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How a ‘lost’ Gershwin musical is striking up its professional UK debut after 90 years

George and Ira Gershwin in the 1920s
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A diluted version of Strike Up the Band played Broadway in 1930, then fizzled out. Nearly 90 years later, the show as originally conceived is making its professional UK premiere. Its director tells Nick Smurthwaite that it has the tunes and the topicality to triumph

Next week a lost Gershwin musical, Strike Up the Band, will make its UK debut in the north London venue Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Written by George S Kaufman, the show was originally produced in 1927 but didn’t reach Broadway until 1930, in a revised version, where it ran for 191 performances.

Kaufman was primarily a comedy writer with a satirical edge, and his intention with Strike Up the Band, written just before the Wall Street Crash of 1930, was to cock a snook at American politics and the tendency of big business to exploit foreign wars for profit.

“In 1927, America was flying high and big business was king, so I suspect it was too loaded for the audience then,” says US-born director Mark Giesser, who directed a 60th-anniversary production of the musical Gigi at the Tabard Theatre in 2015, and received excellent reviews for his adaptation of Chekhov story The Lady With the Dog last year.

Giesser stumbled on Strike Up the Band while flicking through the Music Theatre International catalogue. “I’d never come across it,” he says. “The title caught my attention because it was also the title of a 1940 film starring Judy Garland. The two are actually unrelated.”

By the time Strike Up the Band eventually found its way to Times Square Theater in 1930, Kaufman’s hard-edged script about a cheese tariff war between America and Switzerland had been diluted to a more anodyne plot about a chocolate factory, rewritten by Kaufman’s friend and protegé Morrie Ryskind in an attempt to make it more commercial.

The cast of Strike Up the Band in rehearsals

Giesser has chosen to revive the original Kaufman version, not Ryskind’s rewrite. He says: “I haven’t been able to find any record of the 1927 version being done here professionally, so this is probably its UK premiere, although it may have been done by amateurs.”

Giesser thinks one of the reasons it did not go down well initially was that it was ahead of its time. “Ninety years on, it hardly seems dated at all, both in terms of the book and the music, especially with all that’s going on in the States about a trade war with China. They wrote it for nine principals and a chorus. I’m doing it at the Gatehouse with a cast of 10 and a band of seven.”

‘Ninety years on, it hardly seems dated at all, both in terms of the book and the music’

The score by George and Ira Gershwin includes the numbers The Man I Love and I’ve Got a Crush on You, which both went on to be recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

Giesser likens the partnership of Kaufman and the Gershwins to Gilbert and Sullivan, of whom they were all fans. He says: “A lot of the music is evocative of G and S. I believe they were thinking: ‘What kind of vehicle can we use to satirise American big business?’, rather like G and S would have done.”

In his 1972 biography of Kaufman, Howard Teichmann recalls a bit of banter between the writer and his lyricist, Ira Gershwin, when Strike Up the Band was sinking like a stone in the provinces. They spied two elegant- looking Edwardian gentlemen buying tickets at the box office.

“That must be Gilbert and Sullivan coming to fix the show,” said Gershwin. Kaufman replied: “Why don’t you put jokes like that in your lyrics?”

Director Mark Giesser

Earlier in his career, Kaufman worked as a writer for the Marx Brothers, and gave them one of their biggest stage successes, The Cocoanuts, in 1925. Groucho Marx later credited Kaufman with his famous walk and staccato delivery.

Originally a journalist and critic, Kaufman’s most successful work for the stage was undertaken as a collaborator, with Moss Hart on Once in a Lifetime in 1930, Merrily We Roll Along four years later, You Can’t Take It With You in 1936 and The Man Who Came to Dinner from 1939.

Teichmann believed Kaufman preferred to write with other people because he doubted his own talent as a dramatist, and distrusted the creative process in general. Kaufman wrote: “Somewhere in the transition from typewriter to stage there is an almost chemical element that intrudes itself between the play and the audience.”

Brooks Atkinson, the influential New York Times theatre critic of the time, considered Kaufman one of the great writers of satirical comedy. He wrote: “When he started his particular kind of comedy, the theatre was very mushy and mawkish and artificial, and being the honest kind of person he was I think he could not stand this kind of sentimentality. When he came into the theatre it became very stimulating because he destroyed nonsense.”

Kaufman did not take himself too seriously either. According to Teichmann’s book, during the initial run of Strike Up the Band in 1927 the writer was spotted in the theatre foyer by one of the backers after the curtain had come down, and was mistaken for the composer, George Gershwin.

“Mr Gershwin, how could you let a thing like this happen?” protested the angry backer. “My score is perfect,” replied Kaufman. “The trouble is Kaufman’s book.”

Strike Up the Band runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate Village, from March 6 to 31

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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