Time to Remember: Dear Mr Gershwin….

On July 11th, 1937, legendary composer George Gershwin died at the tragically young age of 38 of a brain tumour. The quality, ambition and sheer craftsmanship of his music has enchanted generations – and continues to do so.

George (seated) and Ira Gershwin, 1932

This seems like a fitting moment to revisit an article written by my friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD from Spring 2011 where he describes meeting one of the Gershwin family, and delves into the complex world of writing a musical comedy show. At the time of writing his article, the 1930 Gershwin show GIRL CRAZY’s 1990s reworking as CRAZY FOR YOU was just about to be revived at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park.

In January, when in New York, I had great pleasure in meeting Todd Gershwin, George Gershwin’s great-nephew. On my return to the UK, starting a piece of correspondence to him with “Dear Mr Gershwin…” reminded me of Judy Garland’ singing “Dear Mr Gable…”, and made me smile. It was like being a tiny part of a legend. For the Gershwin music is still considered the cream of Broadway.

Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of George and Ira.

At our initial meeting I challenged Todd about what had appeared to be years of reluctance of the Gershwin Estate to encourage more use of the fabulous Gershwin music and he admitted that it may have seemed so in the past but that he was now wanting to get the Gershwin brothers’ timeless and elegant music back to a public hungry for quality over quantity.

The first stirring of this major renaissance will be seen this summer when CRAZY FOR YOU is the musical selected for this year’s summer season at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park. This reworking of the show GIRL CRAZY opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in March 1993 starring Ruthie Henshall and Kirby Ward and went on to run for a year before touring. The Gershwins’ sublime music had not been best showcased by the original book and this major revision (by the very talented Mike Ockrent) still did not do it justice, despite excellent choreography from Susan Stroman.

Although George Gershwin was undoubtedly the greatest theatre composer Broadway ever produced he was more a man of the theatre than a man of music. His early work was writing songs, even though he was disgusted with the banality of most “popular” songs. He became convinced that pop music appealed on too low a level and that good songs could only be written in a theatre context.

Thus, his first hits were mainly in revues – the song SWANEE appeared in the show SINBAD in 1918, DO IT AGAIN was in THE FRENCH DOLL in 1922 and I’LL BUILD A STAIRWAY TO PARADISE was in the same year’s GEORGE WHITE’S SCANDALS.

His best theatre songs began to emerge when he moved from revues to musical comedies. He found that revues consisted of isolated turns which encouraged a composer to write popular songs whereas musical comedies, however silly the book, demanded a context in which to write such songs as FASCINATING RHYTHM for the show LADY BE GOOD, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME for the show OH, KAY!, HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON for ROSALIE and the exquisite HE LOVES AND SHE LOVES for the show FUNNY FACE.

GIRL CRAZY Programme cover, 1930

The marvellous score that George had created for GIRL CRAZY (including EMBRACEABLE YOU, I GOT RHYTHM, BUT NOT FOR ME and BIDIN’ MY TIME left him depressed because of the foolish and insubstantial nature of the book. He tired of musical comedy and needed greater stage challenges. He then tried a new kind of musical, three political satires (STRIKE UP THE BAND, OF THEE I SING and LET THEM EAT CAKE). But audiences were not ready for shows which were half musical comedy and half comic opera with a message. He proclaimed these were “the composer’s claim to legitimacy” and his final work for the theatre was PORGY AND BESS which combined his masterly musicianship with theatricality at full strength.

His final years were spent in Hollywood writing songs for film musicals, many of his finest such as A FOGGY DAY IN LONDON TOWN, THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY. Although he never got around to it, George discussed writing a musical about the making of a musical. Forty years later such a musical was composed by Marvin Hamlisch – A CHORUS LINE.

Today George and Ira Gershwin’s music still inspires excitement and is identified with everything we consider as Broadway. However, the frivolous books of the shows of their time are totally unacceptable to current audiences and the art now is to provide a story which works today and is not just an excuse to string a large number of hits together.

GIRL CRAZY poster 1930

Interestingly, the stories of how the shows came about are infinitely more gripping than their wafer-thin plots. For example, the real story behind GIRL CRAZY. New York in the 1930s was the powerhouse of creativity which helped America come through the Great Depression. It was usual for Broadway musicals at that time to be created around the personality and talent of a star comedian. Thus, GIRL CRAZY was written for the great new clown Bert Lahr, and all the advance publicity was based on his being the star. However, Bert Lahr was enjoying a great success in a show called FLYING HIGH and refused to join the cast of GIRL CRAZY.

The producers went ahead with casting and early on selected Ginger Rogers, later auditioning Ethel Merman for her Broadway debut. But the problem was still the book. Despite a torrent of quick jokes the book remained trivial, implausible – and long. On 29 September 1930 the pre-Broadway tour of GIRL CRAZY opened in Philadelphia. When the first act ended Guy Bolton, who was co-librettist with Ira Gershwin, put on his coat, Ira asked if he was going for a drink. “No”, replied Guy, “I’m going home”. Ira was thunderstruck. “Home? There’s another act!” Guy replied calmly “Ira, it’s eleven o’clock. I’m going home. We’ll talk tomorrow”. After that, he honed down GIRL CRAZY and then moved to London where he lived for the next fifty years writing more than fifty plays.

L to R Ginger Rogers, George Gershwin, Ethel Merman, 1930

The opening night of GIRL CRAZY on 14 October 1930 found an enthusiastic reception for the young Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman tore the house down with I GOT RHYTHM, holding the high C note for a full sixteen bars. It is also staggering to note that the pit band included Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Benny Goodman on sax and Gene Krupa on drums, as well as on-stage pianist for Ethel Merman, Roger Edens. The production closed in June 1931 after 272 performances, having made a profit of $200,000.

In 1932 RKO filmed GIRL CRAZY with Mitzi Green, later selling the rights to MGM for the 1943 remake starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

It is high time for another rediscovery of the extraordinary songbook of George and Ira Gershwin, and in this the Regents Park production of CRAZY FOR YOU will undoubtedly lead the way. The fact that their music is being planned to be presented worldwide by Todd Gershwin gives one a real feeling that this time modern audiences’ love of Gershwin is here to stay.

L to R George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The photo is inscribed with good wishes to Heyward who collaborated with the brothers on PORGY AND BESS (1935). Photo courtesy US Information Service

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