When it comes to the “oldies but goodies,” you can’t beat George and Ira Gershwin.
Thanks to the new musical, “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” the brothers who made music history in America are being introduced to a new generation of theater-goers. The show is based on their 1926 Broadway musical entitled “Oh, Kay!” by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse.
It’s filled with Gershwin classics such as “But Not For Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
The touring Broadway musical, presented by the Victoria Theatre Association as one of the Premier Health Broadway Series presentations, will come to Dayton’s Schuster Center on Tuesday, Feb. 10, and run through Sunday, Feb. 15. The show played over 500 performances during its 2012-13 Broadway run.
The plot, set in the 1920s, centers around a wealthy playboy and a rough-and-tumble lady bootlegger. Playing the role of the feisty bootlegger is 23-year-old Mariah MacFarlane.
“I think there has to be a place for a musical that’s fun and entertaining,” says MacFarlane, who was most recently seen as Heather in the international tour of “American Idiot.” She insists it’s OK to come to a show and just enjoy yourself for a little while.
“It’s really a showcase for Gershwin songs,” she says of the production. “And I think the book is clever and funny enough to make it modern for today’s audiences. People come up to us afterwards and say they haven’t laughed that much in years. It’s filled with fun and high energy.”
The book is by two-time Tony Award-winner Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”) and inspired by material in “Oh-Kay!” by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse.
“There’s a reason why people still love Gershwin music today,” says MacFarlane whose piano-playing great-grandmother passed down a love of both classical and popular music to her. “One of the the Gershwins was a great storyteller and the other was a great musician.”
More about the Gershwins
Dennis Loranger, lecturer in the music and English departments at Wright State University, said the Gershwins — who wrote music for Broadway and the movies as well as popular songs — were very, very important in the history of American music.
In their heyday, he said, they were “cranking it out” and extremely successful. Best known for the English-language opera, “Porgy and Bess,” they also wrote a trilogy of popular political satires —“Of Thee I Sing,” “Strike Up the Band” and “Let ‘Em Eat Cake.” George also composed concert pieces such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.”
“Like a good rapper, their words and rhythm and sound all work together,” Loranger explains. “Their interplay of words and music are really clever — such as in ‘Fascinating Rhythm’.”
He said a song like “Someone to Watch Over Me” is just a clear and simple lyric that you don’t have to figure out. Mariah MacFarlane, who sings that song in “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” said it’s definitely her favorite.
The Gershwin brothers worked together almost exclusively from 1924 until George’s death at the age of 38 in 1937.
“George Gershwin took the music of his time and wrote in that style really well,” Loranger explained. “But as he went along he found ways to incorporate a number different elements into that music — there’s an influence of African-American, touches of Jewish music. If a composer can tap into a bunch of different styles, that affords him a way to reach different audiences.”
George’s first hit was “Swanee” written in 1919 and made popular by Al Jolson.
“He hit it big at a young age and ‘Swanee’ made him a millionaire,” said Loranger. “Once that happened George started to have ambitions to become a better composer and he started studying classical music. It wasn’t until later that he and his brother started teaming up together.”
Mostly, Loranger said, George would write the music first, then Ira would write the words.
“The important thing was the way Ira was using the rhythms he was getting from George as a way to revitalize ordinary language,” he added.
Loranger said in the case of the song, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” while there’s nothing brilliant abut the phrase, “the thing they do with the rhythm and this sort of skipping thing at the end — those little pauses in the way the tune goes that make us hear that phrase in a new way.”
Loranger, 60, said he grew up with Rock and Roll and Motown. A game-changer for him was hearing Aretha Franklin singing Duke Ellington songs on television.
“Before that I thought that was all old folks’ music, but after that I become more open to people like Cole Porter and the Gershwins.”
For more information about the Gershwin brothers, see www.gershwin.com
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