Gershwin’s Career

Swain a Gershwin Fan

Swain Bio

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This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

September 23, 1998. All rights reserved.

Gershwin, Then and Now

S‘wonderful" that George Gershwin is being

celebrated

this year on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Judging from the

torrent of Gershwin music we encounter everywhere today, it’s hard

to believe the musician who many regard as America’s greatest composer

has been dead these 61 years.

Dick Swain, producer and director of "Happy Birthday Dear George:

The Big Gershwin Bash," a centennial show that will be staged

Saturday and Sunday, September 26 and 27, at the Unitarian Church,

describes himself as Gershwin’s No. 1 fan. Swain has musically

celebrated

George Gershwin four times before, and is handsomely equipped for

this weekend’s birthday bash.

Swain’s three-part musical celebration includes both new elements

— a trio singing "almost but not quite love songs," for

instance, and "chanteuse" Laura Jackson with a medley of love

songs — and some reprises from earlier festivities: Peter and

Marianne Lauffer playing their own two-piano arrangement of

"Rhapsody

in Blue" and a mini-version of the satire, "Of Thee I

Sing."

Performers include Steve Barnes, Joyce Labriola, Rebecca Tropeano,

Lee Benson, Tim Brown, Sara Corey, Paul Mattal, and Derry Light.

Swain’s

greatest concern: that he has "hours and hours of Gershwin

stuff"

— possibly too many hours. But could there ever be too much of

such a good thing?

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Gershwin’s Career

George Gershwin’s career lasted some 20 years, from his Tin Pan Alley

start in 1914, through the 1935 production of his opera, "Porgy

and Bess," and a composing stint in Hollywood. In between —

and ever since — were popular successes, like "Swanee,"

which sold a million copies when Al Jolson recorded it, and standards

like "The Man I Love." Gershwin’s concert pieces, including

"Rhapsody in Blue," "Cuban Overture," and

"American

in Paris," broke new musical ground, and his music for Broadway

and Hollywood shows — including "Lady, Be Good," "Girl

Crazy," and "Shall We Dance," is still with us. "Of

Thee I Sing," a Broadway political satire, won the Pulitzer Prize

for drama in 1932.

Gershwin’s music reflected the Jazz Age and lightened the Great

Depression

for many. Swain calls his work "a great synthesis" because

it is drawn from musical forms like jazz, ragtime, and the blues.

To these, Gershwin added echoes of the family’s Jewish heritage and

the urban excitement of New York City. His musical settings included

Manhattan, Paris, Cuba, and Charleston, South Carolina; along the

way, he introduced taxi horns and Caribbean instruments to the more

traditional orchestral pieces.

A gifted and sophisticated musician, whose work quickly became known

around the world, George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898, to

parents who had emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia; he died of

brain cancer, in California, a mere 38 years later. The second of

four children, Gershwin had older and younger brothers, Ira and

Arthur,

and a sister, Frances.

At age 12, Gershwin was captivated by the piano; until

then, one biographer has suggested, the only thing he played was

hooky.

Within three years, he quit high school to work as a

"tune-plugger"

on Tin Pan Alley — a block on West 28th Street in Manhattan where

cubicles housing upright pianos had been crammed into brownstone

houses.

Gershwin’s job with a music publisher entailed playing other

composers’

tunes that vaudeville performers might use in their acts. For extra

money, he also traveled to East Orange, New Jersey, to make piano

rolls for player pianos.

He soon moved into composing his own music and ultimately began a

career-long collaboration with his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics

for George’s tunes. Their first song together, "The Real American

Folk Song," only lasted through the first tryout of "Ladies

First" in Trenton before being cut. By 1924 "Lady, Be

Good"

opened on Broadway, starring Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, both

of whom George had met during his days on Tin Pan Alley. This show

featured "Fascinatin’ Rhythm," and was followed by "Strike

Up the Band," with "The Man I Love," and "Girl

Crazy,"

with Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers, and with "I Got Rhythm"

and "Embraceable You," as well. The movie, "Shall We

Dance,"

combined the Astaires with Gershwin songs that included "They

Can’t Take That Away from Me " and "Let’s Call the Whole Thing

Off."

Buoyant, brash, optimistic, jaunty, effervescent, romantic: Gershwin’s

music is hummable, singable, memorable. For instance, "I’ve Got

a Crush on You," and "Summertime," or "Love Walked

In" or "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Despite Gershwin’s death — both premature and widely lamented

— in 1937, his music has lived on. And on and on. As Dick Swain

sees it, the reasons for Gershwin’s enduring popularity among

listeners

of all ages start with the ’50s film, "An American in Paris,"

starring Gene Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. Then the State Department’s

Cold War tour of "Porgy and Bess" to the USSR was "a warmy

thing in the ’50s," Swain says, noting the movie version later

that decade, with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis

Jr.

