Strike Up the Band: The 1930 Broadway Score [PS Classics PS-1100]
The first reaction of most fans of the great songwriters of the first half of the 20th century to the news that PS Classics has brought us a restored and reconstructed recording of George & Ira Gershwin's 1930 musical Strike Up the Band will be one of joy. Fans with extensive CD collections might, after a moment, scratch their collective heads and say, "but don't we already have this?"
The correct answers are: joy? yes; have this? no.
Strike up the Band marked a turning point in the development of the Gershwins' craft, both George and Ira. George spent the early years (1918-1923) of his brief career developing a style in which he could add those bluesy notes and that "modern" syncopation to the traditional Broadway sound. The year 1924 marked his breakthrough, with both "Rhapsody in Blue" (which made him an overnight celebrity) in February and his first jazz-musical, Lady, Be Good!, in December.
This started a second period (1924-1929) in which Gershwin fired off an astonishing array of wonderful songs. All were show tunes, the Broadway musical being his playground, and many were exceptional; but they were for the most part interchangeable. "Fascinating Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Do-Do-Do," "'S Wonderful" could have been used for any of a number of musicals; "The Man I Love," in fact, was used in three of them without ever finding a suitable slot. The older Ira, meanwhile, started his career somewhat later and only began to catch up to George in 1926 or so. In 1927, the boys began to develop — with librettist George S. Kaufman — a new kind of satirical musical, sort of an American distillation of Gilbert & Sullivan. Strike Up the Band was the first of these shows, but it failed miserably and closed in Philadelphia. The boys went back to those interchangeable musical comedies, but the germ was set. In late 1929 they turned once more to the intriguing Strike Up the Band, with Kaufman replaced — at his own behest — by his sometime collaborator Morrie Ryskind. The new Strike Up the Band arrived in 1930, beginning Gershwin's final Broadway period (1930-1935). The success of the show — not just commercially, but artistically — led directly to the 1931 Gershwin-Kaufman-Ryskind Pulitzer Prize-winner, Of Thee I Sing. But that is outside the scope of our discussion.
The 1927 Strike Up the Band was an experimental work, with the satirical groundwork evident but somewhat tentatively executed by the songwriters. In the intervening two years, the Gershwins' continued development brought them to a place where they could figure out just how to accomplish it. The 1930 Strike up the Band was a masterpiece, relatively so at least; if the musical never had an afterlife and quickly disappeared from memory, it was perhaps because their next two musicals — Girl Crazy and Of Thee I Sing — were significantly stronger.
Ira's widow Leonore embarked on a series of recorded restorations of Gershwin musicals just before her death in 1991, starting with Girl Crazy and Strike Up the Band. Both versions of the latter show were recorded at the time, with the 1927 recording released by Roxbury Records in 1991. Rather than releasing the 1930 version back then, the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts moved on to a series of other restorations (including Lady, Be Good! and Pardon My English). Tommy Krasker, the Gershwin archivist who did the Strike Up the Band restoration, has remained involved with the Gershwin recording activities through the years; with the blessings and cooperation of the Trust, he has now released the 1930 Strike Up the Band on his PS Classics label.
But don't we already have this? That is, don't those of us with the 1927 Strike Up the Band on our shelf have — for all intents and purposes — Strike Up the Band?
No. Most writers, reworking a show that closed a couple of years earlier, would have simply slipped rewritten material in amongst the old pages and let it go at that. Let the bookwriter make whatever changes he wishes; we'll write new songs as necessary, and salvage the rest. But that's not what happened here. Ira, I suppose, must have said to George: "If we're going to rewrite it, let's rewrite it." Every number that was carried over from the first to the second has changes in both lyric and music, and not just the minor change of cheese to chocolate. (As those of you familiar with the show might recall, the plot concerns a manufacturer who instigates a war with Switzerland over tariffs. In 1927, the product in question is cheese; in 1930, it is chocolate. In either case, the manufacturer is accused of using Grade B milk!)
There are stretches within the numbers that remain the same, of course; and in the modern-day recording studio, they could easily patch in new words here, new notes there, and new instrumental bridges with the push of a button. When they recorded the two scores in 1990, such patchwork was more complicated than it was worth. So they just recorded the material twice. (The two versions of the show used a somewhat different instrumentation; I don't know if they went so far as to religiously alter these in the recording studio, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.)
Comparing the two versions of the same numbers is interesting, and fun; the musical routines are often slightly altered, probably to accommodate differences in staging. And Ira never seems to have stopped working; quite simply, he seems to have been a more accomplished and playful lyricist in 1930 than he was in 1927. A case in point: in the Gilbert & Sullivan-like introductory number "Typical Self-Made American," the manufacturer originally tells us:
I got a job and worked both day and night at it;
I watched the cheese but never watched the clock.
The big boss thought I was so very bright at it
That when he died he left me all the stock.
In 1930, he doesn't change his tune; but watch what Ira slips into the last line:
I got a job and worked both day and night at it;
And all the day I never watched the clock.
The big boss thought I was so very bright at it
That when I poisoned him he left me all the stock.
