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Glorious George

A Century After His Birth, George Gershwin's Music--From "Summertime" to "Embraceable You," Rhapsody in Blue to Porgy and Bess--is Attracting New Generations of Fans
Edward Jablonski
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 1)

George Gershwin was at the top of his craft, and his popularity soared. He made the cover of Time in 1925. Trim, tan and athletic, he enjoyed golf, horseback riding, tennis and other sports. He loved the arts as well; he was soon to become an accomplished painter and a collector of contemporary art. He was lionized by society and pursued by women (though he never married). He was a celebrity, constantly interviewed and asked for his autograph, and always the center of attention at every party. Yet some of his greatest fans were musicians and pianists. His compositions were performed in Britain and France; the All-Gershwin concerts at Lewisohn Stadium--a Manhattan football stadium that was converted into a concert "hall" each summer--sold out for several years.

(Although he never married, Gershwin had an affair that lasted nearly 10 years with composer Kay Swift, who was married with three children and a frequently traveling husband, banker James Warburg. When Warburg agreed to a divorce, which was finalized in 1934, one of the stipulations was that Swift could never marry Gershwin.)

The Twenties and Thirties resounded to the sounds of more than a dozen Gershwin musicals, boasting such songs as "Sweet and Low-Down," "That Certain Feeling," "Looking for a Boy," "Someone To Watch Over Me," "'S Wonderful," "My One and Only," "Embrace-able You" and "I Got Rhythm." The last two came from Girl Crazy, Gershwin's second major hit of 1930. Earlier in the year, he had revised Strike Up the Band, the short-lived antiwar musical he had composed in 1927; with a sweetened libretto and several new songs, the new version enjoyed a successful run. By this time, George had begun the practice of conducting his musicals on opening night. He loved being involved from start to finish of a show, something that did not happen, to his frustration and distress, in Hollywood.

With Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy blithely and lucratively running in Manhattan, the Gershwins left for Hollywood in November 1930 to work on their first film musical, Delicious, which would star Hollywood's top romantic team of the day, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Hollywood had only recently found its voice, and inevitably began filming generally inept musicals; just as inevitably, it summoned Broadway's most celebrated songwriting team to score Delicious. But it wasn't tasty at all; Hollywood was not ready for the Gershwins, and not quite up to the production of the musical film in 1930-'31.

The major achievement of Delicious was Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, the expansion of a ballet-like music sequence in the script called Manhattan Rhapsody. In its longer version it is a remarkable composition, revealing Gershwin in a new light, with a work less romantic than the first Rhapsody. In keeping with the scenes in the film of a dark, even menacing, metropolis--as seen through the eyes of a young, frightened, Scottish immigrant (Gaynor)--Second Rhapsody is harsh, austere and unsettling. Its opening, a driving piano theme, gave Gershwin the idea for his original title, Rhapsody in Rivets, but he decided on his final title because it was "more simple and more dignified."

When he completed the work in June 1931, Gershwin hired an orchestra of more than 50 to play it for him. After the session, he informed Isaac Goldberg that "in many respects, such as orchestration and form, it is the best thing I've ever written."

The Gershwins returned to New York to produce their acerbic study of American politics, titled Of Thee I Sing. Partly inspired by Strike Up the Band, it was a huge hit and, with 441 performances, their most enduring show. With the book and lyrics by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for drama. But then came three financial flops in succession, Pardon My English and Let 'Em Eat Cake (the Of Thee I Sing sequel) both in 1933, and yes, Porgy and Bess, in spite of 11 months devoted to the composition and nine to orchestration.

Considering that Porgy and Bess is now the most acclaimed of American operas, it is difficult to believe that the public stayed away from the show. But theatergoers had not expected an opera from George Gershwin; they had hoped for another Girl Crazy or a production that reminded them of one of his other popular musicals, such as Tip-Toes (1925) or Funny Face (1927). The critics, some antagonistic, did not believe he could write an opera, saying that he was a mere songwriter and that he should stick to Broadway musicals. Porgy and Bess closed after 124 New York performances, a financial failure. A brief road tour then took it to Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The strength of its songs kept the score alive until revivals and the restoration of original music (which had been removed from the score during its Boston previews before the New York premiere) revealed Porgy and Bess to be the masterpiece it is.

After the public's reaction to Porgy, the Gershwins decided to return to writing lighter musicals. By this time Hollywood was having greater success with the form, reaching its acme with the sophisticated and now classic films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. First teamed in 1933's Flying Down to Rio, with music by Vincent Youmans, Astaire and Rogers had become RKO Radio's leading stars by 1936, with scores provided by such legends as Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.

Hollywood was suspicious of the operatic Gershwins, fearing that the duo would write only "highbrow" songs. George retorted with "...rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. Am out to write hits."

The brothers wrote two complete scores for Astaire--Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress (without Rogers)--as well as the tragically unfinished The Goldwyn Follies, out of which flowed such songs as "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "A Foggy Day," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and George Gershwin's last song, "Love is Here to Stay."

Once contracts had been worked out, the Gershwins--George, Ira and Ira's wife, Leonore--flew to California in August 1936. Hollywood did not keep George occupied as he might have been on Broadway, a fact that after some weeks irritated him. Between work sessions with Ira, he flew to concert appearances in Seattle, San Francisco and Detroit. In early February 1937, while rehearsing a Porgy and Bess medley with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, George lost his balance and nearly fell from the podium, but he recovered immediately. The next evening, he lost his way in a simple solo piano passage of the Concerto in F, complaining later of a headache and the smell of burning rubber.

