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STAGE : Gershwin Crazy : Piece by piece, the musicals of George and Ira Gershwin are being reconstructed in an effort to release authentic versions

January 19, 1992|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about music for The Times. and

How's this for a musical comedy theme? The United States declares war on Switzerland when the tiny European nation protests a 50% tariff on the price of imported cheese. The conflict becomes a major tourist attraction, with its expenses paid for by the biggest U.S. cheese manufacturer.

Satirical? You bet. A topical anti-war show? Anti-war, yes; topical--not exactly, at least not for more than 60 years. The burlesque hostilities between the United States and Switzerland take place in "Strike Up the Band," a 1927 production with a book by George S. Kaufman and songs by George and Ira Gershwin.

It was the Gershwins' first real book show, and one of the first American musical satires that could legitimately be compared to the work of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sadly, the play never made it to Broadway, passing into theatrical legend after four performances in New Jersey and two weeks in Philadelphia. A few years later, in 1930, "Strike Up the Band" was redone, with just six of the 14 songs and very little of the satiric bite of the flop 1927 version. Only the bare bones of the Kaufman plot were retained, and the U.S. war with Switzerland was changed to a dream sequence about a conflict over chocolate. (The 1940 film with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had only the rousing title number in common with the original theater piece.)

Perhaps understandably, the earlier production continued to live in memory and reputation, even as its physical components--script, score and instrumental parts--were scattered and lost. Two efforts to stage the 1927 version--in Philadelphia in 1984 and in Pasadena and at the Music Center in 1988--were forced to rely on mixtures of material from both shows. This winter, however, a fully restored 1927 "Strike Up the Band," the result of three years of careful, jigsaw puzzle-like assemblage of elements, has finally been released by Elektra Nonesuch Records.

The two-CD package is the second ("Girl Crazy" was the first) and by far the most ambitious result of an ongoing plan by Elektra Nonesuch and the Ira Gershwin estate's Roxbury Recordings to issue authentic versions of all of the Gershwins' musical theater productions.

"There wasn't much to go on when we got started," said Tommy Krasker, Roxbury's vice president in charge of production, and the recording's principal restoration expert.

"It only existed in bits and pieces. To make things worse, it sometimes was difficult to tell what was from the first production and what was from the second. All that was actually published from the '27 show was six songs--all in sheet music form, which, of course, rarely includes all the verses and choruses of the full numbers."

Other elements that might have helped in the reconstruction were also missing: There were no photographs, and, because the play closed out of town, very few press clippings or articles.

"We finally put it together, almost literally piece by piece," explained Krasker. "Fortunately, we had the director's version of the original Kaufman script, with instructions to the Gershwins as to where the music was to go, and they very much followed his instructions. We also had some lyrics, a few orchestral parts, some piano-vocal scores, and a number of sketches."

But there were problems that couldn't be solved, simply because there were no surviving manuscripts or reference points. The song "Meadow Serenade" may have been the most demanding example.

"There was virtually no music to work with, although the lyric sheet had survived," Krasker said. "Kay Swift, a composer and dear friend of George and Ira's, had, in the '40s, reconstructed the song's refrain from memory. But there was no music for the verse at all, and no one could remember how it went.

"We could have just used the song's refrain. But I thought the verse was critical to set up the relationship between the leading man and the leading lady. So I went to Burton Lane, who is, of course, a very great songwriter, a friend of George and Ira's and a collaborator with Ira."

Krasker asked Lane if he would consider writing new music for Ira's lyrics to the verse. Lane agreed, and his contribution on the album is the only music that isn't Gershwin.

"That was as far as we got from an authentic restoration," said Krasker, "but I thought it was a valid approach. Lacking a tune of George's, we went to a contemporary who was a valid songwriter in his own right. And, of course, we acknowledge it in our liner notes."

Krasker's assemblage bristles with Gershwin vigor and wit. Equally important, the Ira and Lenore Gershwin trusts, through Roxbury Recordings, provided resolute sponsorship and support in the successful effort to prepare the 1927 "Strike Up the Band."

Roxbury, a proprietary company of the Ira Gershwin estate, was energized by Ira's widow, Lenore, who--until her death earlier this year--was determined to present the brothers' entire catalogue of works to the public as George and Ira Gershwin wanted them to be heard.

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