LET ‘EM ENJOY GERSHWIN By Peter Filichia
The eighty-sixth anniversary of LET ‘EM EAT CAKE is a good enough reason to celebrate George and Ira Gershwin.
No, their sequel to OF THEE I SING that opened on Oct. 21, 1933 didn’t do nearly as well as the original. But when you consider the four-performance fate of BRING BACK BIRDIE and the out-of-town closing of ANNIE 2, a ninety-performance run doesn’t seem so bad.
(Remember, too, that IRENE — the longest-running musical at that time — had only amassed 675 performances.)
LET ‘EM EAT CAKE comments more darkly on the helter-skelter and hurly-burly world of politics than OF THEE I SING did; thus it has its share of appropriately dissonant music. Yet it produced a jaunty pop standard: “Mine,” a duet in which now-former president John P. Wintergreen and his wife Mary reiterate their love.
“Mine” was so popular that when OF THEE I SING was revived on Broadway in 1952, it was interpolated into the score. Then history repeated itself twenty years later when Carroll O’Connor and Cloris Leachman played the Wintergreens in a television production of OF THEE I SING; they too sang “Mine.”
Ira’s lyrics include “Mine, you are mine … and I am yours … To know that love like yours is mine.” Reporters who are witnessing this informal renewal of vows sing “They more than get along … made him what he is today … you’d swear they’re not a married pair.”
Those words aptly describe the relationship between the Gershwin brothers: George (1898-1937) the composer and Ira (1896-1983) the lyricist.
Like most brothers, George and Ira differed. As children, George liked to play outside while Ira was the homebody who read books. Their mother Rose bought a piano figuring that if Ira were to just stay inside, he might as well take up an instrument.
Their surname still has power. Notice the ads for the currently touring company of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: “It’s Romance! It’s Adventure! It’s Gershwin!” That their name still sells tickets is in marked contrast to what “Dames” in 42ND STREET asserts: “No one cares and no one knows” who writes the music and lyrics.
Truth to tell, Rose also bought a piano as a symbol that her family was becoming more financially secure and reaching middle-class respectability. This Russian immigrant was already Americanized enough to keep up with Joneses and Jaffes.
George, not Ira, took to the instrument. Did he ever. Rose’s hopes for upward mobility took a downward turn when George dropped out of high school to play piano wherever he could. Rose was devastated, for she wanted and expected him to become an accountant.
What George ultimately chose as his profession would have him instead require the services of accountants.
George started out as a song plugger – meaning that he was hired by a store to play current hits on a piano in hopes that people would buy the sheet music for what they were hearing.
One young man and woman liked how he played: Fred and Adele Astaire. “Maybe we’ll work together some day,” Fred said.
They did just that in 1937 via the film SHALL WE DANCE. You can hear its title song, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Slap That Bass” on the cast album of CRAZY FOR YOU, the 1991-92 Tony-winning Best Musical.
That was a couple of decades after nineteen-year-old George had been signed to write the full score for a musical. He wasn’t yet old enough to vote or drink, but he was allowed to compose.
When Ira — 18 months older – later decided that he’d try writing lyrics, he didn’t want to ride on his brother’s already established coattails. So he called himself “Arthur Francis” (in honor of his other brother and sister, although masculinizing the spelling of her name). George encouraged him to be himself, and soon Ira was his brother’s go-to lyricist.
Ira often said that all he had to do was wave his hand in a certain way to indicate how the melody should sound, and George would understand and come out with precisely with what Ira had had in mind.
Sometimes George was inspired by the strangest occurrence. On a train trip from New York to Boston, he noticed the clickety-clack on the tracks. That would strike most of us as noise; George heard it as music and started a classical piece based on the sounds. He didn’t know what to call it, so he asked Ira to hear listen to it and make a suggestion.
Ira posed “Rhapsody in Blue.” So although the piece had no need for lyrics, Ira in a sense “put words” to it.
George and Ira had different approaches to their love lives, too. Ira married Lenore Strunsky in 1926 and stayed married to her for the rest of his life, fifty-seven years in all. George never married, but preferred affairs. One that lasted a decade involved pioneering female songwriter Kay (“Fine and Dandy”) Swift. Many say that Gershwin named the title character of OH, KAY! in her honor.
In the process, both Gershwins also honored Broadway in 1926 by giving OH, KAY! such songs as “Someone to Watch Over Me” “Do, Do, Do” and “Clap Yo’ Hands.”
In 1930, the title for the Gershwins’ GIRL CRAZY was almost truth in advertising: one lead was a mere nineteen.
She was doing well with her singing and acting but was having trouble learning to dance. The producer knew Fred Astaire and asked him to come in and work with the young miss. Astaire did and helped this Ginger Rogers.
Little did they know that they’d work together many more times.
CRAZY FOR YOU is loosely based on GIRL CRAZY. The new show retained “Bidin’ My Time,” “Embraceable You,” “But Not for Me” and “Could You Use Me?” And yet, the real discovery was “What Causes That?” Few knew this song from TREASURE GIRL, the Gershwins’ 1928 musical; now many consider the song a treasure, too.
When George decided to musicalize the play PORGY, he knew that the best way to get the right musical mood and approach would be to go where the opera would be set: Charleston, South Carolina. He wasn’t so surprised to find the town had no movie theater but he was astonished that it sported a Jewish delicatessen.
George was ahead of his time in race-appropriate casting. The Metropolitan Opera wanted to premiere PORGY AND BESS, but they expected they’d have their usual roster of white singers to don blackface. George was repulsed by the idea, adamantly refused and gave PORGY AND BESS to the then-powerful and respected Theatre Guild.
Although its 125-performance run was no world-beater, time has proved its worth. The Metropolitan Opera currently has a well-regarded production on the boards – with race-appropriate singers, of course.
While George’s tunes sound effortlessly tuneful, he often said “I can think of no more nerve wracking mentally arduous task than making music.” His fate would suggest that he wasn’t exaggerating.
We spoke of his accomplishments when he was a mere nineteen. Little did he know that his life was literally half over. A brain tumor took him when he was a mere thirty-eight.
The expression “burned out” is often used to express utter exhaustion. Gershwin may have literally burned out, for he complained about a burning smell he was constantly experiencing weeks before his death.
After George died, Ira retired from lyric-writing – or so he thought. However, two years later when approached to write LADY IN THE DARK with librettist Moss Hart and composer Kurt Weill, he agreed. The result was his longest-running hit.
Ira said many times that what he greatly missed were the salons where George would sit at the piano and play his music most of the night. Although he’d occasionally abdicate and allow someone else to tickle the ivories, he was the main event. George’s friend Oscar Levant good-naturedly dubbed these events “An Evening with George Gershwin.”
One time Gershwin asked Levant “Do you still think my music will still be played in 100 years?” – to which Levant drolly quipped “If you’re still alive, it will be.”
In fact, this week marks precisely the 100th anniversary of the first public performance of “Swanee.” On Oct. 24, 1919, the song that Gershwin wrote with lyricist Irving Caesar – which purportedly took them all of fifteen minutes to write – caught the fancy of the public. Two-and-a-half million copies were eventually sold.
As the song celebrates that centennial, the question now becomes “Will Gershwin’s music still be played in 200 years?”
Don’t bet against it.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.