Strike Up the Band (1927)

Book by George S. Kaufman
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Music by George Gershwin

The Plot:

sutb coverHorace J. Fletcher, proud owner of the Fletcher American Cheese Co., is outraged when Switzerland protests a tariff on imported cheese and convinces the U.S. government to declare a war. He offers to finance the war personally—as long as the war is named after him:"The Horace J. Fletcher Memorial War." "What did the government make out of the last one, handling it themselves? Nothing!" The Swiss Hotel Owners Association invites the war to be held there, and Fletcher goes overseas, accompanied by a wealthy matron who would like to marry him, his daughter Joan, and the newspaperman with whom she is in love, Jim Townsend, who has publicly criticized both the war and the quality of milk going into his cheese. A traitor in the works, Edgar Sloane has been diluted Fletcher's milk, backstabbing the American army and trying to make off with Jim's girl. Luckily, a Secret Service operative named George Spelvin reveals Sloane's treachery and saves the day. Let the trumpets sound!

About the Play:

Kaufman, working with the Gershwins for the first time, came up with an extraordinarily original script for the day. He wrote a broad satire of American greed, self-serving public relations, business chicanery and war, taking swipes at industry, the government and military. The Gershwins matched Kaufman's verve with a score that, although it reflects the patchwork character of the story, shows a team working their way through a new challenge.  Their songs included "Strike Up the Band," and—although it was cut—"The Man I Love". More provocatively, the show seems to be written as a Marx Brothers show without the Marx Brothers.  None of this anarchic innovation seems to have impressed out-of-town audiences; first in Long Branch, New Jersey in April of 1927, then in Philadelphia. After two weeks of dismal box office, it folded, bringing a quick and unimagined end to what Selwyn billed as "the ultimate collaboration of the generation." Kaufman put it more succinctly: "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."

Stage history:

Although the 1927 stage version closed out of town, producer Edgar Selwyn tried to revive the show three years later, and Kaufman graciously suggested the young writer Morrie Ryskind (who had collaborated with Kaufman and the Marx Brothers) to give the book a fresh approach.  While the Gershwins revised the score, Ryskind softened the satire, made it about chocolate, and wrapped the whole thing in a dream sequence. The revised show became the first musical to open in the 1930s; it became the hit that had eluded the Gershwins on the first go-round. That Strike Up the Band opened on January 14, 1930 at the Times Square Theater and ran 191 performances. In 1990, the 1927 book was restored, in collaboration with a Nonesuch/Roxbury recording of all the variants of both versions. The 1927 version was staged by ENCORES! at City Center in 2000 and that version is available for performance.

Production details:

7 men, 3 women; singing and dancing ensemble
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"Satire is what closes on Saturday night."--GSK


Strip Box:

The 1927 version remains a timely, tuneful and trenchant satire on war and greed.