My Wolf Trap concert ends with a bang: Gershwin’s “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” done in its original arrangement—a bracing two-step. The song comes from “Of Thee I Sing,” the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. But the award was given only to the book-and-lyrics team of Morrie Ryskind, George. S. Kaufman, and Ira Gershwin, not to the composer, George Gershwin. At that time, the Pulitzer was still strictly a literary prize—no musicians allowed.
Gershwin is officially my favorite composer, though I am musically polyamorous and could never really choose just one. Still, I need to have an answer for that age-old question, and it’s simpler to come up with a name people recognize. Among Gershwin’s stage works, “Of Thee I Sing” goes to the head of the class. It is number two on my list of Best Classic Broadway Shows. (What is #1, you ask? “The Boys From Syracuse.” Not a better work of art, perhaps, but loony and smart in a way that always speaks to me.)
As you probably remember, “Of Thee I Sing” tells the story of a Presidential election marked by subterfuge, manipulation, foreign intrigue, and dirty politics. Yet the story is imbued with charm, wit, and a light spirit—a perfect antidote to the grimy circus of the last twelve months. Wintergreen, the politician who ultimately wins the election (his slogan is “The flavor lasts”), is running on the Love Platform, just the message the nation craves.
I remember hearing Lin-Manuel Miranda at last year’s Tony Award ceremony when he read his acceptance in the form of a poem—“ And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love/cannot be killed or swept aside,/Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.” I pretty much lost it when I heard those words. This is the philosophy that has always sustained me, especially during rough times. “Love Is Sweeping the Country” echoes Lin-Manuel’s sentiment, only in a fizzier and daffier way. How sweet to think of a country so filled with love that bitter adversaries are suddenly gazing at one another like besotted fools. And who can resist a song whose first lyric is “Why are people gay/All the night and day?” Certainly not me.
The Wolf Trap shows are June 3 and 4, and I am extremely excited about them. I even have a sensational and appropriate encore whose identity I cannot divulge right now. Come to the Barns at WT and find out for yourself. Join me and Joseph Li—and Madison Leonard—and Annie Rosen—and Jonas Hacker—and Michael Hawk—for the love-feast you need right now.
George Gershwin is my official “Favorite Composer.” After all, you have to have an answer ready when people ask that question, and Gershwin’s music is certainly very close to me—like my own skin, my own blood. Gershwin songs are usually very cheerful, but they always have just a hint of melancholy, like chocolate that is sprinkled with a bit of sea salt. Maybe Gershwin is the glitzy, glamorous, egocentric virtuoso I always wished I could be, spewing melody with Vesuvian brilliance. And certainly Gershwin is the soul of New York, my home town and my home base.
So to ring in the new year, a classic Gershwin song and dance: “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” from the 1992 show Crazy for You. Harry Groener is a masterful hoofer, and he’s surrounded by a bevy of beauties.
I Can’t Be Bothered Now, from Crazy for You
And since I’m doing doubles this week, here’s a classic Gershwin number, “Slap That Bass” from Shall We Dance, sung and danced by Fred Astaire.
This week our SoTD curator is Laura Lee Everett, the Director of Artistic Services at OPERA America, who’s had a long and varied career in opera—stage managing, mentoring young artists, facilitating the creation of new works, and more—at companies all across the U.S., from Alaska to Virginia. (She’s also helped NYFOS present our NYFOS Next series at the National Opera Center for the past few years. You can catch it there in February 2016!) Thank you and welcome, Laura Lee!
When my good friends at NYFOS asked me to curate the song list this week, I thought, “too many choices!”
I happened to bump into Charles McKay, managing director for NYFOS, and mentioned my thematic dilemma. Charles said, “You are the theme— tell your story of songs.”
My musical talent comes from my paternal grandparents. My grandmother was a wonderful concert pianist who played all over Colorado. Her husband, my granddaddy, played violin, clarinet, sax and sang in a rich baritone. He worked his way through law school as a bandleader. His band, Hume Everett and his Radio Recording Orchestra, toured dance halls in Colorado and Texas and appeared regularly on the KLZ radio broadcasts from the Brown Palace in Denver. He even proposed to my grandmother on the radio show with the popular 1922 Walter Donaldson song My Buddy.
(Granddaddy is that handsome fellow in front with the baton.)
My maternal grandparents, while not musicians themselves, were great lovers of the big band sound and “played a mean stereo.” They frequented Baltimore venues, like the ballroom at the Belvedere Hotel, and often came to New York to dance the night away with the Dorsey brothers’ bands.
