Irving Berlin and Moss Hart's Face the Music was written in 1932, a year when the "times are not so sweet, but the bluebloods have to eat, so the best of families meet - in the Automat."
It was the heart of the Great Depression, with a nation in great pain. For Berlin and Hart (as well as for David Ives, who adapted the musical for City Center's Encores! series) it was better to laugh than complain - or rather it was better to complain through laughter. So there's a Depression parade, urged on by the do-nothing President Herbert Hoover. The poor carry signs reading "It's smart to be thrifty" and sing out that therefore "we'll just have two cheers instead of three, for the land of the brave and the free."
Face the Music is the second production this season in Encores!' semistaged concert series of revivals - a season devoted to an exploration of Broadway's "Follies." The first was a glorious staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies one of the best musicals ever written. Now, with Face the Music, Encores! is two for two.
Face the Music couldn't be more different from Follies. It represents, as Ives noted in a Playbill article, a time when most musicals were evanescent things - little more than passing fancies, put on for fun, for an evening's entertainment, hopefully to make a buck or two, and then gone and probably forgotten.
Such was the Berlin-Hart musical's fate. It opened at the New Amsterdam Theater in February 1932, ran for 165 performances - a reasonable run then - went on a short tour, returned briefly to the 44th Street Theater and then passed into history. So much so that when Encores! decided to present it, it required extensive restoration - provided by Ives in his concert adaptation of Hart's book and Bruce Pomahac, Rob Fisher and their aides for the score, which includes four songs that were restored to the show.
Much thanks to them all, because Face the Music is a joyous romp, a giddy return to the past, a case of nothing but smiles for a spring night.
The plot, such as it is, is basic. The producer Hal Reisman (perhaps a distant relation of the producer Dimitri Weissman in Follies) is persuaded to put on a show, Rhinestones of 1932. Reisman (portrayed delightfully by Walter Bobbie, Encores!' original artistic director) needs to get money. He turns of all people to the police - Martin van Buren Meshbesher (and his wife, Myrtle Meshbesher), a couple played to comic perfection by Lee Wilkof and Judy Kaye.
The Meshbeshers are looking for a way to use illegally gotten gains (kept in little tin boxes, 27 years before the "Little Tin Box" of Fiorello). The idea is to lose the money (this a mere 36 years before Mel Brooks and The Producers) to avoid being nabbed in a corruption investigation - and also to provide dates for the cops with the chorus girls. When the critics turn their thumbs emphatically down, a gimmick must be found to keep the show running - so it can keep on losing money. The plan is to add sex and nudity, so the Vice Squad will raid, and Page One headlines will put asses in the seats.
The musical provides Hart and Berlin - and Ives - with a chance to poke fun at the times, but especially at show business. As Reisman proudly declares, "no man can stand there and tell me they have more money than I can lose in a show"; and "we're in show business; you'll never regret it - your money's as good as lost now"; and "bankers don't know anything about show business; just because it's called show business bankers might think it's actually a business."