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STAGE : They'll Strike Up the (Original) Band : The California Music Theatre will re-create the 1927 musical on Thursday. But it took plenty of detective work and major reconstruction of the singing and dancing.

July 31, 1988|BARBARA ISENBERG

It all started with a vote.

Executives at California Music Theatre stuffed programs for last year's "Call Me Madam" with a ballot asking theatergoers to help select the following season's shows. And every night, recalls CMT artistic director Gary Davis, the winner was the same: "Strike Up the Band."

They got their wish. Starting previews Thursday (with an official opening Saturday), "Strike Up the Band" plays first the Pasadena Civic Auditorium (through Aug. 14), then the Orange County Performing Arts Center (Aug. 18-24) and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (Aug. 26-Sept.11) in an unprecedented cooperative venture. The 1927 musical boasts music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, a book by George S. Kaufman, and a roster of songs that includes the title song, "The Man I Love" and "I've Got a Crush on You."

Taking the show from ballot to stage was no easy task, however. For one thing, the show had two lives: The 1927 original that died on the road and a tamer, less political 1930 version that made it to Broadway and lasted 191 performances.

But the California Music Theatre was determined to re-create the 1927 show, and that meant plenty of detective work. Nobody was on hand to record an original cast album--much less a Home Box Office special--of a 1927 pre-Broadway try-out. The 1940 MGM film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney used just the name and title song. What was here today was gone tomorrow.

"Most shows in the '20s and '30s had no sense of posterity," says Tommy Krasker, New York-based archivist for the Ira Gershwin Estate and co-author of the "Catalog of the American Musical." "When the show was launched, composers would move on to the next project. No effort was really made to preserve the material because they never thought that 60 years later people would be trying to revive it."

Krasker, 29, had restored the Gershwins' "Lady, Be Good!" for its revival last summer at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., and last August began to reconstruct this show.

"Things are never in nice neat piles," explains Krasker, in town for rehearsals earlier this month. "It's like putting together an extraordinary jigsaw puzzle except that the pieces don't fit perfectly."

They were some very impressive pieces. First came the Kaufman political satire about Horace J. Fletcher (played by Tom Bosley), a greedy, patriotic cheese manufacturer willing to finance war over cheese tariffs, then share the profits with the U.S. government; Kaufman also tossed in two lovers kept apart at first by ideology. George Gershwin composed waltzes, polkas and rhythmic marches, says Krasker, while his brother Ira "burlesqued employee loyalty, government duplicity, even the Horatio Alger myth."

One song came from the Ira Gershwin estate, and several orchestrations from a 1984 revival by the Philadelphia-based American Musical Theater Festival. Krasker found an original script at the New York Public Library's Lincoln Center branch, and located the original music at the Library of Congress.

But every lead came with problems attached. The 1984 revival combined elements of both the 1927 and 1930 shows, for instance. And while director R. H. Burnside's 1927 script even had blocking notes scrawled between the lines, it also had multiple versions of the second act and was missing both song lyrics and lead-ins.

Krasker profited from a major discovery of musical manuscripts in 1982 at the Warner Bros. Music warehouse in Secaucus, N.J. About 80 boxes of musical manuscripts, consisting of more than 20,000 items, had been sealed up after shows closed, Krasker says, then simply transported from one warehouse to another over the years.

"It was probably the most important discovery of musical theater material ever made," Krasker says. "Until the Secaucus discovery, we were missing at least 30% of the original 'Strike Up the Band' score. It is a simple fact that 'Strike Up the Band' could not have been restored without this material."

There was no record of the original choreography, explains "Strike Up the Band's" choreographer Randy Skinner, and all of the dance numbers are new. Some of the dance music survived, and Skinner says he did extensive research on the period via film musicals. ("You can't go wrong looking at a Fred and Ginger film," Skinner says.) It may be all new steps and patterns, he says, but he'll be capturing the "essence of the period" with such dances as '20s Charlestons, cakewalks and Castle Walks. And the military-style selections, he says, will allow some "really big tap numbers" using the 24-member chorus of dancer/singers.

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