Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Mark Giesser: Strike Up The Band

By | Published on Friday 1 March 2019

Beginning at Upstairs At The Gatehouse this week is a new production of Gershwin Brothers musical ‘Strike Up The Band’, and interestingly, director Mark Giesser has chosen to use the original 1927 script rather than the more successful 1930 rewrite.

To find out more I spoke to Mark, ahead of the upcoming run.

CM: To begin with, can you tell us what the show is all about? What story does it tell? What themes does it explore?
MG: ‘Strike Up The Band’ is a satirical musical look at the practices of American big business and the military-industrial complex at the heart of international conflict. It’s about how Horace J. Fletcher, a likeable ‘typical self-made American’ who has worked his way up from sweeping floors to owning America’s largest cheese factory, manoeuvres the American government into a war in order to protect his business interests and increase his profits. As a result of Fletcher’s manipulation, America, which has put a very heavy tariff on imported cheese, invades Switzerland after Switzerland protests the tariff.

CM: How would you describe the style of it? Would you call it comedy?
MG: Comic playwright George S. Kaufman conceived the story and took it to the Gershwin brothers to musicalise it. At its heart, it’s a classic musical comedy filled with complicated love stories and wonderful tunes, but with an edge.

CM: You’re using the original script, but it was re-written in 1930. Can you explain why the script was re-written, and why you decided to use the original?
MG: The original version proved a bit too edgy for audiences in 1927, when American business was king and America largely wanted to forget about World War 1. The 1930 re-write changed the premise from cheese to chocolate and softened the edges. This was better received on Broadway as a traditional musical, but I wanted to put Kaufman’s and the Gershwins’s original vision on its feet, as it’s definitely a story for our times. And really, a masterful musical comedy about a war over American cheese is irresistible!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
MG: I’m very fortunate to have a highly talented and dedicated cast for this production. They’re a lovely mixture of West End and international theatre veterans and seriously up-and-coming fresh faces, the latter including Offie-nominated actresses Charlotte Christensen and Sammy Graham. I’ve had the great pleasure of working previously with two – Richard Emerson, who plays Fletcher, and Beth Burrows, who plays his daughter, Joan. But everyone has been a delight to work with, and that also goes for our equally talented and dedicated creative team.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you now? Did you always want to work in this field and how did you get started?
MG: I’m a bit of a classic cliché: I’ve wanted to work in theatre ever since I acted in my first school play at age 6. I developed that impulse throughout university training and a few diversionary occupations from lawyer and editor to United States park ranger, and eventually started producing and directing in New York. My wife and I moved to Europe a number of years ago, first by way of Switzerland, and when we landed in London, I started to re-develop my theatrical business here.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
MG: I’ve worked in both New York and London with many brilliant performers, especially the American multiple Emmy-winner/Tony nominee Lois Nettleton. In London, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the iconic American actor and screenwriter Alan Alda to premiere his first full-length drama, ‘Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie’, starring Bafta nominee and ‘Band of Gold’ star, Cathy Tyson. And I’ve also had the equally exciting opportunity to help showcase newcomer Beth Burrows on the London stage, first with her own show, ‘Sirens of the Silver Screen’, and then in my adaptation of the Chekhov classic, The Lady With a Dog.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
MG: I hope to continue working as long as possible in staging both new work and overlooked gems. George Abbott was still directing on Broadway at age 100 – he’s one of my heroes!

CM: What’s coming up next? Any projects in the pipeline?
MG: Well, we’ll see where ‘Strike Up The Band’ goes. There are also other neglected musical treasures in particular I wouldn’t mind exploring.

‘Strike Up The Band’ is on at Upstairs At The Gatehouse from 6-31 Mar. See the venue website here for information and to book.