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An Assist From a Star Arranger

The man who helped everyone from Dietrich to Streisand lends his expertise to Gershwin.

February 18, 2001|DARYL H. MILLER | Daryl H. Miller is a regular contributor to Calendar

Stacks of music await Peter Matz.

Just arrived at his home in the Hollywood Hills, the scores contain orchestrations for the 1927 George and Ira Gershwin musical "Strike Up the Band," which Matz is conducting for the Reprise! concert series.

These are his toys. " 'Play' is the operative word for musicians," he says with a grin. "They are playing."

The 71-year-old Matz can count many illustrious names among his playmates.

He became a protege of Broadway and film composer Harold Arlen in the mid-'50s, then provided piano accompaniment for landmark Las Vegas performances by Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward. He was arranger-conductor for Barbra Streisand's early albums and television specials, and after serving as bandleader for television variety shows such as "The Kraft Music Hour," he held that post on "The Carol Burnett Show."

Now, Matz is a driving force behind Reprise!, which presents semi-staged versions of rarely produced classic musicals.

"Musical theater is really a native art form," he says, and should be preserved for "the same reason it's important to preserve a Frank Lloyd Wright building or not let old movies decay in the can."

As music director, Matz works with the singers and instrumentalists to achieve an authentic period sound. In performance, he conducts and plays keyboard from his post just right of center in the onstage band.

"Strike Up the Band" has him working with director Don Amendolia and a cast led by Charles Nelson Reilly. The show opens Wednesday for a two-week run at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

A political satire that takes aim at corporate America and the military-industrial complex, "Strike Up the Band" tells the story of a cheese magnate who masterminds a war between the U.S. and Switzerland after the Swiss protest America's tariff on imported cheese.

Built of George S. Kaufman's zingers and the Gershwins' plot-forwarding songs, the show won the support of critics but was shunned by audiences when it began a pre-Broadway tryout in 1927. It closed before reaching New York.

After substantial rewrites and the casting of a popular comedy duo, it managed a run of 191 performances on Broadway in 1930--then disappeared. Eventually, its title and title song--but none of its story--were borrowed for the better-known 1940 film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

In the 1980s, preservationists began to piece together Kaufman's original script. California Music Theatre, then active in Pasadena, presented a version in 1988.

The concert adaptation to be presented by Reprise! was written by David Ives ("All in the Timing") for a 1998 performance by Reprise!'s New York counterpart, Encores!

Although Matz strives "as much as possible to honor the style of the original," he's finding this to be a challenge with "Strike Up the Band's" best-known song, "The Man I Love." Today, the song is a favorite of torchy female singers everywhere. But as written for the show, it was neither slow nor touched with heartache.

"It was a fox trot and quite cheery," Matz says. "If we do it really authentically, I'm afraid that people are going to think we're trying to be funny with it. It's going to be really challenging to see if we can get a little bit of the wistfulness in there and still have [the Gershwins'] intention of the tempo and the lilt to it."

Matz's devotion to such details has been integral to Reprise!'s success, says producing artistic director Marcia Seligson.

Looking back on the first four seasons, she says, "I don't think I would do this without him. He's an amazing person and an amazing musician, and enormous fun to work with. He's just a delicious guy."

Perhaps most important, he opened a talent pipeline. The series goes after big-name headliners in hopes that the short time commitment--eight days of rehearsal, two weeks of performances--will fit into their schedules. Matz's presence encouraged many of the first season's stars to sign on, Seligson says, including Jason Alexander, Jean Smart, Malcolm Gets and Lucie Arnaz.

*

At home, Matz works in an upstairs warren of rooms where the walls are covered with photos--many of which show him collaborating with famous singers.

Now and again, the photos become illustrations as he talks about his career.

In what Matz jokingly refers to as his "terrible, misguided youth," he studied chemical engineering at UCLA. In his free time, he picked up gigs playing woodwinds with area dance bands.

After graduating in 1950, he followed his heart instead of his head--which took him to Paris to explore its lively music scene.

In 1954, he moved to New York to study piano and music theory while seeking gainful employment. Through friends, he learned of a job as rehearsal pianist for Arlen's Broadway musical "House of Flowers," then advanced to writing orchestrations, vocal arrangements and dance music for Arlen's next musical, "Jamaica."

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