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He Had Plenty of Something

April 6, 2011 By:
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George Gershwin

I remember once sitting at the bar of a trendy Center City restaurant some time in the late-'80s and overhearing the couple next to me talking about the music being quietly piped into the place. At one point, the woman asked her companion if he knew the name of the song that was playing; he shrugged his shoulders and said he hadn't a clue. After a second, I said almost under my breath, "It's Gershwin's 'Someone to Watch Over Me.' " After another beat or two, the woman did a double take, asking if I'd said something. "The song that's playing. The one you asked about. It's Gershwin's 'Someone to Watch Over Me.' "

She looked dumbfounded, I thought, perhaps peeved that I'd been listening in on their conversation. I apologized for eavesdropping, but she assured me that I'd done nothing wrong. Then she said, still looking befuddled, "How did you know that?" I said I just knew things like that and was happy I could relay the information. "That's amazing," she said -- and she actually looked amazed.

Just then, the couple were called to their table and wandered off deep into the restaurant, in lock step with the maitre d'. If the woman had stayed even an instant longer, I might have launched into an explanation about how I could never remember a time when George Gershwin's music wasn't playing in our house; the Broadway and Hollywood songs, as well as the concert pieces, like the piano concerto and "An American in Paris," made up a good part of the background music to my childhood, thanks to my mother's love of the composer.

In his new book, titled simply George Gershwin, Larry Starr, a professor of music at Washington University, tells something of a similar story about his immersion in his subject's compositions. "My personal experience with Gershwin's music began so early in my childhood that I cannot recall a time when I was unaware of it," writes the author. "Among the 78 rpm records owned by my parents were the two albums of original cast recordings of Porgy and Bess. Although I knew nothing about the story of the opera, the music and even the words (although I couldn't understand a good many of them at the time) must have been utterly compelling to my inchoate musical consciousness. I played the records over and over, to the extent that I can still clearly remember -- nearly six decades after all the records got either broken or lost -- the colors of the labels and the physiognomy of the grooves on every side of every disc."

Starr's adherence to the Gershwin oeuvre is clearly an unavoidable and cherished element woven into the fabric of his life; but still, tackling this book project took a certain courage. The most recent offering in the Yale University Press series known as Broadway Masters, Starr's study is, of course, hardly the first book to be written about Gershwin. Much ink has already been spilled in telling the amazing story of the great Jewish composer who died far too young, with so much left to accomplish. How could any writer come up with new insights about music -- much of it written with his equally brilliant lyricist brother, Ira -- that has been praised and analyzed consistently since it was first performed more than 90 years ago?

But Starr has managed to do it, and with a deft touch. And that's because he's consciously narrowed his focus. After a brief biography, followed by an analysis of Gershwin's musical style, Starr concentrates on three shows: Lady Be Good! (1924), Of Thee I Sing(1931) and the masterwork Porgy and Bess (1935).

As Starr points out, for most of his brief but meteoric career -- Gershwin, born in 1898, died in 1937 from a brain tumor -- the composer never thought much of his songs written for Broadway; he conceived of them as transient phenomena in much the same way that most theatrical performances, especially musicals of the 1920s and '30s, were thought to be. "This assumption reflected not the quality of the effort that Gershwin (and the best of his Broadway colleagues) invested in these shows," notes Starr, "merely the commercial and cultural realities of the time. While Gershwin staked his permanent reputation on his concert work and his opera, he lived just long enough to discover that his theater songs were outlasting his expectations of their ephemerality. Arguably his publication of George Gershwin's Song-book in 1932, presenting 18 songs written between 1919 and 1931 both in original sheet music versions and in elaborate settings for piano solo, constituted the composer's acknowledgement of the emerging 'classic' status of these works. It follows then that perhaps Gershwin would not have been too surprised to learn that later admirers of his music might eventually return to his shows in an effort to enrich and deepen their understanding of his complete oeuvre."

A 'Rhythmic Being'

There are wonderful points made in each of Starr's seven chapters, whether it's a biographical snapshot of Gershwin as an athlete and dancer -- as a "rhythmic being," as Starr dubs him -- or, in the discussion of his musical style, how much of Tin Pan Alley invaded the composer's concert hall pieces and why that invasion ensured their success.

Most intriguing of all is the author's reconstruction of what a 1920s musical, like Lady Be Good!, really looked like. Because so few Broadway pieces from that period have ever had full-scale revivals, reading this section is almost like being present at an archaeological dig that discloses evocative artifacts.

In the chapter titled "In Search of the Gershwin Musical," Starr notes that, though this was George and Ira's first big smash, they weren't the stars, no matter how the critics praised the excellence of their score. Lady Be Good! was a star vehicle for Fred Astaire and his then partner, Adele, his sister. That's where most of the audience and critical attention were focused. George and Ira and their colleagues were in service to their stars, who were the ones who truly made the show a hit.

As Starr writes: "An appropriately sympathetic study of these musicals demands a fresh approach to the conception of a 'work.' We are not dealing here with the 'integrated' musical, but with a kind of theater that is thoroughly performer- and performance-centered. Such works were in fact the norm throughout much of the history of spoken drama and musical theater, including opera. The centrality of performers came to be challenged chiefly by the quasi deification of authors and composers that was a hallmark of the Romantic era and that continued into the period of modernism and beyond, but the musical theater of Gershwin's time remained resistant to this development. The reason for the resistance is obvious: the names of musical performers, to an overwhelming extent, were what brought in the paying public."

But Starr also insists that there's little need to be condescending about such performance-centered music theater or its major goal, which was to please large crowds of people. Much recent scholarship and criticism in the arts, says the author, "has moved in the direction of reaffirming the central importance of performers, readers, viewers, and spectators."

I have concentrated a great deal on the earlier chapters of Starr's book, but any lover of Gershwin must not miss what he has to say about Porgy and Bess. His remarks illuminate this eternal masterpiece, and make us see all that the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward poured into their inimitable collaboration. Most of all he makes us see -- and, in our minds, hear -- the richness and unbounding creativity that marks George Gershwin's overwhelming music.

The same can be said of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: A 75th Anniversary Celebration, by Robin Thompson, which is published by Amadeus Press. It is again something that fans of the composer and this imperishable work cannot afford to miss, if only to pour over the spellbinding illustrations that fill its pages.

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