Editor’s Note: The play has now neen extended through May 24
The Colony Theatre ends its current season with an out-of-the-park, base clearing grand slam. Playwright and Musical Arranger JOSEPH VASS weaves song and story into an unforgettable evening with a man who had been content to let his brother George enjoy the limelight.
IRA GERSHWIN was a quiet man who had given people something to sing about, even when there were bread lines and battles on faraway shores.
He would never have described himself as a ladies’ man, but his marriage was the s’wonderful, s’marvelous reality behind the love song.
He had showed a famous songsmith how to end his very famous song, he had inspired the marching band of a local university and, during World War II, the Resistance within a Nazi-occupied country had made one of his song lyrics their anthem.
He denied being a poet, but what else do you call someone whose words are still sung the world over nearly a century later?
JAKE BRODER nails Ira Gershwin the way Hal Holbrook nails Mark Twain. Jake made us wonder why we weren’t aware of such a remarkable person far earlier. Playwright Joseph wondered why as well, and did something about it in spades. And under Director DAVID ELLENSTEIN’s guidance, we saw Ira’s endearing shyness as well as his love for, and mastery of, the demanding poetry of the song lyric.
Brother George Gershwin and a raft of A-list composers of the Great American Songbook (including Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke and Kurt Weill) found in Ira a word maven equal to their melodies. Crooner ELIJAH ROCK and Chanteuse ANGELA TEEK show us why. Their rich vocal palettes allowed them to color every one of Ira’s words with just the right sonic hue. It’s no wonder that Elijah had earlier wowed Colony audiences in Breath and Imagination, and that Angela had enthralled East Coast audiences in a tribute to George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Kudos as well to Musical Director and Pianist KEVIN TONEY.
Many of the 26 songs showcased had, as was the practice in their day, lengthy intros with their own lyrics. It was a delight to hear them and to realize they were composed and written with the same care as the main melodies and verses.
Ira was scholarly and shy, a central-casting contrast with athletic and life-of-the-party George, who loved playing one Gershwin song after the other. (At a party, Oscar Levant once playfully asked, “George, if you had to do it all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?” To which George replied, “Oscar, why don’t you play us a medley of your hit.”) Ira’s nephew MICHAEL STRUNSKY remarked that in real life Ira probably couldn’t have been cajoled into performing even one song in front of others (which he does in the play.) But in private, Ira often sang to himself, weighing and testing each word.
Ira also felt comfortable within his circle of fellow lyricists and composers, many of whom had fled the growing Nazi threat. (Ira’s Jewish parents had emigrated from Russia in the 1890’s, a distinctly unfriendly place for European Jews at that time as well.) Together, they shared their lyrics and challenged each other to never settle for anything less than their best work. And crucially, Ira and his fellow lyricists made it their mission to embrace the distinctively American take on the English language.
As mentioned earlier, Ira denied writing poetry when he wrote song lyrics. (Although a musician friend of mine once said that song lyrics are the only kind of poetry that makes any money.) Ira thought that the need to match the words to the melody disqualified them from being true poems. But I think Ira had done himself a disservice. Excepting free verse, poems do obey structure of one sort or another. Shakespeare invented half of modern English while obeying the strictures of sonnets and iambic pentameter.
I maintain that Ira had mastered the particularly demanding rules of sung poetry, with their concerns for interval jumps, pitch and note length. He had put back the song lyric back into lyric poetry and made the Greek Muse Erato start humming. And when it came to our distinctive voice as melting pot Americans, Ira made it sing and made it zing.
Ira had been in danger of becoming “the man that got away” from our collective cultural memory. But thanks to the creative efforts Joseph Voss and the support of Ira and Lenore Gershwin Trusts, it looks like our love for Ira is here to stay.
P.S. And be sure to check out the trailer for the stage treatment of An American In Paris.
Words By Ira Gershwin continues through Sunday, May 17. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The Colony Theatre is at 555 N. Third St. (at Cypress) next to the Town Center Mall. Ticket prices range from $29 to $49 (group discounts available.) For tickets, please call the box office at 818-558-7000 ext. 15 or visit www.ColonyTheatre.org.