Through "Hot Arguments" and Scornful Stars, The Gershwins Brought Lady, Be Good To The Stage

News   Through "Hot Arguments" and Scornful Stars, The Gershwins Brought Lady, Be Good To The Stage
How did the Gershwin toe-tapper Lady, Be Good go from being called "tacky" and "weak" in the 1920s to a star-studded Encores! revival in 2015? Rob Fisher takes readers through the musical's history.


1924: an amazing year for musical theatre in New York and in particular for George and Ira Gershwin, culminating in the opening of the first show with songs solely by the brothers, Lady, Be Good. George especially was prolific in ways we can hardly imagine. He began to write the game-changing "Rhapsody in Blue" Jan. 7, and performed it only a little more than a month later Feb. 12, as part of Paul Whiteman's famous "An Experiment in Modern Music." Writing that piece would drain an ordinary musician, but Sweet Little Devil, a Broadway musical for which George composed the songs, opened on January 21 and a week later he was in Boston to perform a recital with soprano Éva Gauthier.

The spring was all about the "Rhapsody," which George performed at Carnegie Hall and in major U.S. cities before recording it with Whiteman and his orchestra in New York June 10. After finishing his songs for the George White's Scandals of 1924, Gershwin left for London at the beginning of July to write another musical, the West End hit Primrose. Although most of the lyrics are by Desmond Carter, George was able to include some by Ira, recycling songs they had written for the 1921 flop A Dangerous Maid.

The Gershwins at work
The Gershwins at work

During the summer of '24, George had two shows running on Broadway, the world was on fire about his "Rhapsody," and Ira was in New York writing lyrics for the musical Be Yourself. The brothers corresponded through their separation, knowing they would be writing a show for Fred and Adele Astaire in the fall. On June 25, Ira queried George, "[W]hat songs are you saving for the Astaires… can I get a copy of either or both scripts and start on them, how about the second verses… etc., etc., etc."

Over in London, Primrose was giving George a chance to hone his skills as well as develop a strong working relationship with the book writer Guy Bolton, who would be writing the fall show as well. In July George wrote, "The Astaire show will go into rehearsal the third or fourth week in September. Guy Bolton will have the book practically finished by the time we reach New York. He will start writing it next week." (Bolton wrote the book in collaboration with Fred Thompson). George added that the Astaires were "crazy about 'Half Of It Dearie Blues,'" a song that the brothers had written before George left for London, but stressed the fact that "There is a lot of work to be done on this show." Ira replied, "Get a big book for music, and put in all the tunes you've got on scraps of paper... Also, I would advise you to put in all the tunes you remember of all the shows you've done (including verses) of songs that weren't published." Primrose opened Sept. 11, and George was back in New York by October. After finishing Be Yourself, Ira wrote to George, "From now on, I'm going to concentrate on our mutual effort, which has to be a hit."

Why did George and Ira become so passionate about Lady, Be Good? Besides being their first show together, it was a shared dream of the Gershwins, the Astaires and the producer Alex Aarons — who was looking to spark a new breed of American musical, building on the success of Jerome Kern's Princess Theatre shows, which, unlike the exotic and extravagant operettas of the day, told stories about contemporary characters using songs and dances that were integrated into the plot. As for George, his ambition was to "write an absolutely new type of musical show, with modernistic words as well as modernistic tunes."

One of these songs, "Oh, Lady Be Good," pleased the creative team so much that the original title of the show, Black-Eyed Susan, was changed to Lady, Be Good. George brought his composition "Syncopated City" to Ira for lyrics. According to their sister Frankie, Ira said, "George, what kind of a lyric can I write for that? Still... it is a fascinating rhythm."

Ira later recalled that "Fascinating Rhythm" was "the hardest song I ever had to fit words to." George was having melodic and rhythmic fun with a motive that is six eighth notes followed by an eighth rest before it repeats. So not only did Ira have to come up with phrases of six syllables, but he also had to reconcile the fact that the same notes land on different accents with each repeat. George said, "There was many a hot argument between us over where the accent should fall."

The City Center cast is headed by Tommy Tune
The City Center cast is headed by Tommy Tune Photo by Joan Marcus

While the Gershwins' songs had a radical originality, Adele Astaire initially had reservations about the "tacky book" and "weak plot." Fred reassured her that "the whole thing had a new look to it, a flow, and also a new sound."

That "new sound" extended to the musicians George selected for the Lady, Be Good orchestra — which was larger than usual for a musical comedy of that time and included the popular piano duo team Phil Ohman and Victor Arden. "Paul Whiteman's use of two pianos in his jazz orchestra seemed so effective for the dance rhythms that I thought it might work just as well in a theatre orchestra," George explained in 1926. "I think that one reason for the success of this novelty was that the piano is the most telling instrument for music like mine that requires the quickest accent which falls on the full chord." George continued his exuberant pace of multitasking through the tryout in Philadelphia and the December 1 opening of Lady, Be Good on Broadway: Nov. 15 he performed "Rhapsody in Blue" with Whiteman at Carnegie Hall, Nov. 27 he performed it at Philadelphia's Academy of Music, and again Dec. 4 at Boston's Symphony Hall.

Unfortunately, only about a quarter of the original orchestration for Lady, Be Good exists in manuscript score. These scores have provided us with the instrumentation and general style of writing for the orchestra, although they give no indication of how the piano team was used. Ohman and Arden were such a sensation at the time that there are many recordings and piano rolls of them playing George Gershwin's music, which has made it possible for us to recreate their sound.

Besides all the reminiscences, recordings, reviews, and programs we have explored for this reconstruction of the Lady, Be Good score, another resource came from a trove of over 20,000 manuscripts discovered in 1982 in a Secaucus, NJ warehouse, which included all the original orchestra parts for the Gershwins' 1925 hit Tip-Toes. I helped restore this show in 1998, and because of its completeness it provides an excellent reference as one of the very few authentic orchestrations from the mid-twenties. And it featured Ohman and Arden!

On a personal note, 1924 provided Encores! and me with some crucial resources. Besides the great piece of music George wrote early that year, which helped shape me as a pianist and musician when I was a teenager, two other inspirations were born: Seymour Red Press, who has been the orchestra contractor and music coordinator for every Encores! production, and Sheldon Harnick, whose lyrics graced the first and last shows of my tenure as Music Director for the first 12 seasons of Encores! — Fiorello! (the first time!) in 1994, and The Apple Tree in 2005. Encores! and I owe a great deal to the talents and energies of these men.

Rob Fisher is the founding Music Director of the Encores! series. From 1994 to 2005, he conducted 30 Encores! shows. He will serve as Score Supervisor for the upcoming Broadway premiere of An American in Paris.

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