Notes and Editorial Reviews
You'll be richly entertained and perhaps even thought-provoked by the prophetic nature of the show.
It's 1927 and along comes Strike Up the Band to break a long established, unwritten law that musicals were strictly 'for fun only': froth and frolic to sweep away the blues and re-charge the batteries. The show titles of the period said it all, the plots and sub-plots were invariably of the camp, campus-based variety: football team rivalries, poor college boy meets rich college debutante— will she, won't she? That kind of thing. The Gershwins' new show was different; George S. Kaufman wrote the book and innocuousness was not his style. Here was a swingeing political satire: a war with Switzerland(!) over the price of
cheese, a commercially sponsored war to boot ("Fletcher's Memorial War"), a war that the President knew nothing about (sounding familiar?) and so on. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the fun for you. Anyone who knows the Michael Tilson Thomas/CBS recordings of Of Thee I Sing (the Gershwins' Pulitzer Prize-winning show of 1931) and Let 'Ern Eat Cake (the sequel) will know exactly what to expect. Needless to say, in 1927 Broadway wasn't quite ready for 'a thinking musical': it flopped, only to be watered down and jazzed up three years later—to little avail. More on that anon.
Here, then, is the original Strike Up the Band for the first time in 60 years. And if that is beginning to sound like an unremarkable claim in the age of John McGlinn, spare a thought for the restorer, Tommy Krasker, and remind yourself of just what is involved in rebuilding a show like this. Most of the orchestrations were lost, one of the songs—the charming "Meadow Serenade"— existed only in the catchy refrain noted down from memory by Gershwin friend Kay Swift. I take my hat off to Krasker: he's done a wonderful job, for this is vintage George and Ira. Even the most trivial point numbers are insidiously memorable: "17 and 21" and "Yankee Doodle Rhythm", with its infectious syncopated kick, simply refuse to leave you alone. And of course there are the two hits— the title song, the march that Sousa didn't write, and that great lyric ballad "The Man I Love". They don't come any more bittersweet. Of course, the spectres of Gilbert and Sullivan still loom largest (G & I were firm G & S fanatics): how else would it be possible for a Broadway show to open with the number "Fletcher's American Cheese Choral Society". But make no mistake, the pithy Ira was no pale imitation of Gilbert, even if "Typical Self-Made American", with its declamation and reiteration format, might easily have been retitled "I am the very model of the self-made American".
So what of those unsung heroes—the orchestrators? Krasker's team (eight of them) had their work cut out. It proved possible to reconstruct the original William Daly orchestration of "The Man I Love" (Daly was Gershwin's favourite orchestrator), but otherwise Krasker's men were working from mere blueprints of style. The end results could fool me every time; the colours are spot-on, a long way from mere pastiche. Indeed, the sudden arrival of saxophones for the swinging 1930 revamp comes as quite a shock in the appendix to the second disc. One beautiful piece of work sticks in my mind: the final reprise of "The Man I Love" (now "The Girl I Love") emerges directly from the homesick soldier's haunting ballad "Homeward Bound". But orchestrator William Brohn has freed the melody from its hypnotic 'in tempo' rhythm and drenched it in gorgeous Straussian harmonies. It may not be authentic, but it's an inspired example of a great song purposefully transformed. I mentioned the appendix of key selections from the 1930 revamp. In due course Elektra-Nonesuch intend to issue the entire show in that revision (what price authenticity?), but on the evidence of these six songs too much compromise was involved in the process. Having heard the original, these songs clearly belong to another show altogether. Even so, "I've Got a Crush on You" was a winner in its own right, and "Soon", whilst no substitute for the discarded "The Man I Love", is a notable ballad. Incidentally, readers who may be thinking that the appendix was simply a ploy to fill a second CD, may rest assured that the complete Strike Up the Band would not have squeezed on to one.
Mauceri's cast is a splendid one and the recording has succeeded in emulating the colour and cast of the period sound whilst moistening the dryness which so marred the same team's Girl Crazy (2/ 91)—it is a great improvement on that. I promise you'll be richly entertained and perhaps even thought-provoked by the prophetic nature of the show. Amidst all the lunacy, serious points are being made. And there's quite a sting in the tail: just when you think that it's all over, that all the ends, in time-honoured tradition, have been neatly tied, in rushes the President's aide to announce that Russia has put a tariff on caviar! To the martial strains of the title number, the good old US of A is at it again: "Let the flag unfurl, we can lick the world!". Disquieting, yes?
-- Gramophone [1/1992]
Works on This Recording
Strike up the Band by George Gershwin
Don Chastain (Voice),
Brent Barrett (Voice),
Rebecca Luker (Soprano),
Beth Fowler (Voice)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1927/1929; USA
Notes: This is the original 1927 production written by George Gershwin. Where the original orchestration didn't survive, a team of orchestrators, supervised by Tommy Krasker, recreated the spirit of the original score.
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