This is a book for serious Gershwin fans. From New York City’s Lower East Side to Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to Paris to London, back to Broadway, to the concert hall to opera to Hollywood - that is the dizzying pace that outlines the all-too-short life and career of George Gershwin.
Mr. Starr, a professor of music history at the University of Washington, writes about Gershwin as a trailblazer in his profession. The son of Russian immigrants, he emerged from the city streets as a “song plugger” in an era when the phonograph, sheet music, vaudeville and silent movies were in their prime. Broadway’s role as the national focus of legitimate theater had not reached its peak, radio was around the corner, sound movies (“talkies”) were a few years in the future, and television was decades away.
When the family bought a piano, 12-year-old George was “at the keys” as soon as it was up against the wall.
The author is uncertain to what extent Gershwin was self-taught or “autodidactic,” but the talent was innate. And from there, he would attain in a short span of 20 years the kind of success many other gifted performers would be happy to accomplish during a full lifetime. Mr. Starr laments - as do millions - that sudden death from a brain tumor at 38 deprived the world of more from the prolific Gershwin repertoire.
Although this book is relatively thin, what separates it from most other worthy narrations of Gershwin’s imprint is the remarkable way in which the author brings the reader onto the stage as well as backstage of some of the most notable Gershwin classics.
After his 1919 hit tune “Swanee,” I counted at least 10 Gershwin Broadway shows in the 1920s into the 1930s. That includes “Porgy and Bess,” which was actually a leap into the genre of opera (see below). It would be no exaggeration to label Gershwin the father of the Broadway musical. While other household names can compete in terms of quality, it is far more difficult to match Gershwin for both quality and sheer volume of material in those early days on the Great White Way.
Though other Gershwin musicals preceded it, “Lady, Be Good” (1924) is defined by Mr. Starr as the “crucial arrival point” in an already skyrocketing career. Moreover, it was the first Broadway musical to unite George’s music with older brother Ira’s lyrics. Their fertile partnership lasted until George’s death in 1937.
“Lady” was quickly followed by “Oh, Kay” (1926), a fun-filled spoof of Prohibition.
Sandwiched between those two musical comedies was a Gershwin detour into the concert hall with “Rhapsody in Blue,” later followed by “An American in Paris” and other “classical” favorites.
The biggest Broadway Gershwin success was “Of Thee I Sing,” a political satire whose book was penned by playwrights-producers-humorists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind.
Perhaps the Gershwins’ most historically notable move (though Mr. Starr questions whether any of Gershwin’s works can be considered “lesser”) was “Porgy and Bess” (1935), in which the brothers plowed new ground with an American folk opera, as George would “breathe the fullest of life possible into every character and every moment,” Mr. Starr tells us.
That depiction of a fictitious locale in South Carolina in the early 1920s featured an entire cast of classically trained black singers, a daring move for its time that prompted criticism from both ends of the decade’s racial divide. Nonetheless, the work ultimately made it to the Metropolitan Opera.
From there, the Gershwins were off to Hollywood, where they completed scores for the films “Shall We Dance?” and “Damsel in Distress,” working with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
George was “restless” in Tinseltown, unable to exert a level of control over productions featuring his music, an advantage he had enjoyed with “Porgy.”
“There’s no necessity to regard the 1920s musical as a dead genre surpassed and buried by the Rodgers and Hammerstein era,” Mr. Starr writes. The author believes some of Gershwin’s Broadway works could be revived successfully today, though one Smithsonian lecturer doubted “Oh, Kay” could be staged again unless Prohibition made a comeback. (So the film “Gone With the Wind” was destined for failure in the absence of another Civil War?)
The author”s scholarly analysis occasionally ventures a bit into the weeds, but it is offset by the context as he captures the sheer joy of an icon whose works enthralled succeeding generations. How else to explain a 1998 Kennedy Center Gershwin centennial celebration at which the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to a man who had been dead for 62 years?
Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer whose broadcast career included 25 years with CBS Radio. His column appears regularly at RenewAmerica.com.