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American icons presented by an American treasure
Archiving Gershwin leads to an endearing concert, decades later.
There are few songwriters who exemplify the American experience like George and Ira Gershwin.
Although he died of a brain tumor in 1937, just over two months shy of his 39th birthday, George Gershwin was the only composer his brother Ira considered a genius--and Ira went on to work with some seriously brilliant men after his brother’s death.
Together, they wrote over a dozen Broadway shows, which produced scores of songs that have become jazz standards over the decades. Without them, “I Loves You, Porgy” would simply be a random string of words, and “Someone to Watch Over Me” would simply have been a forgettable 1980s suspense movie. Well, since it was named after the song, it would have been called something else, but there you have it.
While he worked for decades after George’s death, Ira considered their collaboration his salad days. He recounted these times to a young man from Columbus who lived with him and his wife for six years, serving as Ira Gershwin’s archivist and amanuensis.
That man, no longer so young but still with a gleam in his eye, a song at his fingertips and an abiding love for the Gershwins, is Michael Feinstein, who will perform “The Gershwins and Me” at the State Theater at Playhouse Square on April 26, as part of the 34th annual TriC JazzFest.
Feinstein was Ira Gershwin’s assistant from 1977 to 1983, and had access to unreleased recordings, unpublished songs, and one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century. That experience forms the basis of his book The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in 12 Songs, published last year. It is also the basis of his show, for which he brought in Tom Hubbard on bass and Ray Marchica on drums.
“George was the person to whom Ira was closer than anybody else on the planet,” he told NPR’s Scott Simon last October. “They had collaborated together for almost 20 years--George’s music to his older brother Ira’s lyrics. And Ira could not conceive living life without George, because George was truly his world.”
Even 40 years after his brother’s death, Ira would get sad if pressed on the matter, so Feinstein could not talk to him about George as much as he would have liked.
Composer Stephen Sondheim, who like Feinstein is one of the preeminent gay men involved in musical theater in the 20th and 21st centuries, views the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as an irreplaceable work.
“Sondheim said that if he was on a desert island, the one thing he would take--if it could only be one piece of music--it would be Porgy and Bess,” Feinstein continued. “It is incredible theater. When Sondheim was visiting the Library of Congress where the manuscript of Porgy and Bess is housed, he was so overcome with emotion while holding the score in his hands that he shed a tear--he shed several tears.
“One of the tears actually fell onto the original manuscript, and he was horrified. But now I guess it’s been anointed by Sondheim’s DNA.”
Ira went on to work with Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen, among others, but those two decades with his brother were the most fruitful musical collaboration outside of Rodgers and Hammerstein. That was reflected in the depth of material Ira Gershwin had in his home when Feinstein arrived.
“I was a record collector and I understood what it meant,” he told Vanity Fair’s Patrick Monahan. “Someone else might open the cabinet and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice,’ but I understood it was an oral history of Ira and George’s career.”
“It was phonograph records, but it was 78s, and it was test pressings of things that hadn’t been released, and then 16inch discs of radio broadcasts and then reel-to-reel tapes, so it was every technology,” he continued. “I knew that there would be things in there that very few people had ever heard, that I was suddenly privy to something that was unique.”
Tickets to the 8 pm show range from $50 to $105. For more information, or to buy tickets, go to www.tri-cjazzfest.com or call 216-2416000.
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