Then came Ella Fitzgerald’s Gershwin song book, revivals of "My

One and Only" and "Crazy for You," and naming of the

Gershwin

Theatre on Broadway. The Houston Grand Opera production of "Porgy

and Bess" in the ’70s was followed by its first production at

the Metropolitan Opera House in 1985 — 50 years after its

completion.

Gershwin music just keeps coming. And even if people don’t always

connect it with its composer, they keep hearing it — and liking

it.

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Swain a Gershwin Fan

Which brings us back to Gershwin’s birthday and No. 1 fan Dick Swain

as its celebrant. Relating to Gershwin on many levels, Swain calls

him "a restless artist," for one thing; he kept

"challenging

himself," unwilling to settle for just one musical field or for

anything small-time. Gershwin wrote four "Gilbert and

Sullivan-like

operettas," Swain says: two versions of "Strike Up the

Band,"

"Of Thee I Sing," and its (unsuccessful) sequel, "Let

‘Em Eat Cake."

"Really a Type A guy," as Swain sees him, Gershwin worked

on numerous musical levels, yet still took music composition and

theory

lessons during his career, gaining technical skills to expand on his

natural talents. He listened to music all the time. He didn’t hesitate

to compose an opera — "a great undertaking," says Swain,

noting a fugue that is part of the "Porgy and Bess" score.

To Swain, Gershwin exemplifies "incredible versatility." He

traveled and concertized; he further popularized his music on his

own radio show, and he invariably played the piano at parties. He

had "an out-there personality." Only a second-generation

American,

Gershwin had "an almost immigrant curiosity for what this

country’s

about," Swain marvels, citing the intellectual curiosity and

embracing,

unprejudiced nature that prompted the composer to live on an island

10 miles off Charleston, soaking up atmosphere and hearing new musical

forms while writing "Porgy and Bess."

But that was just part of it. Gershwin wanted to be popular, to be

loved. He was "a protean person," Swain says, with "lots

of energy and no sense of hierarchy" inhibiting his work. So,

he could happily produce a popular tune one day and work on his

"Second

Rhapsody" the next.

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Swain Bio

Raised in Shorewood, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Dick

Swain was the second of two boys. His mother was a piano teacher and

his father, an actor. From working as his father’s prompter, he says,

he knew the scripts of "Harvey," "The Glass

Menagerie,"

"Death of a Salesman," and any number of other plays by the

time he was eight years old.

A piano player from age three, Swain stopped taking lessons when he

was 11 and could play the music to Aida. ("I can’t play by

ear,"

he says, "but I’m a marvelous sight reader.") He attended

Oberlin College as a French major, intending to accompany on the side.

The Museum of Modern Art’s 1961 Mark Rothko retrospective led him

to switch to art history, and he spent his junior year at NYU, where

he "saw the first exhibition of Pop Art ever at Sidney Janis."

He returned to NYU to earn his doctorate in art history.

Swain now teaches art history at Rider University, where he has been

on the faculty for 20 years. His activities include judging the

employee

art show currently on exhibit at Bristol Meyers-Squibb, and

researching

a painting by Nicolas Poussin for its owner, Johnson & Johnson heir

Barbara Johnson, formerly of Princeton and now of Monte Carlo.

"I decided that music and theater were always going to be part

of my life, and they always have been," he says. He might as well

have included writing too. In the last 10 years, he has written at

least one book; produced four other Gershwin celebrations to benefit

the Unitarian Church; and founded the Poquelin Players (named for

Moliere’s family name), a troupe that initially performed Swain’s

translations of Moliere’s plays, and over time, has expanded. A recent

production involved vignettes Swain created from S.J. Perleman’s

writings;

he also accompanied on piano and played at least one part.

"I refer to myself as the Pied Piper of License," Swain says.

"You know — do what you wanna do." So it seems fitting

for multi-talented George Gershwin to be celebrated by multi-talented

Dick Swain & Co. "I like a Gershwin tune. How about you?"

— Pat Summers

Gershwin Birthday Bash, Unitarian Church of

Princeton ,

Cherry Hill Road and Route 206, 609-924-1604. $10 donation.

Saturday,

September 26, 8 p.m., Sunday, September 27, 3 p.m.


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