Out” can provide some grand healing for veterans, but “at least we can in community — which is what theater is — acknowledge that these guys have been through this experience.”

“Movin’ Out” may be an unorthodox Veterans Day tribute, but, in its own way, it may well be the most revealing.

WHAT: Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out”

WHEN: Nov. 19 through Dec. 19

WHERE: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

TICKETS: $40 to $85

PHONE: 800/447-7400

WEB SITE: www.nationaltheatre.org

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