George Gershwin

Jacob Gershvin
BORN: September 26, 1898, New York, NY
DIED: July 11, 1937, Beverly Hills, CA

In a career tragically cut short in mid-stride by a brain tumor, George Gershwin (1898-1937) proved himself to be not only one of the great songwriters of his extremely rich era, but also a gifted "serious" composer who bridged the worlds of classical and popular music. The latter is all the more striking, given that, of his contemporaries, Gershwin was the most influenced by such styles as jazz and blues.

Gershwin's first major hit, interpolated into the show Sinbad in 1919, was "Swanee," sung by Al Jolson. Gershwin wrote both complete scores and songs for such variety shows as George White's Scandals (whose annual editions thus were able to introduce such songs as "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" and "Somebody Loves Me").

After 1924, Gershwin worked primarily with his brother Ira as his lyricist. The two scored a series of Broadway hits in the '20s and early '30s, starting with Lady Be Good (1924), which included the song "Fascinatin' Rhythm." 1924 was also the year Gershwin composed his first classical piece, "Rhapsody in Blue," and he would continue to work in the classical field until his death.

By the '30s, the Gershwins had turned to political topics and satire in response to the onset of the Depression, and their Of Thee I Sing became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. In the mid '30s, Gershwin ambitiously worked to meld his show music and classical leanings in the creation of the folk opera Porgy and Bess, with lyrics by Ira and Dubose Heyward. The Gershwins had moved to Hollywood and were engaged in several movie projects at the time of George Gershwin's death. ~ William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide

Gershwin himself appears in The King of Jazz (1930) playing his world-renown Rhapsody in Blue (and, for some unfathomable reason, uncredited), and in archive footage in the television miniseries New York: A Documentary Film (1999). The ever popular and variously interpreted and orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue also occurs in Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors (1928), Rhapsody in Blue (1945), the TV miniseries Jazz (2001), and an exquisite animated sequence in Fantasia 2000 (1999). The signature clarinet glissando has been used to open countless city scenes and to suggest contemporaneity.

The composer's famed opera Porgy and Bess, a brilliant synthesis of Tin Pan Alley lyricism, Impressionist opera, harmonies, blues, and gospel influences, has received several productions: in a sketchy but very effective 1959 dramatization directed by Otto Preminger with an all-star cast including Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin' Life, and Pearl Bailey as Maria; Trevor Nunn's faithful and excellent 1993 television version with Willard White and Cynthia Hayman; a fascinating television documentary entitled Porgy and Bess: An American Voice (1998) which features many personalities and performers who have been involved in the history of the legendary piece; and the New York City Opera's 2002 television production of the complete work. Individual songs from the opera have appeared in The Wizard of Speed and Time (1988) ("It Ain't Necessarily So"), an electronic version of "Summertime" in Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1993), and in numerous television performances, and as fragments employed as momentary references and segues in many films.

Other concert works employed include quotes from the Concerto in F for piano and orchestra in You Were Meant for Me (1948), and parts of An American in Paris in Assignment: Rescue (aka The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee, 1997) and An American in Paris (1951).

Individual Gershwin songs have enhanced many productions: "But Not for Me" in the comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); "A Foggy Day" in The Notorious Landlady (1962); "That Certain Feeling" is the title tune for a 1956 film; "I've Got a Crush on You" in Three for the Show (1955); "Somebody Loves Me" is the title tune for a 1952 film; "Lady Be Good" and "Fascinating Rhythm" occur in Lady Be Good (1941); and "Strike up the Band" is the title tune of the 1940 film. Several songs are used throughout Love's Labour's Lost (2000), The Choirboys (1977), Broadway Rhythm (1944), So's Your Uncle (1943), The Goldwyn Follies (1938), The Flame Song (1934), the television tributes A Tribute to George and Ira Gershwin: A Memory of All That (1998), Ira Gershwin at 100: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (1997), and the American Masters episode George Gershwin Remembered (1987).

Other significant films adopting the Gershwin sound are Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid! (1964), the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire vehicle Funny Face (1957), the Seaton comedy with Betty Grable The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947), and the drama The Man I Love (1946) with Ida Lupino and Robert Alda. ~ "Blue" Gene Tyranny, All Movie Guide