- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

Who was George Gershwin a gifted popular tune smith or longhair composer? This is the question Hershey Felder asks, and strives to answer, in his charming one-man show at Ford's Theatre, "George Gershwin Alone."
For 1-1/2 hours, Mr. Felder looks like Gershwin, talks like Gershwin, plays piano like Gershwin and (with appropriate self-deprecation) sings like Gershwin. In Gershwin's own words, Mr. Felder recounts the composer's storybook American life the child of immigrant parents who through talent and determination made good (and, oh yes, managed to help create a new American art form in the process).
Many an actor would succumb to the temptation to play a doomed genius (Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38) as a Doomed Genius, but Mr. Felder brings an ingratiating breeziness and intimacy to the role. Gershwin may have striven for art, but he was no pompous egghead.
Mr. Felder never quite explains when, or how, Gershwin got the bug to be a composer, as opposed to just a songwriter, but it is clear that Gershwin didn't let his artistic ambitions get in the way of staying clothed and fed. This is doubly true of George's brother and lyricist, Ira, who said the right way to write a song was neither music first nor words first but contract first.
George Gershwin started out as a "song-plugger," a pianist hired to promote Tin Pan Alley tunes. Then, he took a job as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway musicals. During breaks, he would play his newest tunes. He knew which ones had the stuff by a simple test: Did the chorus girls gather around the piano?
Gershwin's relentless plugging of his own songs at parties led to his first big hit. Al Jolson heard the song "Swanee" at a Manhattan party and decided to make it his signature song. Recorded by Jolson in 1920, "Swanee" sold millions.
(Mr. Felder's performance of "Swanee" in which he adopts a keening Jolsonlike quality to his voice and performs in duet with the recorded Jolson is unintentionally cringe-inducing. Mr. Felder is effective enough that you can just see Jolson there, belting it out, and that's just the problem: You "see" Jolson doing so in blackface.)
What relationship did Gershwin and his music have with blacks and their music? The issue nags throughout "Gershwin Alone," not because Mr. Felder dwells on it, but because he evades it. It would have been illuminating to learn what Gershwin thought about criticism from black activists and intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who derided his folk-opera "Porgy and Bess" for stereotyping blacks as gamblers and dope fiends.
Mr. Felder does, however, express Gershwin's dismay at the reaction of the cultural gatekeepers who snubbed "Porgy and Bess" in the pages of New York City's newspapers. Gershwin never achieved the unchallenged acceptance as a "serious" composer that he craved. When he sought out lessons from Maurice Ravel, the French composer told him it was far better to be a first-rate Gershwin than a second-rate Ravel.
This striving for self-improvement and cultural upward mobility is part of what makes Gershwin such a representative American of his time and place. Few American composers have dared to emulate him in straddling the divide between popular music and the philharmonic. Alec Wilder lived in both worlds, as did Leonard Bernstein. And one can point to the two Dukes Duke Ellington and Vernon Duke (aka "legit" composer Vladimir Dukelsky). But it is a measure of the difficulty of being at once a master of both the 32-bar song and the long-form composition that, after Gershwin blazed the trail, so few were able to follow. Then again, we shouldn't be surprised. How many Olympians have won both the 100-meter dash and the marathon?
Perhaps another reason few copied Gershwin's career path is that songwriters not content with songwriting found another way to realize their more rarified ambitions.
One of the great tragedies of Gershwin's early death in July 1937 was that he was not around for the flowering of the high-concept, artistically ambitious Broadway musicals of the '40s. With "Oklahoma" and "Carousel," Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein demonstrated that American composers could be serious without forcing the American idiom into an operatic template. What a shame Gershwin never saw the withering away of the arbitrary barrier separating songwriting from capital-C composition.
For all his high culture ambitions, Gershwin's fame grew most from the popularity of his songs with that most commercial of musical commodities the dance band.
Take "The Man I Love." The song was to be sung by Fred Astaire's sister, Adele, in the show "Lady Be Good," but it was dropped after the first week of tryouts in Philadelphia. There it might have died, if Gershwin hadn't given an autographed copy of the song to Lady Mountbatten. Once back in England, she asked a favorite dance band to work up an arrangement. Soon the song was all over London and Paris and finally made its way back to the States. And "How Long Has This Been Going On," might have never reached the musical bloodstream if not for the Peggy Lee-Benny Goodman recording.
The success of Gershwin songs in the (sometimes less than subtle) hands of dance-band arrangers points to why Gershwin's music has earned a lasting place in the American songbook.
American popular songs of the first half of the 20th century are prized for their malleability. Take a Mozart string quartet and re-orchestrate it or re-harmonize it and it is no longer Mozart. But revoiced or rearranged, Gershwin is still Gershwin, and this tends to be true even of his most serious music.
Although "Rhapsody in Blue" is set in amber, "Porgy and Bess" is full of songs robust enough to sustain endless reinterpretation and reinvention. (Arguably the most satisfying treatment is that of Miles Davis and Gil Evans.)
Consider the remarkable bundle of songs the Gershwin brothers wrote for the 1937 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film "Shall We Dance?," including "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed" and the near-perfect "They Can't Take That Away From Me." This last tune was introduced with all the inimitable Astaire charm, but it survives today not primarily by way of Turner Classic Movies, but rather through continuous renewal by successive generations of artists. Along the way such a song has triumphs think Mel Torme. And tragedies try not to think of Rod Stewart torturing the poor tune. But even when abused, these songs survive.
At Ford's Theatre, Mr. Felder performed a most remarkable demonstration of the place these songs still have in our lives. He concluded the show with a fine "Rhapsody in Blue," which won him the obligatory standing ovation from the opening-night audience studded with lawmakers and other Beltway VIPs. Then Mr. Felder quickly sat the crowd down and announced that, as Gershwin himself would always do at parties, he would lead a singalong a scary thought, if you've ever heard the Singing Senators. But once Mr. Felder coaxed the first few notes of "Embraceable You" out of the audience, a lovely, loving sound rose through the theater. Not only did the audience sing the song well, few needed Mr. Felder to feed them the lyrics.
Here was proof that more than 70 years after it was written, the song is still seducing us.
If a song can still do that at age 70 does it really matter whether its author was a serious composer or just a gifted popular tune smith?

Eric Felten is a Washington jazz musician and writer.

***

WHAT: "George Gershwin Alone"
WHERE: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. Thursdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 and 23. Runs through Feb. 23.
TICKETS: $29-$45 (discounts available for groups of 20 or more)
PHONE: 202/347-4833 or Tickets.com: 703/218-6500
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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