I’ve been spending the last few months with Ira Gershwin, and I must say, I have completely enjoyed his company.
Greg MacKellan, the co-artistic director of San Francisco company 42nd Street Moon approached me last year and asked me to contribute a narration script for what is becoming an annual Moon tradition: a salon evening paying tribute to a great lyricist. Last year it was Dorothy Fields. This year, Ira Gershwin.
What I knew about Ira was what a lot of people know — with his brother, George, he wrote some of the greatest of great songs, including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “‘S Wonderful,” and the list goes on. And on. George (the music) was the flashy, charming guy whose premature death at age 38 from a brain tumor was a tremendous blow to Ira (the words), the soft-spoken, bookish older brother.
So how do you create an entertaining show about a guy whose life was, by all accounts, productive but free of scandal? Who liked to golf and play poker with his songwriting buddies and eschewed all the Hollywood/Broadway glitz and glamour?
The simple answer is: you let Ira’s work do all the work. His day-to-day life may have lacked flash, but it didn’t lack for brilliance. Ira channeled his brilliance and passion into his lyrics, which he cared about passionately. His nickname was “The Jeweler” because he was such a consummate craftsman, and boy did he churn out the gems.
Even after George died in 1937 (the song they were working on at the time of George’s death, ironically, was “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”), Ira continued to hone his craft. Look no further than his collaboration with Kurt Weill on Lady in the Dark or with Harold Arlen on the Judy Garland/James Mason movie A Star Is Born for evidence of his post-George genius.
One of the delights of researching the script was discovering some delightful songs. Being a native of Nevada, I was intrigued by the song “Sweet Nevada” from Park Avenue, the 1946 Broadway flop Ira wrote with Arthur Schwartz. Originally written in the style of a Viennese waltz, the song (about potential divorcees heading to the Silver State) morphed into a country swing, which Ira described like this: “The undulating Blue Danube-ish three-quarter-time rip-roared to a clop-clop, plunk-plunk, bang-bang rowdy-dow.” I thought it would be great to hear a little of the song in the original waltz style then shift to the final country-swing version. Alas, though we have the lyrics — “A bill of divorcement/At one time, of course, meant/A lady was dragged in the dust–/Till Nevada saved the day;/Sweet Nevada led the way” — the music is somehow no longer with us.
Oh, well. Plenty of other material from which to choose. Another favorite discovery was from late in Ira’s career. He kept threatening to retitre but always got pulled back into one project or another. His last was writing some songs for Billy Wilder’s 1964 comedy Kiss Me, Stupid. Using some of George’s unused trunk music, Ira composed lyrics to several songs (none of which are used to great effect in the movie, which is a mess), and he seemed to be having a grand time. He wrote a comedy number called “I’m a Poached Egg,” which was based on a fragment of a song from the ’30s, with the assignment of creating something “nutty.” He more than delivered. And delivered. Ira got on a roll and just couldn’t stop writing lyrics.
Here’s the basic idea:
I’m a poached egg
Without a piece of toast,
Without a beef to roast,
A haunted house
That hasn’t got a ghost—
When I’m without you
He kept going and going with this song. My favorite verses, which were never used, include:
My Fair Lady
Without the rain in Spain,
I’m a dentist without novocaine—
When I’m without you
I’m a missile
That can’t get into space,
Without a Princess Grace,
The time he lost a case—
When I’m without you
Listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing the song here.
I have a new appreciation for Ira Gershwin, especially for his robust sense of humor and his class. Spending time in his world is, well, it’s awful nice. It’s paradise. It’s what I love to see.
Now listen to Ira himself (clearly reading a written text) talk about his life and his brother, George.
There’s a wonderful story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the show and its star, Donna McKechnie. Read it here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Nice Work If You Can Get It: An Ira Gershwin Salon Evening starring Donna McKechnie is at 7pm, Thursday, January 28, at the Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $70 for the show, $100 for the show and a dessert after party with Ms. McKechnie. Call 415
255 8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.