Words, by Ira Gershwin
Joseph Vass’ Words by Ira Gershwin has great music and dance numbers performed by the estimable Elijah Rock, the sleek Angela Teek and a four-piece band conducted by Kevin Toney, who also tickles the ivories in the L.A. County premiere of this musical work at Burbank’s Colony Theatre. A total of 26 songs with lyrics written by Ira, set to music composed by the likes of his younger brother George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and others, are sure to delight your ears, while the titillating tunes will set your toes tapping. But if you wanted to see a play on everything you ever wanted to know about Ira Gershwin, to paraphrase one of his “Porgy and Bess” masterpieces, this ain’t necessarily it.
Vass’ script has little if any dramatic arc or the insight yielded by Hershey Felder’s bio-plays about Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin (this reviewer did not see Felder’s George Gershwin Alone so won’t comment on something he hasn’t viewed). The tagline for Words by Ira Gershwin is “Meet the man behind the legendary lyrics.” But after enjoying this musical piece for more than two hours spectators will actually learn precious little about George Gershwin’s older brother, Ira (Jake Broder), the lyricist of countless hits, including “Fascinating Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful”, “Love is Here to Stay”, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and the opera “Porgy and Bess.” Indeed, at one point, the rather bland Broder “confesses” in character that not only should listeners not examine his (i.e., Ira’s) lyrics to discover anything about their creator’s inner life, but that he purposely kept personal details out of the words he wrote.
Really? Did Ira Gershwin ever assert that? Expressing one’s self is the raison d’être for most Western artistes. Did the man who wrote the words to “Summertime”, “Embaceable You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (neither, BTW, are in Words) ever say that? Maybe he did – I don’t know – but this work reveals almost nothing about the love life of the lyricist of literally hundreds of love songs. We find out matter-of-factly sometime in the second act that Ira was married – literally, passing strange and Exhibit A of journalism’s cardinal sin of burying the lead. Although the playwright seems to break this illusion when alluding to George Gershwin’s untimely death, rather curiously, this show is largely devoid of biographical details, let alone psychologically penetrating its prolific protagonist’s psyche.
Furthermore, while Ira wrote the words for political songs and satires – including the first Broadway musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, 1931’s Of Thee I Sing, and for the number “Union Square” in the latter’s 1933 sequel, Let ’em Eat Cake – Vass’ script makes a grievous omission regarding Ira’s political activism. Ira served on the executive board of the left-leaning Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. When the House Un-American Activities Committee began its fascistic purge of Hollywood in 1947, Ira hosted meetings (including, reportedly, CFA’s very first powwow) of the Committee for the First Amendment, attended by stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, at his Beverly Hills home and lent his famous name to the anti-HUAC cause, co-signing, for example, an anti-Blacklist Variety ad.
Opposing the inquisition in Hollywood earned Gershwin a summons to testify before the California Senate’s witch-hunting Tenney Committee. There has recently been a revival of interest in the Hollywood Blacklist, with books, theatre and film about this reds-under-the-beds period. Vass’ vast oversight is truly a missed opportunity – but this neglectfulness is in keeping with the curiously non-revelatory nature of his script when it comes to Ira’s offstage life. (To be fair, the two-acter does cover Ira’s friendship and collaboration with lefty lyricist Yip Harburg, whose credits include the Depression classic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and Judy Garland’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow.”)
Where Vass does shed light, however, is on Ira’s creative process, and the dramatist deserves kudos for this. Ira likens songwriting to making a mosaic (which probably suggested the set’s backdrop). However, perhaps out of modesty, Ira demurs, declining to liken his lyric writing technique to poetry. But this wordsmith begs to differ. To wit: In “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Ira imaginatively rhymes “panties”, “aunties” and “Dante’s.” And consider these gleefully skillfully wrought lyrics from “Love is Here to Stay”:
“In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But our love is here to stay.”
While he may not have been Shelley or Shakespeare, in terms of popular music Ira’s playful word play ranks alongside peerless peers such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward and John Lennon. If your humble scribe ever once conjured up a cockamamie concoction of elocution like the above, as George Carlin wittily, pithily quipped about whoever created the slogan “make love, not war,” he’d put his quill and ink down and go to the beach for the rest of his life.
The show is sometimes funny, as when humorous songs such as “Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)” are performed (wherein in Broder, Sleek and Rock have a funny song off). However, Broder is pretty dull as the title character and as Marlon Brando joked about himself after co-starring in Guys and Dolls, he “can’t sing any better than a kangaroo.” I don’t remember Broder being so monotone in terms of both acting and singing when he starred as Louis Prima in another musical bio-play, the super Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara – indeed, quite the contrary. So I suspect the fault, dear Brutus, is in the script and possibly David Ellenstein’s direction – and not primarily the actor. However, even if Ira Gershwin wasn’t a live wire offstage, there’s a way to play a lackluster character without boring the aud while treading the boards, don’tchaknow.
Having said all this, the music – and in particular, the stellar, show stopping warbling and hoofing by the phenomenal Elijah Rock, makes this work worth seeing (and hearing!). Once again the scene stealing Rock rocks the Colony, where he previously starred in Breath and Imagination -The Story of Roland Hayes, the African American tenor who professionally sang classical, concert music before Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. The youthful Rock, who appears in Showtime’s TV series Masters of Sex, is establishing himself as one of his generation’s foremost interpreters and performers of the Great American Songbook, which Ira Gershwin contributed so much to, making Rock’s casting in Words fortuitous and natural. In a unique act of “decolonization,” Rock blow the roof off of the Colony – his vocals and especially Elijah’s tap dancing will knock your socks off, as this is really his show.
Keeping with the playwright’s lack of interest, ability, laziness or whatever, this piece (have you noticed, Dear Reader, that I haven’t called it a “play” per se?) sheds absolutely no light into why African American singers/dancers and musicians (three out of four members of the live band are Black) are performing the numbers co-written by the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Even after watching this show Ira remains very much a mystery, still in the shadow of his composer brother, who tragically died so young. But never mind, put your brain into neutral and ears into overdrive: if you enjoy the Ira Gershwin repertoire, just go and experience the show’s fascinating rhythms, rhymes and Rock-steady performance.
Words by Ira Gershwin is being performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m., through May 17 at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank, CA 91502. Free parking is adjacent. For info: (818)558-7000, ext. 15; www.ColonyTheatre.org. For more info on the superb Elijah Rock see here.
Ed Rampell co-authored, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.