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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

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Gershwin began his Rhapsody in Blue (for Jazz Band and Piano) three days later, on January 7. Grofé haunted the Gershwin apartment on 110th Street daily for pages of the rhapsody in Gershwin's two-piano version (which Gershwin did for all his subsequent concert works--from these he worked out the orchestration). The fully orchestrated rhapsody was completed a month to the day after it was begun, five days before Whiteman's concert at Aeolian Hall in New York City.

It was the sensation of a long, often tedious, afternoon. Newspaper critics argued over it for days, questioning whether a man who wrote show music could compose a serious work. Subsequent concerts of Rhapsody in Blue took place at the hall in March and in Carnegie Hall in April, and then it went on the road. Gershwin stayed with the band until it reached St. Louis, then returned to New York to work on his next show. The notoriety and popularity of his very American and innovative composition brought him a contract from the New York Symphony for a full-scale concerto, resulting in the brilliant Concerto in F in 1925.

As it had begun in triumph with Rhapsody in Blue, 1924 closed with another hit, the musical Lady, Be Good! This was the first major collaboration on a Broadway show by the Gershwins. (By this time, Ira had shed his alter ego, Arthur Francis. By then everyone in the business knew who he was and, in addition, there was an English songwriter named Arthur Frances.)

Lady, Be Good! proved to be a landmark musical, short on plot but abundant in musical and lyrical quality; literate, breezy, youthful, of its time and in a word, Gershwinesque. Forty musicals were produced in New York that year, and after the Gershwins' hit, the sound of the American musical changed--it grew up. Just as Rhapsody in Blue opened the doors at Carnegie Hall to American composers, Lady, Be Good! paved the way for the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans and others. And, as they had hoped for years before, Fred and Adele Astaire were the happy stars who sang such songs as "Fascinating Rhythm," "The Half of It, Dearie, Blues," "So Am I" and, for a time, "The Man I Love," which was dropped from the show after it opened in Philadelphia, two weeks before its Broadway debut.

With the success of Rhapsody in Blue and Lady, Be Good!, George Gershwin was now the George Gershwin, which is how the less dynamic, less flamboyant Ira preferred it; sibling rivalry was no problem in their unique collaboration.

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."

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