George Gershwin Alone
What better way to spend a hot summer evening than listening to all the marvelous songs created by George Gershwin? How about the amazing Hershey Felder appearing as Gershwin, sitting onstage at his Steinway giving us a blow-by-blow account of the evolution of the American genius’ music, his sadly short but staggeringly prolific career, and the many obstacles even his success could not keep him from enduring.
Beautifully staged and directed by Joel Zwick, Felder’s knockout George Gershwin Alone, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse, began as a workshop production here in Los Angeles in 1999 and has since been performed more than 2,500 times to resounding kudos in New York and all over the globe.
With the blessings of the composer’s heirs (Gershwin’s nephew was in attendance at the opening night here) and after extensive searches through personal effects housed at the Library of Congress and learning the distinctive keyboard techniques used by the man himself, Felder has created something no one has before: a definitive look into not only the fame and fortune afforded Gershwin in his brief but creatively inexhaustible life well lived, but the heartache and unfairness lurking below the public persona, including the dark shadow of anti-semitism that led Henry Ford to proclaim in one of his publications that Gershwin’s music was a product of the “insidious Jewish menace” to America.
The great composer died of a brain aneurysm at the heartbreakingly young age 38, but despite reams of damning critiques and Jew-baiting racial slurs printed extensively during his lifetime, he left behind over 1,000 tunes. In his George Gershwin Alone, Felder actually explains to the rapt audience gathered at the Geffen 70 years after the composer’s death how the man created the music, including his controversial use of minor chords and changing octaves in midstream to get the listener to hear and concentrate on the words written by Gershwin’s beloved brother Ira (“There is was: the hook!” he exclaims to us excitedly).
George Gershwin Alone is a magical evening, not only reliving and respectfully honoring a life of inimitable renown and showing the human side to the fleeting and fickle qualities inherent in success, but offering so much incredible music along the way that it boggles the mind that one man could have created it all, as though the spectre of his early demise fueled him on even without knowing that would be the tragic outcome.
We’re treated to Felder, a precision pianist besides being a charming and effectual actor, explaining the creation of (and then performing live) the unearthly classics the world now adores. It begins with little Jacob Gershowitz’ first introduction to music while playing stickball in his impoverished Brooklyn ghetto neighborhood in the early 20th century, the sound of a kid practicing Dvorak’s “Humouresque” on the violin (I was surprised streetkid Georgie made no comments about “Mabel, Mabel, Darling Mabel”) somewhere nearby proving to be an otherwise insufficient event that remarkably heralded an entire lifetime of unparalleled distinction. “It was like the strings were pulling on my heart,” Felder as Gershwin describes to us.
We’re there for the creation of Porgy and Bess, which for me was even more personally breathtaking as it featured a huge rear projection of my dear old friend Urylee Leonardos, with whom I toured in the national tour of The King and I somewhere during my prehistoric years, and the scratchy sound of her haunting voice performing the “I Loves You, Porgy” duet, echoing through the Geffen and made more impressive by John Gottlieb’s exquisite sound design.
Then there’s the inspiration behind An American in Paris, written to the sound of Parisian taxicab horns while Gershwin lived an expatriate life in Europe and, at the culmination of the evening, there’s the crowning glory of George Gershwin Alone: Felder at the piano before his rapt and silent audience playing a stellar rendition of the entire Rhapsody in Blue.
After a spirited standing ovation, Felder then returned to the stage to top off everything else about this memorable evening with a sing-along of Gershwin tunes, gently coaxing audience members to stand if they know the obscure introductory verses of some of Gershwin’s biggest hits. It was a magical, indelible evening spent with George Gershwin Alone, especially poignant, as Felder admits from the stage, not only because it’s being performed here in LA where the workshop began its incredible journey, but because it’s being presented in the town where George and Ira lived out their lives.
This is particularly emotional for me because, although the man was gone nearly a decade before I was born, when I first came here in the late 1960s I stayed and later spent many hours at the home of Rosemary Clooney, a cherished friend of my late mother. Rosie’s atmospheric and overgrown Spanish villa at 1019 N. Roxbury Drive in the ol’ Hills of Beverly was an extraordinary place, gorgeous from the outside and, inside, a truly warm and cozy and accessible sanctuary for a family I grew to love.
Even with help, frankly Rosie was not much of a housekeeper, something not make easier by her desire to raise her five kids, Miguel, Rafy, Gabriel, Monsita and Maria, without celebrity or pretense. Bikes and toys lined the spiral staircase in the grand foyer, whose walls were covered with world-class art by world-class artists, and Rosie’s huge bedroom suite and glass-lined walk-in closet—which alone was bigger than the average house—was continuously strewn with piles of discarded clothes and other indications of her periodic emotional dysfunction.
But there was one room in the Ferrar/Clooney household that was always untouched by messy residents and endearingly unruly kids, and that was the austerely grand formal living room, always pristine and sparklingly clean and filled with Rosie’s career memorabilia. Though I’ve never played myself, I would love to sit there at the impressive, gleaming polished Steinway dominating the room, amazed at how much sound emanated from it when I plunked on the keys.
One day waiting for Rosie to come downstairs, I was seating at that piano gently stroking the ivories when the housekeeper came in to ask if I needed anything. I mentioned how surprised I always was that this room in general and this piano in particular were exempt from the tyranny of many children living so close to it, to which she said, “Oh, Miss Rosie don’t allow the children to come in here and mess with Mr. George’s piano.”
For the first time, I became aware of where I’d spent so many hours: in the home bought by Rosie and her twice-former husband Jose Ferrar that had been George Gershwin’s until his death, which had included in the deal the very piano where he had composed some of his most important music.
Although I have never had the heart to drive past the property since Rosie’s death in 2002, I’ve been told the historic Gershwin house Rosie so adored and where she raised her wonderfully sweet and gifted brood of surprisingly well adjusted kids, has been bulldozed, replaced by one of those hideously gaudy modern faux-stone mansions that have sprouted up insidiously in the area, looking as though they were transplanted to BevHills directly from Dubai.
Yes, George Gershwin Alone proved to be something both bittersweet and incredibly special for me personally, but it’s an evening sure to touch the heart of anyone who loves music and music history, thanks to the dedication and talent of Hershey Felder and, above all, the abundant gifts left behind for many, many generations to come by George and Ira Gershwin.
George Gershwin Alone plays through July 22 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood CA 90024; for tickets, call (310) 208-5454.