‘Words By Ira Gershwin’ to have world premiere at North Coast Rep
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
When you think of a Gershwin tune, like “I Got Rhythm,” you probably think of the tune as being the song. But a song is not a song without lyrics, and George Gershwin’s older brother, Ira, was responsible for some of the best.
“Words By,” a world premiere about Ira Gershwin that opens at North Coast Repertory Theatre Oct. 20, is giving the unsung brother a chance to be heard.
There’s a classic words-and-music story about Mrs. Jerome Kern and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein at a party where someone says: Mrs. Kern’s husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Mrs. Hammerstein cuts in with: “Her husband wrote ‘Dah-dah DEE-dah.’ MY husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River!’ ”
Ira Gershwin had a gift for making melodies sing. George was the mover and shaker, already a hit-maker at age 20 with “Swanee” (words by Irving Caesar, sung by Al Jolson), but Ira and he became an unbeatable team in 1924, starting with “Lady Be Good,” the Broadway musical that introduced Fred and Adele Astaire and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” And they kept at it until George’s untimely death in 1937, at age 38.
Though devastated by the loss of his brother, Ira lived almost 50 years longer, and went on to write with other composers, like Harold Arlen. Remember the film “A Star is Born,” where Judy Garland sings “The Man That Got Away”? Words by Ira Gershwin.
“Words By” was conceived and written by Joe Vass, a Minnesota music man who thought it was time for a companion piece to his tribute to George, “The Soul of Gershwin,” which played at the (now-defunct) Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida. The producer there, who had worked with NCRT director David Ellenstein, suggested that “Words By” and NCRT might be a perfect match.
What could have been a one-man show turned out to be one man, two singers, and a four-man band, including playwright/pianist Vass.
“Ira talks to the audience and the singers help him tell his story,” Vass said. “And the band, onstage all the time, is a character, too.”
To play that character, Vass assembled some well-known local musicians: Gunnar Biggs (Bass), Bob Boss (Guitar), and Duncan Moore (Drums). Ellenstein brought in Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, a transplanted New Yorker now based in Los Angeles, to play Ira; this is his first appearance at NCRT. His partners in rhyme and music are singer-songwriter Meghan Andrews, another LA-based New Yorker, who gave a concert here two years ago, and London-born actor/singer Andrew Ableson, who has appeared in two previous shows at NCRT.
All three come from musical families: Nick’s mother is an opera singer who also performed American Songbook classics; his father is a harpsichordist. Meghan’s parents — a jazz singer and a composer — met as part of Fred Waring’s band. Andrew’s dad was a famous crooner, known as “the English Tony Bennett.” All three have impressive credits, and grew up knowing and loving Gershwin songs.
Probably the best-known, most-performed Gershwin song is “Summertime,” but Ira did not write that one, though he received co-credit for the lyrics in “Porgy and Bess” and surely helped refine them. In fact, DuBose Heyward, who wrote both the libretto and the novel on which the opera was based, did most of the lyrics, with the exception of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which is all Ira.
That still leaves dozens of other huge hits to consider, like “Strike up the Band,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful,” “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
If you love words and music, don’t miss “Words By,” a time-trip through the golden age of American song. If it’s a hit, it will play all over the country. And you can say you saw and heard it here first.
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