Gershwin sounds

George GershwinHaving spent the spring immersed in The Sound of Gershwin, I have come through without hating his music, which has to be some sort of achievement.  Indeed, the show introduced me to a whole host of songs I’d either never heard or had completely forgotten, and reminded me why I love some of the perennial favourites.  Here, then, is a highly subjective and personal baker’s dozen of Gershwin songs which are well worth getting to know.  Songs only, as Rhapsody in Blue rather goes without saying. 

13. I’d Rather Charleston. A delightful bit of ephemera from the Jazz Age, introduced by Fred and Adele Astaire in Lady Be Good and used to great effect in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  It’s a great ‘battle’ duet with the singers each trying to persuade the other to do something – in this case, Fred wants Adele to study, but Adele just wants to Charleston.  The lyric is by Desmond Carter, which is a bit of a mystery to me, as the rest of the show’s score had Ira Gershwin lyrics.  Pointless, but great fun, and it makes wonderful music to dance to, oddly enough – surely it couldn’t have been an excuse for a routine?

12. How Long Has This Been Going On?  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how good a song this really is, and it should certainly be docked points for including the word ‘ninny’ in the lyrics (really, Ira, what were you thinking?), but Audrey Hepburn’s rendition of it in the film of Funny Face is absolutely charming.

11. I Got Rhythm.  This one doesn’t need much introduction, really, as it’s one of the Gershwin brothers’ best known songs.  From Girl Crazy, which also introduced But Not For Me, Bidin’ My Time, Treat Me Rough and Embraceable You, all marvellous songs, this song is the one which made Ethel Merman a star.  It’s worth tracking down her version just to marvel at the lung power on display.  It’s not a sophisticated song, but it makes me smile, and the introductory verse, including the immortal line “I’m chipper all the day” makes the song extra special, even if most people leave it out these days.

10. Isn’t It a Pity?  From the forgotten farce Pardon My English, this is a quite delightful song.  I much prefer it in its original form of a lightly tripping duet, but it tends to surface now as more of a ballad.  The verses, which catalogue the people and activities which have wasted the lovers’ time up to this point, are particularly lovely.

9. Who Cares?  This enters the list purely by virtue of having been my solo this spring.  From Of Thee I Sing, a political satire which became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it’s a standard sweet love song.  The President of the USA declares that nothing matters compared to his love for the first lady, which is in many ways an admirable sentiment, and in some ways quite perturbing.  Rather typical of the Depression era, the song makes light of banks going under and the like, a feeling echoed in George and Ira’s later song I Can’t Be Bothered Now, where dancing is the panacea rather than love.  Who Cares? has an easygoing tune which is a joy to sing.

8. Do It Again.  A song written for a forgotten play (The French Doll), with lyrics by Buddy De Sylva, this is a deliciously naughty 1920s number.  Lines like “My lips just ache to have you take the kiss that’s waiting for you/You know if you do, you won’t regret it. Come and get it!” can’t fail to bring a smile to the lips in recalling an age of innocence long past.  Marilyn Monroe is one of many artists to have recorded this neglected little ditty.

7. They Can’t Take That Away From Me.  A bitter-sweet number introduced by Fred Astaire in Shall We Dance, which celebrates all the best things about the singer’s partner, recognising that even if they part, she’ll still linger with him in the memories that they share.  It seems to work equally well when performed as either an upbeat number or a melancholy reflection, which is rather unusual.

6. He Loves and She Loves.  From Funny Face, this one is not even remotely sophisticated, but I have a tremendous soft spot for it.  If he loves and she loves, and everything else seems to love, then “why can’t you love and I love too?”  A fairly straightforward declaration of feelings, it has a strange charm.  Although Fred Astaire was one of the stars of the original stage version of Funny Face, he didn’t sing the song there, although he did acquire in in the later film version.

5. I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.  This one excites me as soon as I hear the introductory ‘mm-cha, mm-cha’ in the accompaniment and keeps it up for the whole song.  The most joyous number in the score of Porgy and Bess, it’s a celebration of the simple things in life, the things which bring true happiness – in Porgy’s case, his gal, his Lord and his song.  Reminiscent in some ways of I Got Rhythm (though a much better song, I feel), it prefigures other popular variations on this theme such as I Got the Sun in the Morning from Annie Get Your Gun and Ain’t Got No/I Got Life from Hair.

4. Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.  Another number from Shall We Dance, where it was performed on roller-skates by Astaire and Rogers.  One of the most delightful comic duets in film or theatre, which has inspired countless parodies using a variety of different accents and dialects, the number says that although a couple may have countless differences, they shouldn’t let those get in the way for “if we call the whole thing off, then that might break my heart”.  Definitely one of Ira’s most inventive sets of lyrics.

3. The Man I Love.  The ultimate torch song, and one of those songs that very nearly disappeared without a trace, having been cut from two shows and featured in a show that never made it all the way to Broadway.  This song is a searing master work, and doesn’t need a pure, clear voice to sell it.  In fact, it works better with a world-weary, slightly ragged style that fits the lyric.

2. Summertime.  The lullaby from Porgy and Bess, which is practically an obligatory part of the repertoire for jazz and classical singers and musicians alike.  The melody soars and soothes, and the lyrics perfectly capture the hopes that every parent has for their child’s future.

1. Someone To Watch Over Me.  I like sad songs, and this number from Oh, Kay is one of my absolute favourites.  The lyric tells of someone searching unsuccessfully for love, absolutely certain that they’ll find it, but growing a little desperate nonetheless.  Simple, sparse and direct, it is quite simply a perfect song, with the melody brilliantly  complementing the wistful longing of the lyric.

Bonus selection: The Man That Got Away.  This is one of the songs by other composers which Ira Gershwin wrote lyrics for.  In this case Harold Arlen, most famous for the score of The Wizard of Oz.  This song was for Judy Garland in A Star is Born and is another sizzling torch song.  A close runner-up is The Saga of Jenny from Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark, one of Ira’s most genuinely funny lyrics.

You can hear snippets from many of these songs (and a few dozen others) on the jukebox page of the official Gershwin site, and it’s worth digging around on YouTube to find performances of the less familiar numbers, such as Ron Raines and Karen Ziemba tackling Who Cares?.  I could easily have included a couple of dozen others, but I wouldn’t want to be a complete bore, so I’m bound to have missed everyone’s personal favourite.  The shows and films these songs came from may not work quite so well now as they did when Gershwin was alive, but the scores are certainly worth listening to again.  And again…

  1. Mmmm, yes, I agree with your top four, but then again they are the Gershwin songs that I know the best. ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ is probably one of my favourite songs ever, not just in terms of Gershwin’s works.

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