July 24, 2012

Before we cap off the month-long concentration on works by and about George Gershwin on the 75th anniversary of his death with a look next week at his acknowledged masterwork, Porgy and Bess, permit me a digression to discuss a treasured item from my own theater shelf – a disc that may be out of print but is still available online..

In 1991, the old Philips Classics label issued a disc (catalog number 434-274-2) that documented the incredibly productive last year of George’s life. It was titled The Gershwins in Hollywood. For the most part, it used the original orchestrations from the movies for which George and Ira wrote their final songs. Five of the 14 tracks were instrumental, leaving nine that featured the vocals of the late Gregory Hines and Patti Austin. The orchestra, under conductor John Mauceri, was the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

That orchestra possessed the heft and the exquisite musicianship that was often found in the orchestras assembled for movie studio soundstages after the advent of “all singing, all dancing” talkies. 

Mauceri’s credentials for the project were impeccable as an established conductor of opera and symphony orchestras who also worked as musical director for Broadway productions of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, Richard Rodgers’ On Your Toes and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance.  What is more, record producer Michael Gore’s engineer, Joel Moss, used a wide-spread stereo to emphasize the expanse of the orchestra to bring to mind the sound of the musicals of the 30s, making it almost feel as if you are at the recording sessions for the films.

The selection of Hines and Austin as vocalists for the album was particularly appropriate. It is hard to come up with the name of another well known male vocalist of the 1990s when this album was recorded that had vocal qualities so like those of Fred Astaire for whom many of these songs were written. Just like Astaire, he was a dancer who sang and, perhaps as a result, the rhythmic element of a song propelled his delivery. Austin has a blend of jazz and pop that seems to allow her to play with a lyric while delivering a melodic line with pizzaz.

The catalog of material they had to chose from was nothing short of astonishing given the short time the Gershwins spent on the sunset side of the continent.

After the disappointing initial run of Porgy and Bess, George and Ira accepted contracts to work on films in Hollywood. They left New York by air on August 10, 1936, just 11 months before George’s short life was ended by a brain tumor at the age of 38. In those 11 months, they wrote songs for two Fred Astaire films, Shall We Dance, which was the seventh of his films with Ginger Rogers, and A Damsel in Distress in which his leading lady was the non-singing, non-dancing Joan Fontaine. When George died they were working on songs for the Samuel Goldwyn feature The Goldwyn Follies.

The songs recorded in this album, using the orchestrations from the films, included “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” “Slap That Bass,” “They All Laughed,” “A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Love Walked In” and “Love Is Here to Stay.” That all of these were written in less than a year is amazing, but the album doesn’t even have all the hits they wrote that year. It is missing “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” and “Things Are Looking Up” as well as lesser known titles such as “Hi-Ho! At Last,” “Wake Up, Brother, and Dance,” “The Jolly Tar and the Milkmaid,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Sing of Spring,” “Pay Some Attention To Me,” “I Was Doing All Right,” “I Love to Rhyme” and “Just Another Rhumba.”

And that’s only the songs. George also composed eight instrumental pieces. One of the delights of this album is that it includes two of these instrumentals – the lilting “Walking the Dog” number for Astaire and Rogers when their characters meet on board an ocean liner and the full production number “Watch Your Step!” that had Astaire dancing with an entire chorus of girls wearing Ginger Rogers masks.

To open the album, the orchestra delivers a superb performance of an “Overture” that veteran orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett assembled featuring melodies from their Hollywood output. Later on the disc, Bennett’s charts and those of George Parish for A Damsel in Distress are restored and edited into a suite which is here titled “An American in London.” The original charts are used for the recording of the final ballet of Shall We Dance – “Watch Your Step.”

The most valuable instrumental item on the album is the first commercial recording of Gershwin’s own orchestration of the final segment of Delicious, the single film the Gershwins’ worked on in their earlier trip west. In essence, it is a ten minute piano concerto which he later re-worked into his “Second Rhapsody.” Here we hear his original 1931 orchestrations with Wayne Marshall playing the piano part.

Speaking of Gershwin orchestrations, his chart for the “Walking the Dog” number is a revelation of wit. Two other orchestrations, however, jump out of my earphone speakers into my consciousness as unarguably brilliant. They are the orchestral background for two classic Gershwin songs, “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Slap That Bass.” They are both by Johnny Green who went on to win no fewer than four Oscars for musical direction (Easter Parade, An American in Paris, West Side Story, Oliver!).

There are many recordings of theater music that have gone out of print, many featuring music composed by George Gershwin. None, in my opinion, as enjoyable and fascinating as this one. 


The Gershwins in Hollywood
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
Philips Classics 434 274-2
Out of print but offered online 

The Gershwins in Hollywood