Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
in Blue" and a mini-version of the satire, "Of Thee I
Performers include Steve Barnes, Joyce Labriola, Rebecca Tropeano,
Lee Benson, Tim Brown, Sara Corey, Paul Mattal, and Derry Light.
greatest concern: that he has "hours and hours of Gershwin
— possibly too many hours. But could there ever be too much of
such a good thing?
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
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
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
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
Within three years, he quit high school to work as a
on Tin Pan Alley — a block on West 28th Street in Manhattan where
cubicles housing upright pianos had been crammed into brownstone
Gershwin’s job with a music publisher entailed playing other
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
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
with Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers, and with "I Got Rhythm"
and "Embraceable You," as well. The movie, "Shall We
combined the Astaires with Gershwin songs that included "They
Can’t Take That Away from Me " and "Let’s Call the Whole Thing
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
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
Then came Ella Fitzgerald’s Gershwin song book, revivals of "My
One and Only" and "Crazy for You," and naming of the
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
Gershwin music just keeps coming. And even if people don’t always
connect it with its composer, they keep hearing it — and liking
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
himself," unwilling to settle for just one musical field or for
anything small-time. Gershwin wrote four "Gilbert and
operettas," Swain says: two versions of "Strike Up the
"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
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
Gershwin had "an almost immigrant curiosity for what this
about," Swain marvels, citing the intellectual curiosity and
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
Rhapsody" the next.
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
"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
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
art show currently on exhibit at Bristol Meyers-Squibb, and
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
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
Cherry Hill Road and Route 206, 609-924-1604. $10 donation.
September 26, 8 p.m., Sunday, September 27, 3 p.m.
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