by Michael Bowen

Maybe you associate swing music with beautiful young people cavorting about in khaki pants in those Gap commercials. Or perhaps, with more historical perspective, you figure that all those boogie-woogie rhythms helped keep people's minds off their troubles in the 1930s and '40s. We'd just gotten out of the Depression, and there was a war on, you know.

Yet as is often the case with pop culture, the music of Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington served deeper needs.

"Swing music is more communistic than anyone of that generation would probably care to admit," says Casey MacGill, leader of the Spirits of Rhythm and Spokane's local connection to the touring production of Swing! (at the Opera House from March 6-9).

In the original 1999 Broadway production of Swing!, the part of the bandleader was created for MacGill, who lived in Spokane for 15 years but has now migrated to Seattle. (He has a couple of upcoming local performances: at the Feb. 28 Mardi Gras at the Davenport, and in the concert-style performance of music from Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin' at North Idaho College on March 22-23.)

MacGill denies that swing simply provided feel-good tunes for Depression- and war-era listeners. "The notion that swing music was escapist," he argues, "was fed by the Hollywood machine in the '30s, when all those Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies were artfully done but had nothing to do with 99 percent of the population. In the music business, the commercialization of swing music signaled its demise."

Swing united people, in other words, during trying times: "It saved this country from another civil war," MacGill maintains, referring to the deprivations of the Great Depression. "There was lots of protest -- and even a few protest songs -- in the '30s," he recalls -- but when swing was treated as fluff, it lost its impact.

Nevertheless, as the Swing! bandleader, MacGill opened the show with a stark gesture. "I remember standing alone in the dark onstage," MacGill recalls, "and the house would quiet down, and playing the ukulele every night, solo. The first number in the show is "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," and I would do a little vamp on the ukulele, a short intro, and then the band would pick it up and we'd be into the show." He laughs. "The show still starts in the same way, I believe, so I guess I'm responsible for putting somebody through the torture of that opening ukulele bit."

But after that quiet beginning, the joint starts jumpin'. While MacGill himself has leaped into other projects, the show is into its third national tour already. From the perspective of Chase Steele Greye, one of the two principal male singers in the current show, it must take some adjustments to perform 60-year-old music. Doesn't it just seem old-fashioned?

"Overall, yes. It's music from a different time," responds Greye. "But you know, everything has a resurgence. A few years ago, the Gap produced commercials with swing music, with all those people wearing khaki pants. Now, that was very smart: Gap is always on the cusp of what's cool. But they must have asked themselves, 'Now who are the people who don't know anything about swing?' The younger people. Link it to khakis, and they'll think it's something cool.

"So at our show," Greye explains, "one of the most fascinating things is to look out at the audience, and I will see kids as young as 14, 15, and they came because they heard about it from a dance teacher or from those Gap commercials. So swing is getting a whole new life."

Which is not to say that the nostalgia crowd has abandoned swing. "And, of course, I see the 50- to 70-year-olds," continues Greye, "and they love it. They know all the songs, and they get teary-eyed because of all the associations they have with that era."

As an understudy last year, Greye had to get primed and ready to go every night, even though he actually only went on 25 times out of 360 performances. This year, he's on every night, "which has its own challenges," he says. "Sometimes it's five cities in a week. I mean, it's one thing if you've got a starring role and they put you up in a four-star hotel and you stay in the same place for an extended run. But this is a lot of bus rides -- I mean, often we finish the show and the next day we're on the bus for 200, 300 miles, with your legs bunched up in front of you in a ball, and then it's hop out, do a quick sound check and you're into it."

With the grind of daily repetition, and with the show requiring so much energy every night, what can a singer do to keep it fresh?

"I do a light vocal warm-up," Greye reports, "and I generally bring a CD to the dressing room. I sing a lot of Harry Connick Jr., some Sinatra, and even Prince. People might think that's an odd choice, but Prince uses a lot of his top range, and there's a high note at the end of 'Bli-Blip.'

"I don't come in until the fourth or fifth number, but I sing through the songs with the other guys during the first few songs" -- this is down on the monitor, in the dressing room -- "because I really have to come on strong at my first entrance."

"My character is a businessman," says Greye, "and he's always trying to get to work or to see his girlfriend. The problem is, he's always late, and he gets caught up in the singing and the dancing -- you'll see him always coming on, looking at his watch."

While Greye is part of the quartet of lead singers in Swing!, he also does a little dancing, and the show introduces changes in rhythm and choreography, too. "In 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,'" Greye comments, "that's usually associated with three women in Army suits singing about this one particular guy. Well, in our show, we twist it: I sing it, and we have some others dancing it and singing it, and we give it an R & amp;B, hip-hop flavor. So we're reinventing that number."

Despite the show's innovations, though, traditional elements like the appeal to patriotism remain. "There's definitely an element of [patriotism] in this show. We make an attempt at a USO scene," says Greye, sounding as if he knows that recreating the emotional intensity of World War II is daunting. "People are dancing and singing, and suddenly you hear [a patriotic tune] and everyone stops and salutes."

American pride, that sense of being caught up in larger and traumatic national effort, would emerge from this Swing! tour later on, though transmuted. Greye recalls that "We were slotted to open, believe it or not, on 9/11. We were in Charlotte, N.C. Well, of course, we didn't open that night -- we actually opened on Sept. 12. And I remember thinking to myself, nobody's going to come to this show. But that show was full. People were looking for an outlet. I looked out on the audience, and I saw people who were laughing, and of course some were very emotional, especially during the USO scene."

Swing! turns out to have two sides, then, presenting both the promise of exuberance and the hope of consolation. On one hand, in Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy," the ballroom is "The home of sweet romance, / It wins you at a glance, / Gives happy feet a chance to dance." Yet today, with another, different war impending, the music of Swing!, at least in part, has darker undertones, offering solace to those whose loved ones are shipping out. Don't sit under the apple tree, the words implore, with anyone else but me.

No, no, no.

Publication date: 02/27/03

Hillyard Festival @ Hillyard

Aug. 6-8
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.