These were the first manifestations of the brain tumor that would take his life five months later. He had several physicals during that time and saw a battery of doctors, including an analyst (some of his friends believed his dizzy spells and headaches were psychosomatic, caused by his unhappiness in Hollywood). The analyst, however, concluded that the symptoms were physical, not emotional.

In June 1937, Gershwin spent four days in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, undergoing tests. The doctors offered no diagnoses except the opinion that it was "most likely hysteria." Two weeks later, Gershwin was back at Cedars in a coma. The tumor's effects were readily apparent by then, and an immediate "energetic surgical intervention" was begun. It was much too late; the tumor may have been present long before the Concerto in F incident back in February. Gershwin died on a Sunday morning, July 11, 1937. Mourned worldwide, he left behind an unequaled musical legacy.

Gershwin's had been a celebrated life, but he always retained his social equilibrium. Nanette Kutner, who years earlier had successfully applied for a job as his secretary before going on to become a noted producer, had approached the renowned composer (at the time still in his 20s) with apprehensive awe. She recalled their first encounter:

"Meeting him was a shock. Here was no art pose, but a blatant earthiness. God be praised, he was alive; lusty, suntanned, athletic, wearing blue shirts, smoking black cigars."

Edward Jablonski is co-author, with Lawrence D. Stewart, of The Gershwin Years and author of An Encyclopedia of American Music; Gershwin--A Biography; Harold Arlen--Rhythm, Rainbows and Blues and the forthcoming Irving Berlin, American Troubadour.

Gershwin's Greatest Hits

The Gershwin centennial unleashed a profusion of compact discs, some new, some old--reissues of vintage 78 rpms and LPs. It is a rare record manufacturer that has not hopped onto the Gershwin steamroller, and artists, from jazz to rock to pop, are having their way (alas, in some instances) with the Gershwin works. Among the best of this group are:

Historic Gershwin Recordings (BMG) One of the greatest Gershwin compilations, this two-CD set contains the two records of Rhapsody in Blue (1924, 1927) and the first (1929) of An American in Paris, in which George plays the celesta and the taxi horns he brought back from Paris. This is one of the best recordings ever of this work. Also included are songs from Porgy and Bess in a recording, supervised by Gershwin, that was made only days after the premiere of the opera. It stars the New York Metropolitan Opera's Lawrence Tibbett, and not the then-unknown original cast. Alex-ander Smallens conducts Porgy's orchestra and chorus. Other highlights: Leonard Bernstein's early American in Paris, and Morton Gould's (a Gershwin favorite) idiomatic performances of the Rhapsody, the Piano Preludes and a marvelous Porgy and Bess suite. The technical job of restoration is superb.

Gems from Gershwin (BMG) A wonderful collection of Gershwin from a 1938 memorial broadcast starring Jane Froman, Felix Knight and Sonny Schuyler, with chorus and orchestra conducted by Gershwin's good friend Nathaniel Shilkret. A cornucopia of music: medleys of songs presented in period style, with Gershwinesque romanticism and zest. Fine transmissions from early masters.

Selections from Porgy and Bess and Blue Monday (Telarc) The major feature of this disc is the first complete recording of Gershwin's early (1922) opera, Blue Monday, using the original orchestration by Will Vodery. The "opere" lasted for one performance in New York as an unlikely presentation in that year's George White's Scandals. Another priceless discovery is "Lonely Boy," a song Gershwin had composed but did not use, in Porgy and Bess.

George & Ira Gershwin Standards & Gems (Nonesuch) Fifteen gems, some from the Nonesuch series of complete Gershwin musicals, and a couple of new ones. All are authentically orchestrated and lovingly performed by an excellent cast. One of the finest collections of the year.

Porgy and Bess (Sony Masterworks Heritage series) This two-CD set features the 1952 recording of the score, supervised by the astute Goddard Lieberson for Columbia Records. While not in truth complete as it is advertised, the recording contains a good deal of the score, beautifully sung, and knowingly conducted by Lehman Engel. This recording was a trailblazer in its day, and it still is.

George & Ira Gershwin in Hollywood (Rhino Movie Music/Ted Turner) A rich two-CD collection of songs from several films, including Shall We Dance, A Damsel in Distress and Gershwin's last, The Goldwyn Follies. Also featured are Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and much more. Produced by the indefatigable Gershwinite Michael Feinstein, the set contains alternate takes, cut songs and a couple of Ira songs written with other composers. Such devotion gives scholarship a good name.

Gershwin on Monarch (Monarch Records) A lovable collection of vocals and instrumentals by West Coast musicians, made especially for the centenary. A dozen great songs in great interpretations, some jazzy, some romantic, all Gershwin.

Gershwin Rarities:The 1953/1954 Walden Sessions (Harbinger) Ages ago, I co-founded a tiny record company with Leon Sidell called Walden Records, emphasizing the neglected songs of great American songwriters.

It was a heady time. Al Hirschfeld did our covers. Our performers worked for scale (Leon and I, as it worked out, did it for the love of it). Several of the songwriters, including Cole Porter, Howard Arlen and our "godfather," Ira Gershwin, participated. The series was critically praised but poorly distributed and Walden faded away.

Now two dreamers, Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom, are bringing back the Walden library on compact discs. Though recorded decades ago, the re-recording is remarkable. This CD features such lesser-known Gershwin gems as "Where's the Boy? Here's the Girl!" from the 1928 musical Treasure Girl and the posthumously released "Aren't You Kind of Glad We Did?" from the 1947 film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Listening to this labor of love 45 years later, I can honestly say I am proud of what we did.--EJ


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