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January 30, 2015

Will “LADY” Be Good at Encores!?

Call it the first important sibling musical.

For the 1924 hit LADY, BE GOOD! had brothers George and Ira Gershwin collaborate on their first full score. Although the two had written a song in 1918, they hadn’t since paid much professional attention to each other. In the interim, George’s composing career had skyrocketed -- his name had graced 21 Broadway productions -- while Ira could “only” boast of nine.

Most of those were under the pseudonym “Arthur Francis,” lest anyone accuse Ira of riding on his brother’s coattails that were as long as the SuperChief train that Ethel Merman would wear in CALL ME MADAM. But now George, with a little nudging from his father, chose Ira to write this new show for up-and-coming producers Alex A. Aarons and Vinton Freedley. This time nepotism worked splendidly; indeed, for the rest of his too-short life, George rarely worked with any other lyricist than his big brother, who would henceforth use his real name.

The other siblings involved in LADY, BE GOOD! were Fred and Adele Astaire. They’d already performed together in six musicals, always as the secondary lovers. Now each put a nimble foot down. They not only demanded to play leads, but also insisted that they would no longer play characters who’d be romantically linked. Librettist Guy Bolton, later with Fred Thompson, obliged by creating Dick and Susie Trevor who were, just like the Astaires, brother and sister.

There won’t be any siblings in the production that LADY, BE GOOD! is getting next week at Encores! But Patti Murin and her new fiancé Colin Donnell will be on hand – although she’s playing Susie to Danny Gardner’s Dick. Lending support will be Jeff Hiller, Erin Mackey and – yes! – Tommy Tune, who’ll sing two songs originally warbled by Cliff Edwards – better-known as “Ukulele Ike,” who would show up at a musical for a couple of songs at a predetermined time of his choosing and then went home. (Yeah, shows were simpler then.)

When Encores! announced that Mark Brokaw would direct, LADY, BE GOOD! began to look quite promising. The excitement grew when Randy Skinner was signed as choreographer, for no one around today truly understands the dance styles of years gone by as well as Skinner.

And nine full decades have passed since LADY, BE GOOD! saw the lights of Broadway. As a result, you won’t be surprised by to hear that the plot is flimsy. Dick and Susie are evicted with all their belongings thrown onto the street. Susie tries to make the best of a bad situation by arranging their furniture as if there were walls and then, by a lamppost, hanging a “God Bless Our Home” sign.

Ah, but the Lord helps those who help themselves, as that song in ARI taught us. Both Susie and Dick decide to marry for money. But you know those ‘20s shows; love always trumps money – but not until a little mistaken identity rears its head.

Once the Gershwins sang “Oh, Lady Be Good!” to Bolton, the bookwriter insisted that the show that he’d been calling BLACK-EYED SUSAN be retitled with the last three words of the new song. He may well have inferred that the name would be better for business, for in those days “Lady, be good” actually was an expression and a euphemism for “Give me some sex” along 42nd Street.

In that same neighborhood, a drag queen named Bert Savoy often quipped in his vaudeville act, “You don’t know the half of it, Dearie.” Ira added “Blues” to the catchphrase, and another important LADY, BE GOOD! song was born. And because earlier in 1924, George had debuted his masterpiece “Rhapsody in Blue,” he reminded theatergoers of it by including a few bars in this song.

The score’s most enduring song is “Fascinating Rhythm.” When George wrote it, he casually called the melody “Syncopated City,” but when Ira got a listen, he happened to note that the song had a “fascinating rhythm.”

That was a good head start on a lyric, but Ira said that of the hundreds of lyrics he wrote, he found “Fascinating Rhythm” the hardest to set. What’s worse, George didn’t like Ira’s rhyme scene, and for a few days, there was little brotherly love between them.

We’ll see if two LADY BE, GOOD! songs are interpolated at Encores! One is “I’d Rather Charleston,” a duet for Dick and Susie. It wasn’t in the Broadway production, but was written for the 1926 London edition – with a lyric not by Gershwin but by Desmond Carter.

One song that WAS written for the show was dropped during the Philadelphia tryout: “The Girl I Love,” a tender ballad discarded because it slowed the speedy and slick show. That must have rankled banking mogul Otto Kahn, who’d invested $10,000 in the production on the strength of that song alone.

The Gershwins reworked the song as “The Man I Love” for STRIKE UP THE BAND in 1927, but again dropped it. They thought they found a home for it in ROSALIE in 1928, but dropped it yet again. It finally became a pop hit on its own, but given that it’s become a standard recorded by the disparate likes of Barbra Streisand, Cher, Patti LuPone, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Donna Summer and scores of others, don’t be surprised if we hear it at Encores!

LADY, BE GOOD! debuted as the FORTIETH musical of 1924. Yes, it opened late in the year (Dec. 1 at the Liberty Theatre – now Madame Tussaud’s), but still, that many musicals in 11 months is startlingly impressive. What’s more, four more would open by New Year’s Eve, including the smash-hit THE STUDENT PRINCE.

Today, LADY, BE GOOD!’s 330 performances would mean a loss of millions, but back then it was enough to make the show crack the Top 40 longest-running musicals. (All right – it only reached fortieth place.) One critic called the score “brisk, inventive, gay and nervous.” (What does that last word mean in this context?)

Fred Astaire summed up Gershwin’s abilities to inspire him to dance by saying that “he wrote for feet.” Needless to say, both Gershwins also wrote for ears. Open them wide at Encores! next week.

         — Peter Filichia



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