Although composer George Gershwin died nearly 70 years ago, his star is still shining as bright as ever in a remarkably entertaining one-man show called George Gershwin Alone, currently at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. George Gershwin Alone is the creation of an extremely multi-talented playwright and actor Hershey Felder, who not only created this show several years ago-playing in London’s West End and Broadway-but is an wonderfully gifted pianist who does more than justice to many of Gershwin’s classic songs.
In the span of a mere 95 minutes, Felder creates a historical figure the audience truly connects with emotionally, and along the way we are reminded of the incredible achievements of this great American composer. Born to Russian-Jewish parents, dropped out of high school and raised on the rough streets of New York City, Gershwin’s life seems to have begun much like many turn-of-the-century immigrants and first generation Americans. But that soon changed. At the age of 21, Gershwin sold his first big song “Swanee,” and the legendary Al Jolson demanded the right to record it. Felder then vividly describes how that led to even greater opportunities, like becoming a rehearsal pianist for the Ziegfeld Follies. With that came praise from some of the world’s most glamorous showgirls and a nickname: “the piano pimp.”
Felder’s play is loaded with numerous heartwarming touches of humor and ethnic wit. George’s mother once attended a dress rehearsal for Porgy and Bess and as soon the lights came up, she complained to George that the characters’ costumes were all wrong and that they were all too well dressed. There was his immigrant mom who barely spoke English, the practical theatre critic. In one of the play’s early discussions of how George and his brother Ira worked together, George recalls a dilemma over “what comes first, the lyrics or the music?”
Ira’s dry response was “the contract” always comes “first!” Once George asked French composer Maurice Ravel for some musical advice and Ravel responded, “Why would you want to be a second-rate Ravel?” Later in the discussion Ravel found out how much George got paid on Broadway for his music, and Ravel asked Gershwin for lessons.
Other parts of Felder’s one-man tour de force performance give intriguing insights into the creative processes of Gershwin’s work. Noises on a train ride inspired sounds heard in “Rhapsody in Blue;” the sounds of Paris cabs became integral to the music of “An American in Paris.” In one memory of writing “dummy lyrics” for practice on a song, George recalls how the remarkable lyrics just “revealed themselves like magic.” In demonstrating some of his more unique talents at composing, George describes how he changed from an F-minor to F-major in “Swanee” to challenge Al Jolson. Then later in creating special high notes in the song, “I Got Rhythm,” to accommodate Ethel Merman’s vocal range, George comes to the comic realization how much Jolson and Merman sounded alike.
Not all of the show is just in glowing praise of Gershwin’s achievements. Felder nicely mixes in famous notes of criticism Gershwin received from New York critics and media giants. One confused critic said the innovative opera Porgy and Bess was “part opera, part operetta and Broadway entertainment” in a mostly negative way. The great Sam Goldwyn of MGM once called George into his office demanding he make his songs “more hum-able,” like Irving Berlin’s. And the industrial giant Henry Ford, in one of his moments of supreme nastiness, called Gershwin’s music “moral slop” and criticized the jungle quality and Jewish-ness of his jazz, which he labeled not true American music.
Felder’s narrative also touches on the romantic side of Gershwin’s short life when he recalled George’s relationship with Kay Swift, a talented musician who transcribed scores of operas with him. Their relationship dissolved when George went to Hollywood in the early 1930s but seemed to be the inspiration for the hit tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
The truly wonderful George Gershwin Alone is currently on an open-ended run at the Royal George Theatre, which is at 1641 N. Halsted in Chicago.