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The Gershwins: George & Ira

The Gershwins: George and Ira

George Gershwin is considered by many to be the greatest and most original of musical talents to address the American musical. Equally adept at comic light musicals as well as heavy dramatic works, George Gershwin created music for theatre stage, movie screen, opera house, and concert hall. Perhaps no other American composer has displayed such diversity of form and versatility of styles with such skill and off-handedness. Together with brother Ira, George gave Americans some of the most memorable, witty and melodic songs in our country’s musical history.

Similar to Kern, Berlin and other hopeful songwriters of the day, George worked first as a song-plugger, then as a rehearsal pianist and even as a “transcriber” for Irving Berlin. His first success as a songwriter was his song “Swanee,” a song reminiscent of Stephen Foster and the days of American minstrels. It was performed by Al Jolson in blackface in a 1919 extravaganza called Sinbad and the “show-stopping” quality resulted in over a million copies being sold for both the sheet music and Jolson’s resulting recordings. The immediate financial windfall allowed George to quit his other work and concentrate exclusively on writing for musical theatre.

Although George and Ira’s songs appeared in a number of revues at the beginning of the 1920s, including George White’s Scandals (each year from 1919 to 1924), their first full book-musical appeared in 1924 titled Lady, Be Good! From this one musical came several Gershwin classics including “Fascinating Rhythm” – an unabashed celebration of jazz music at a time when legitimate theatre was just beginning to embrace the new sounds.

The George-Ira combination proved to be one of the most prolific in musical theatre history. In the nine years following Lady, Be Good! they jointly created twelve other full-length book-musicals, featuring some of the most well-known of Gershwin tunes including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” and “I Got Rhythm.”

For their last Broadway musical before leaving to write in Hollywood, George and Ira created the musical/operatic masterpiece Porgy and Bess in 1935. This ground-breaking work was the first major musical performance created for American audiences which was built exclusively around an all African-American cast. Although the work was commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera as a work “in the new native style” of jazz, the Gershwins seemed to consider Porgy to be more of an American musical and opened the work first in the Alvin Theatre on Broadway. Due to the tremendous vocal demands placed on the actors, the work is now most often performed by opera companies rather than theatre companies. Regardless of which label it is given, it is an American classic.

Porgy and Bess, 1935 Boston tryout before New York City and Broadway

Though ground-breaking, Porgy and Bess was not well received by the American public. It was devastating to George and Ira, not only creatively, but financially. They had both invested heavily in the show. Following the mediocre reception of Porgy and Bess, and perhaps to recoup from debts, the Gershwins agreed to a change of venue and a change of medium. They moved west to Hollywood where they created three movie musicals before George collapsed and died of a brain tumor in 1937.

The loss of his brother brought temporary creative paralysis to Ira, but four years after George’s death, Ira decided finally move on to work with other composers. Over the next twenty years Ira worked with some of the finest of theatre composers, including Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, and Burton Lane.

In 1992 the musical hit Crazy for You, a major reworking of Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, with plot revamped and most of the songs replaced with more familiar Gershwin fare, opening on Broadway. The musical was an unashamed throw-back to the era of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, complete with a Ziegfeld-esque production and the timeless music of George and Ira. The show ran for almost four years, presenting over 1,600 performances in New York, won three Tony awards (given for excellent on Broadway) and resulted in productions in cities like London and Tokyo, and several touring companies. The music of Gershwin still contains magic and relevance at the beginning of the 21st century.

In addition to creating music for stage and screen, George Gershwin also brought his work to the concert hall. Two piano-orchestral works are part of the standard American symphonic repertoire: “Rhapsody in Blue” and “American in Paris.”

Though his career lasted less than twenty years, George Gershwin impacted the whole of American music like none other. The book-musicals and movie-musicals created with Ira were important in solidifying the format, and the resulting wealth of songs have become a cornerstone of the repertoire called the “American songbook.” Fascinatingly, many of Gershwin’s songs, which were influenced by early jazz, found their way back to jazz in the 1950s and ‘60s as starting points for improvisation by bop jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Irving Berlin helped to bring acceptance to a style of American music called “ragtime.” Jerome Kern blended elements of the colloquial sounds with the elegance of American operetta. But, the importance and contributions of the Gershwins was that they gave voice to the contemporary sounds of America by broadening the idiom of musical theatre to accept, without sanitization, a new style of American music called jazz.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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