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Home > Blog > January 2017 > David Ives on Gershwin, Cheese Wars, and Adapting 33 Musicals for Encores!
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David Ives on Gershwin, Cheese Wars, and Adapting 33 Musicals for Encores!

January 30, 2017 by New York City Center

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.”

Philip Bosco and company in the 1998 Encores! production of Strike Up the Band. (Joan Marcus)

What were the differences between the 1927 libretto and the 1930 libretto? Did you ever consider using the declawed 1930 version at Encores! ?
As I recall, the 1927 book was about a war about cheese, the 1930 was about a war over chocolate. Cheese is funnier than chocolate so we did cheese. Just saying the word can prompt a laugh. John Rando’s brilliant idea of having very large slices of prop Swiss cheese didn’t hurt either. I don’t believe anybody ever suggested doing the 1930 version though God knows I may have stolen from it. This is, after all, many many many years ago.

Were Gershwin purists upset that Encores! was essentially mounting a hybrid of two different scripts?
Not that I recall. And you know what? Fuck ‘em. We took an old failure and turned it into a fresh new evening. It’s how theater works and what Encores! is for.

You’ve said that a huge part of your job at Encores! was cutting the wife-beating jokes. Are there any particularly disturbing lines or jokes that you remember cutting from Strike Up the Band?
I don’t recall any. Let me see if I can rustle up a few and I’ll re-cut them.

How do you add jokes and bridging material without violating the spirit of the original show? For Strike Up the Band, did you have to immerse yourself in Kaufman’s work, to get that style into your bloodstream?
My job at Encores! over the course of 33 shows was a form of dramaturgical ventriloquism, which means that I had to write like Kaufman or Morrie Ryskind or George Abbott or Buddy Da Silva or, God help me, Herb Fields. So “violating the spirit” was exactly the opposite of what I was trying to do. My job was to capture and enhance the spirit, if anything. Any new transitional material or new jokes simply had to be in the voice of the original bookwriter. Besides that, I had to cut the books by a quarter to a third, had to reduce props so that actors could carry the books in their hands (they carried books in binders in them there days), had to merge scenes and cut characters, all in the interest of letting the music stand out while giving the audience the impression they’d seen the original show. This may be why critics never seemed to notice that the books had been tampered with. They didn’t know what I’d done to them. Which is a long way around of saying:  do not be an Encores! adapter if it’s public recognition you’re looking for.

Judy Kuhn singing “The Man I Love” against the golden Encores! frame in the 1998 production of Strike Up the Band. (Joan Marcus)

Was George S. Kaufman’s daughter Anne Kaufman involved in the process?
Another story. I had added a joke for Judy Kuhn and at the Wednesday afternoon dress rehearsal an elderly woman in a bright beret came storming across the audience of City Center to hiss at me, “My father did not write that joke!” “It’s a good joke,” I said, “it’ll get a laugh.” She was still seething. “My father never would have written that joke.” “Okay,” I said, “I’ll make a deal with you. If nobody laughs at the line tonight at the invited dress, I’ll cut it.” Well, Anne is a woman of spirit, game and always up for some fun. “Deal,” she said and we shook on it. So the line came around and sure enough it got a big laugh. She instantly periscoped up in the crowd and glared at me across the audience, acknowledging that the line had gotten the laugh I’d promised. She and I made the same bet for the rest of the performances and every night it got a big laugh. So it stayed in. Not because it was a brilliant joke but because it was placed right, it was one of those trigger-lines where the rhythm alone sparks the audience. Anyway there was some gala dinner after the final performance and I was sitting at a table with my wife and my mother when the doors opened and Anne Kaufman, looking very regal, appeared. She scanned the crowd, stood up very straight, and gave me the finger. So we became great friends and remain so to this day.

David Schramm, Lynn Redgrave, Jason Danieley, and Philip Bosco in the 1998 Encores! production of Strike Up the Band. (Joan Marcus)

By 1998, you had already worked many times with John Rando, and this was his first New York musical. What did he bring to the production?
His genius for comedy. His spirit. Any John Rando show is a portrait of the inner John Rando, which is just as effervescent as the outer John Rando. It may have been on Strike Up The Band when I happened to glance at John’s script, open on the director’s table, one day and saw that he had scribbled all the way down the right margin:  Better joke. Better joke. Better joke. So for an opening night gift I gave him a red ink pad and a large rubber stamp that said BETTER JOKE, to save him the trouble.

Are there any moments from his staging that you’re particularly fond of?
He had to stage a scene at the railing of a ship with Phil Bosco and Lynn Redgrave. I seem to remember that they were supposed to get seasick and that I named the ship the Deluxitania. (Sounded like a Kaufman gag.) Anyway Rando—and you have to remember that this was the days when an Encores! production was actors on a bare stage with scripts—Rando had a couple of actors in sailor suits hold a pole about twenty-five feet long parallel to the footlights to represent the railing, and they kept moving the ends of it up and down to show the motion of the ship. Brilliant. Now that’s theater!

Do you have any memories of working with Lynn Redgrave?
I adored her. She was up for anything and a hard worker. A great positive spirit in the room.

David Elder and Kristin Chenoweth hangin’ around in the 1998 Encores! production of Strike Up the Band. (Joan Marcus)

How about Kristin Chenoweth?

When I think of Kristin to this day I still think of her as upside-down because of the amazing upside-down choreography of Jeff Calhoun on “Hangin’ Around With You.” David Elder would flip Kristin wrong-side-up and they’d sing and dance and tap that way. That number brought down the house, and Kristin’s been bringing down every house since.

There was talk of Strike Up the Band transferring to Broadway (at least in Page Six). Why didn’t it?
I don’t read Page Six, so I didn’t know that all these years. I’m heartbroken.

John Rando told me that, of all the original Gershwin shows, Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing are the snappiest and the most resonant. What is it that remains powerful about Strike Up the Band?
I don’t think “powerful” is the word you’re looking for. Or even “resonant.” Sweeney Todd is powerful. Carousel is resonant. Strike Up The Band is a relic of a very different theater, when a show was just a night out and a chance for cocktails with a member of some sex, or a chance for sex with a drinker of cocktails. Shows went up and shows went down. They didn’t cost much to put up and they didn’t cost much to go see, nor did they have much they wanted to tell you. It was an ideal theater world as far as the public was concerned. On Strike Up The Band you had America’s best song composer, best lyricist, and best comic writer all working together. The show didn’t work, and didn’t last, for good reason. But at Encores!, good Christ, it was fun.

Rob Fisher conducts the chorus and orchestra of the 1998 Encores! production of Strike Up the Band. (Joan Marcus)

David Ives’ The Liar, adapted from the play by Pierre Corneille, runs through February 26 at Classic Stage Company.