(Jimmy Dorsey holiday photo signed to my mother in the 1950’s)
My childhood was filled with the music of the American Songbook: the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, Carmen Dragon conducting the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, Count Basie, Chick Webb, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. I wore out those records by playing them repeatedly so I could learn to sing along. But the thing that stuck with me, compelled me to get the sheet music and really learn to “sing a tune”, was listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I was mesmerized by her technique, her accuracy, her ability to swing and scat – every time I hear her bright, warm voice it lifts my soul. For me, she will remain the timeless core of the American sound.
Songs make impressions on my life because of their creators. Composer, lyricist, arranger and performers come together at a particular moment and create a singular performance that stands out like no other. My teacher in college had moved me from mezzo-soprano rep into the contralto realm just before I quit studying voice to pursue my career as a stage manager. She knew I loved jazz standards and recommended me to a local band that was looking for a singer to do a gig that had arrangements in Ella’s keys. The song they asked me to start with was EMBRACEABLE YOU, George and Ira Gershwin’s 1928 tune from an unpublished operetta East is West. It was eventually included in the Broadway musical Girl Crazy where Ginger Rogers performed it in a song and dance routine choreographed by Fred Astaire. Billie Holiday’s 1944 recording, likely the most recognized, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005. But the version of this song that stays with me always is this one:
1959 Ella Fitzgerald sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra https://itun.es/us/4NRo
Thank goodness there are so many wonderful songs that Ella recorded. But there is something about this pure, uncluttered love song from two of the finest American songwriters of the 20th century, interpreted by this team of amazing musicians, sung by an extraordinary lady from Yonkers that makes me smile and sing along.
Today’s Song of the Day selection comes from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera:
If you read my final New York Times op-ed column on Tuesday, you know that it drives me batty that American’s greatest opera company won’t perform America’s greatest opera. It has been nearly a quarter of a century since the Metropolitan Opera last put on a production of Porgy and Bess. Am I the only one who finds this shameful?
Let’s talk first about the opera itself. It should hardly be necessary to make the case for one of the finest examples of American art to be produced in the last century. But let’s make it anyway. Its creation was a small miracle: three white men, George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Hayward—two of whom had never lived in the south—wrote an astonishingly empathetic portrayal of a poor black community in South Carolina—Catfish Row, they called it—in the decades before the dawn of the civil rights movement. Its songs—including “Summertime”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and “I Got Plenty of Nothin’”—are some of Gershwin’s finest, and are central to our nation’s music.
It is also a fine piece of theater; no less an authority than Steve Blier once said that it “ranks with Puccini in terms of crafting great melodies and great theater.” If you saw the tepid Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess a few years back and think you saw the real thing, think again. Performed as the Gershwins and Hayward originally intended—as an opera—Porgy and Bess has a power that no musical theater bastardization (and there have been plenty of them) can match.
Now let’s talk about the Met. One hears constantly that opera—and the Met—need a more diverse and younger audience. The Met has also faced large financial deficits in recently years, which, says Alex Ross of The New Yorker, has caused Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, to “play it safe” this season instead of trying adventurous new operas or productions. It is true that Porgy and Bess requires a large all-black chorus, which would be expensive. And it’s also true that the Gershwin estate can be difficult to deal with. But figuring out how to tackle both those challenges is Peter Gelb’s job. With its mostly black cast, its recognizable songs, and it thrilling theatricality, Porgy and Bess could well bring in that younger and more diverse audience. It might even make a buck or two.
For anyone in Chicago between now and December 20, Porgy and Bess is being performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Eric Owens in the title role. For the rest of us, there is the 1976 Houston Grand Opera’s Porgy and Bess directly by Jack O’Brien, which ranks as perhaps the finest production ever. Here is Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale from that producing singing my favorite song from the opera, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
from Steven Blier:
A minority report on the smash Broadway hit “An American in Paris,” which evoked mixed feelings when I saw last night. I was awash in pleasure and emotion for the first twenty-five minutes, literally sobbing to hear that luxurious Gershwin music and see the virtuoso dancing. But then the thread broke: there were too many songs that didn’t really fit the situation and seemed shoehorned in; also a lot of mediocre, just passable singing; plot strands put in place and not followed through. The show is about its dancing and its (mostly digital) scenery, and yes, both are staggering. But I am about words and music and voice and story and feeling, and I got really frustrated as the show progressed. There was something empty about it, and I had to resist looking at my watch. I also think I may have seen a not-too-great performance, somewhere between saggy and soggy.
I have to admit that Gershwin’s music exists for me in a kind of Platonic ideal, and while I love to hear it played by pianists or orchestras, I am rarely satisfied by vocal performances of his songs. Something crucial always seems to be missing. Looking for a Gershwin song this morning to fix the acid-heavy pH balance in my soul, I decided on Leontyne Price and William Warfield singing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” The music of longing, the music of desire!
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