The 1927 musical Strike Up the Band was the first collaboration between the Gershwin brothers, George (music) and Ira (lyrics), and librettist George S. Kaufman, whose comedies written with Moss Hart (The Man Who Came to Dinner) are classics of the American stage. This powerful combination of talents produced a then-new type of musical comedy that favored satire over purely sentimental plots, harkening back to the great operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Strike Up the Band is receiving a semi-staged revival by a new enterprise called Broadway—Curtain Up! The brain-child of Broadway veteran Martin Charnin (Annie), who is the creative director, and Keith Levenson, who is the musical director, this touring company of twelve performers and twelve musicians provides a welcome opportunity to enjoy this early effort of talents beginning to flower.
The plot is reed-thin and the satire is light, but trenchant when you think about it. The subject is the powerful influence big business exerts over politicians, an evergreen topic that has all too much pertinence today. The owner and namesake of Fletcher’s American Cheese Company decides that the U.S. should go to war with Switzerland when the Swiss government objects to the imposition of a 50% tariff on the importation of Swiss cheese. The war engagement, which is paid for entirely by Fletcher, is orchestrated by a Col. Holmes, a supposed confidant of the President who conveniently forgets to tell the President that this war will be fought. It is a quick and easy war, which Fletcher’s forces win. Upon returning home Fletcher learns that Russia is objecting to a tariff imposed on the importation of caviar, in which Fletcher has investments. As the final curtain falls, Fletcher is again urging bellicose action.
The plot also includes two romances, one between Fletcher’s daughter and a newspaper reporter who exposes wrongdoing at Fletcher’s operation, and the other between Fletcher and a woman (Mrs. Draper) who accompanies the incompetent Col. Holmes. Think Maggie and Jiggs for the latter romance, and standard musical comedy for the former. Silly jokes abound–Col. Holmes stays at the Venus de Milo Arms. The main delight of the show is the songs, which include the famous “The Man I Love” and its reprise as “The Girl I Love.” There are choral parodies (the first one quotes directly from Gilbert and Sullivan), patter songs, and jousting duets, notably a delightful number between Fletcher and Mrs. Draper entitled “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” An air of great cheer permeates the evening.
The performers “sell” their material with enthusiasm. The updated musical arrangements are sprightly, and Levenson has inserted quotations from famous Gershwin pieces (the oboe melody from Rhapsody in Blue, music from An American in Paris). A simple and effective unit set, art deco in spirit, contains the musicians on the stage with the performers in front. It would have been much more effective if the evening had not begun with some unnecessary schtick—the cast assembles and warms up as thought the curtain were down and the audience was not apparent to them and then acts surprised when “we” are there. And there is a tiresome running (literally) joke of a cast member who is late and runs across the stage several times. This smacks of playing to the yokels, not to mention a lack of faith in the material. But these are small quibbles. Maybe on their next venture the creative team of Broadway—Curtain Up! won’t be afraid to assume some sophistication in the national audience for which this touring company is geared.