October 30, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Can there ever be too many recordings of Gershwin musicals? For that matter, can there be too many Gershwin musicals? There’s a new Original Broadway Cast album being released today on Shout Factory records even though George died 75 years ago which might have you thinking that you’ve seen the last Gershwin show. Not so. People keep returning to his catalog to put together yet another “new” Gershwin musical.

In 1983, Tommy Tune and Twiggy – yes, Twiggy – starred in My One and Only. Subtitled  The New Gershwin Musical it had a book by the inestimable Peter Stone (1776) and Timothy S. Mayer. They tried to create a book that seemed like a 1920′s musical comedy romp, but would play well before a 1980s audience. In the process, they used seventeen Gershwin songs from five Broadway shows and two movies. Success? Yes – 767 performances (May 1983 – March 1985) at the St. James Theatre.

Nearly a decade later, Ken Ludwig hit it big on Broadway with a new book for a re-worked version of the Gershwin’s 1930 hit Girl Crazy. His re-write was re-titled Crazy for You and was subtitled The New Gershwin Musical Comedy. It used sixteen songs by George and Ira Gershwin from four Broadway shows and two films, plus two songs with material by Gus Kahn or Desmond Carter. Success? Even more so – 1,622 performances at the Shubert Theatre in New York (1992 – 1996) and another nearly three years in London. It has become a much-produced property for small professional, community and collegiate theaters.

Now a third bite is taken out of the Gershwin apple. Nice Work If You Can Get It, billed simply as A New Musical Comedy, uses twenty-two songs from the Gershwin catalog, including five that had been used in one of the earlier “new” Gershwin musicals. It has a new book by Joe DiPietro who wrote the book for the jukebox musical based on the Elvis Presley catalog, All Shook Up. That one didn’t make much of an impression back in 2005, but then DiPietro hit big, winning the Tony Award for best book of a musical three years ago for Memphis.

The book for Nice Work doesn’t spring virginally from a new concept. DiPietro took as the starting point the Gershwin’s hit show Oh, Kay! which ran for most of the 1926-27 theater season at the Imperial Theatre starring Gertrude Lawrence. It was her first book musical, a story-telling vehicle as opposed to a revue of songs, sketches and skits. It followed her successes in revues and established her as a Broadway star, a status she held right up to her final show, The King and I.

Oh, Kay! had a delightful book by the inspired team of Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse and featured songs that became standards including “Someone to Watch Over Me.” While the script included a lot of topical jokes, it was a sublimely silly piece of froth. Why not just revive it? There have been efforts to do so.

The first effort came just two years after its premiere, but ran only two weeks. Sixty-some years later, a revival lasted six months, having opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater and then transferring to the Lunt-Fontanne. Its gimmick? It featured an all-black cast.

There was also an off-Broadway revival in 1960 with a number of new songs. DRG released a CD with the cast recording in a compilation with Jerome Kern’s Leave It To Jane which also featured a book by Bolton and Wodehouse however it doesn’t seem to be in print anymore.

Following the formula that worked so well for My One and Only and Crazy for You, Nice Work If You Can Get It uses the original script as a jumping off place.

Oh, Kay! involved bootleggers during prohibition taking over a deserted Long Island mansion as a place to store their hooch and centered on the love affair between a young lady of their group and the owner of the mansion, a playboy with multiple marital problems. Nice Work keeps most of those points, but adds prohibition forces – a pro-Volstead Act Senator, a Chief of Police and a vice squad led by an anti-liquor Duchess. An un-consummated marriage continues to play a key part in the festivities, but there are enough altered situations and new complications to justify DiPietro’s claim to writing a new book “inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse.”

Of course, the script isn’t the reason people buy a new Gershwin musical recording – it is Gershwin! This new disc on the Shout Factory label offers all the joys you would expect from a disc with twenty-two of the Gershwin brothers’ gems – from well known numbers such as “Lady Be Good,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and the title tune, to the less familiar but equally enjoyable “By Strauss,” “Do It Again” and “Will You Remember Me?”

The cast is headed by Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara. Broderick drew decidedly mixed reviews for his performance in the theater, but the performance on the disc is a satisfying one. He delivers the title number with charm, sells “I’ve Got To Be There” with the kind of panache he brought to Mel Brooks’ Gershwinesque pastiche “That Face” in The Producers, and gives the lilting “Do Do Do” a proper light touch. O’Hara (Clara in The Light in the Piazza and Nellie Forbush in the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, among other credits of note) makes something new out of “Someone To Watch Over Me,” is touching on “But Not For Me” and leads an up-tempo “Hangin’ Around With You.” She is given the difficult task of selling “Treat Me Rough” in an age of increased feminist sensitivity and pulls it off. Together Broderick and O’Hara are delightful on both “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “S’ Wonderful.”

Gershwin’s music always fits the big-band-ish sound of a classic Broadway pit orchestra, and while here it is somewhat restricted by today’s economics which only allowed a budget for seventeen players, Bill Elliott’s orchestrations deliver the feel that is needed.

One thing that sets this “new Gershwin musical” apart from previous ones is the sense of humor in the arrangements of David Chase. Elliott and Chase announce their intention to lift not just full songs from the Gershwin catalog but snippets and themes from the very first notes of the opening number. Later they kick off “Demon Rum” with a humorous takeoff on the opening theme of Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” For the rest of the hour and a quarter disc, the more you know of Gershwin’s music the more fun you will have trying to spot the sources for the connecting material. 

It is a particular pleasure that record producer Robert Sher, along with Elliott and Chase, chose to include the scene change music which is built from snatches from the Gershwin catalog.

If you haven’t been bitten by the Gershwin bug, there are a host of CDs that can serve as an introduction to the addiction. Many of them might be a better choice than this one for that purpose. My personal favorite is the album Michael Feinstein issued in 1996 which has the same title as this show. But whether you want this one as a souvenir if you have been fortunate enough to see the show, or as an addition to the ever growing Gershwin section on your Theater Shelf, there will be material here to enjoy.

Nice Work If You Can Get It
Original Broadway Cast Album
Shout Factory catalog 826663-13740
Running time 1:14 over 28 cuts
Packaged with notes, synopsis and lyrics plus color photos
ASIN: B009904NCS
List Price $18.98

Other Gershwin recordings of interest:

Nice Work If You Can Get It - Songs by the Gershwins
Michael Feinstein
ASIN: B000002J6Z
13 songs / 57 minutes
 Amazon price: $13.98

My One and Only - The New Gershwin Musical
Original Broadway Cast Album
Atlantic Catalog 7 80110-2

Crazy for You The New Gershwin Musical Comedy
Original Broadway Cast Album
Angel Catalog CDC 7 54618 2

Oh, Kay!
Studio Cast Recording
 Nonesuch Catalog 79361-2