The same, but different. Enough said.
Eight new songs were added in 1930, including "I've Got a Crush on You" (which had been written for a 1928 musical) and "Soon"; ten or so were deleted (including, alas, "The Man I Love"). The second act of the new version, in fact, retained only one song from 1927. Part of these changes stemmed from the addition of the star comedians Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, in roles that didn't exactly exist in 1927. So the 1930 version of Strike Up the Band isn't nearly the same as the 1927 Strike Up the Band. And the recordings are significantly different. The original recording, a two-CD set, contained an appendix of six songs from the 1930 version. These are included on the 2011 release, but as best I can tell these are the only overlapping tracks whatsoever. Five of them, anyway, as the sixth is altered.
All of which is to say: yes — this new Strike Up the Band is a different recording of a different show. And in my opinion, a better recording of a better show. The 1991 release always seemed to dissolve into quaintness for me; in retrospect, this is probably due to those faded boy-girl duets which were subsequently cut. Strike Up the Band, in the 1930 version on this new release, sounds pert and fresh and plays well; which is perhaps why the show was a hit, the second time around. The personnel is the same, with John Mauceri conducting. The entire project needed new orchestrations, as the originals were lost (save two charts); these were reconstructed — and excellently so — by a team headed by Russell Warner, with contributions from the likes of Larry Wilcox, Bill Brohn, and Sid Ramin. (The new disc is dedicated to the memory of Warner, who died on April 26, and who excelled at recreating the original sound of Kern and Gershwin.) What's more, the two recordings are built around the singing talents of Rebecca Luker and Brent Barrett. Who were astoundingly good circa 1990, and who both remain so today. The pair went into the studio this winter to finish some vocals, in fact, and I daresay you can't pick out the sections in which they are 20 years older.
How long has Barbara Carroll been going on? Since 1925, it seems, which puts her at 86. And makes her older than Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury, and even Elaine Stritch (by seven days). Yet she always seems to be around somewhere, playing jazz in some cabaret or other with her trio. She was at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola — part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex in the Time Warner Center — last March, with recording equipment. Resulting in a new CD, "How Long Has This Been Going On?"
When a new recording of songs from Ye Olde American Popular Songbook crosses my desk, I do what I call the "Fascinating Rhythm" test. I look in the contents list for one of several songs: "Fascinating Rhythm," "This Can't Be Love," "Cheek to Cheek," "Long Ago (and Far Away)," "I've Got the World on a String," "Dancing in the Dark." You get the idea. When I find one of 'em, I put it on and I can tell — unfailingly — just how much I'm going to like the CD.
Here's Carroll's rendition of "Fascinating Rhythm." Yes, folks, she's got it. And "I Got Rhythm," on both of which Carroll is complemented by fine work from Ken Peplowski on clarinet. And "Change Partners." And "Have You Met Miss Jones." The Barbara Carroll Trio — consisting of Miss C. at the keys, Jay Leonhart (one of our favorite bass players, who was just accompanying Barbara Cook last week at Feinstein's) and Alvin Atkinson on drums — joined by Mr. Peplowski. Barbara Carroll's "How Long Has This Been Going On?," one of those Broadway jazz CDs you can just keep playing.
One of the several pleasures of being a Tony nominator is the people you get to meet. The nominators come from all walks of the theatre, each adding their own knowledge and background to the mix. I have been watching and enjoying Alice Playten — who died on June 25, at the age of 63 — since I was a child (in the audience) and she was a child (on stage with Carol Channing, in Hello, Dolly!). But I never met her until we were sitting around the big conference table up at the Tony offices. We would find ourselves repeatedly placed in adjacent seats at previews. More recently, whenever I've found myself with an extra ticket to an Off-Broadway show I'm covering, I've found Alice to be the perfect companion; she loved performing and she loved performers, and she was always game to go see anything. When the shows weren't quite worth seeing, she was always — shall we say charitable? Readers might remember her from Caroline, or Change or Seussical. Those of you have been around longer will recall Alice in Promenade, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, as the self-proclaimed "stinkerette" Kaffritz in Henry, Sweet Henry or maybe the original Broadway cast of Oliver! Or from those dumpling and meatball commercials she made for Alka-Seltzer.
Hers was truly a life in the theatre. She started at 12, taking over the role of Baby Louise shortly after the opening of Gypsy. Unlike other performers who sit in their dressing rooms and while away the hours, Alice used to stand in the wing every night and watch Ethel Merman do "Rose's Turn"; that was her education, and that's where she learned her craft and her dedication. Alice was dedicated, all right; she was a joy to watch and a pleasure to speak with, and I guess we can say an all round credit to her profession.
I last saw Alice just two weeks ago, at a press preview of Spider-Man. (Alice had great empathy for the cast, having herself gone through that similar if less expensive nightmare called Seussical.) Tuesday I'm going to a press preview of the next Broadway opening, Master Class. I'm disheartened, in advance, to know that there's no chance of my turning around and finding Alice sitting behind me.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at [email protected].)
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