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Performing Arts Blog

Sheet music—and chorines—from the 1930 Broadway production of Strike Up the Band.

The playwright David Ives’ adaptation of The Liar is now playing at Classic Stage Company—but before he tackled Corneille, Ives spent a few months every year at Encores!, spitshining ancient musical librettos about hard-boiled showgirls, lonesome puppeteers, and sex-crazed Roman gods. When we asked Ives to reminisce about his favorite Encores! experience, his response came with lickety-split certainty. The show was George and Ira Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band, a demented anti-war satire that closed out of town in 1927 and eventually limped onto Broadway in 1930. Encores! revived the musical in 1998, with a cast that included Philip Bosco, Kristin Chenoweth, Jason Danieley, Judy Kuhn, and Lynn Redgrave.

CITY CENTER: Why Strike Up the Band?
DAVID IVES: Fun, pure and simple. A fun cast. The verve of the music and the wackiness of some of the lyrics. In terms of the book, Kaufman’s anarchy spoke to me, as did his satire. Neither of those elements tends to be commercial—in fact I believe this is show that caused Kaufman to say that satire is what closes on Saturday night. The script is the kind of free-associational Marx Brothers-ish humor one doesn’t often find in Broadway musicals, though Book Of Mormon recently came close. I also took a very free hand in adapting Strike Up The Band, bolstered by the fact that it lasted only a few performances in 1927, suggesting that the show needed help. So I helped. While I’m on it I may as well mention a story. After the failure of the show Kaufman went down to Florida and was on the beach when an irate man cornered him and said he’d been an investor on the show and had lost a lot of money. Unfortunately the guy kept addressing Kaufman as “Mr. Gershwin,” apparently under the impression that George S. Kaufman was George Gershwin. “Why,” the man begged him, “why didn’t it work, Mr. Gershwin?” Kaufman gave in, and shrugged. “Kaufman,” he said, “gave me a lousy book.”

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January 30, 2017 by New York City Center

Michael John LaChiusa, Daryl Waters, Rachel Chavkin, Dave Malloy, and Michael Friedman share a laugh at Encores! Unscripted. (Sara Robillard)

Mark Twain, Tolstoy, and Tupac. All are untouchable; the idea of adapting their work into Broadway musicals would seem to be (at best) hubristic and (at worst) irredeemably loony. Luckily, that didn’t stop Big River composer Roger Miller—or Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, whose giddy riff on War and Peace is Broadway’s latest smash. It also didn’t stop Michael John LaChiusa, who has whipped everything from Giant to Rashomon into the musical theater form, or Daryl Waters, who helped shape the raps of Tupac Shakur into Holler If Ya Hear Me.

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January 25, 2017 by New York City Center

An 1885 lithograph of Mark Twain performing onstage. (Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

We don’t remember Mark Twain as a man of the theater, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Twain worked as a theater critic and wrote scores of plays (most have been forgotten, although Is He Dead? made a belated Broadway debut in 2007 in an adaptation by longtime Encores! scribe David Ives). Twain was also a garrulous participant in countless amateur productions, in which he played knights, lovers, and bears. In anticipation of the Encores! revival of Big River, City Center spoke with Andrew Levythe author of Huck Finn’s Americaabout Twain’s love of theater, how he made his book tours into “performance art,” and the extent to which Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was conceived in theatrical terms.

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January 23, 2017 by New York City Center

Ron Richardson and Daniel Jenkins in the original Broadway production of Big River. (Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts)

This February, Roger Miller’s classic musical Big River will return to New York in an Encores! revival. Below, producer Rocco Landesman offers a rollicking account of the show’s unlikely creation.

“If I’d a knowed what trouble it was to enact this history I never would a tackled it.” We certainly didn’t know, my wife Heidi and I, what we were in for, as we drove from our home in Brooklyn to a rare Roger Miller concert at the Lone Star Cafe in lower Manhattan. Could Roger Miller, we wondered out loud, write a Broadway musical?

The American musical and country music, we had long felt, were much closer in form and spirit than was generally thought, with their emphasis on lyrics in the service of storytelling and hummable melodies. Roger, I knew with total certainty, was a genius, the greatest American songwriter; he could do anything.

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January 17, 2017 by New York City Center