This was the beginning of America's Golden Age of Musicals and thus it is important to understand what actually went into making a great musical. This was also a time when the Broadway show was assuming a standard format, one in which we still see to this day: two acts and several scenes. The first act being the key. The major songs are performed in the first act and then they would be later reprised, sometimes in both the first and the second acts. The show would open with a fast song, usually a dance number, employing all the chorus and introducing the principals into the play (2003, 84). The first love song would have to come soon enough so that it can be repeated in the first act. In Gershwin's Lady, Be Good!, the first love song was "So Am I."
The year 1926 was a big year for the Gershwin brothers because of their hit Oh, Kay! (dedicated to Kay Swift), which featured the songs "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Clap Your Hands," and "Do Do." His next two musicals after Oh, Kay! were very different in style from anything that he had done before. They were political satires. Though Gershwin wasn't "political," so to speak, he wanted to bring his work to a higher level, higher then -- that is -- the normal type of musical comedy. Strike Up the Band was a cynical anti-war story that tried to diminish the national panic. Of Thee I Sing was another satire which depicted the United States in a very different light -- a nation that could move to a dictatorship. Of Thee I Sing received a Pulitzer Prize, which showed that Gershwin's idea of bringing his work to a new level worked.
In 1933, George and Ira worked once again on Pardon My English, which they wrote out of friendship for producers Aarons and Freedley (Rimler 2009, 57). The plot was about a the marriage of an American kleptomaniac to the daughter of a German police commissioner. The script itself was filled with lewd gags tailored for the stars of the show, "each of whom made a career out of mangling the English language" (2009, 57). When the show opened, it was panned by New York critics who normally were rapturous in their praise for the Gershwin brothers. On the opening night of the show, both Ira and George went home, complaining of a cold (2009, 57).
Pardon My English started 1933 off badly, but Ira and George's second work that year, Let 'Em Eat Cake, the sequel to of Thee I sing (which won the Pulitzer), would be their last attempt to regain their preeminence as writers of the Broadway musical comedy (Rimler 2009, 58). Let 'Em Eat Cake's plot started where Off Thee I Sing ended and had the presidential candidate, who ran on a platform of love in the first comedy, now mixed up in a fascist plot to take over the United States (2009, 58). The musical was actually quite timely as fascist militarists were consolidating power in Germany, Italy, and Japan at that time. The scriptwriters, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind broached these issues, however, with morbidity and silliness (2009, 58). "Where of Thee I Sing had charmed audiences with a bumbling Vice President Throttlebottom who could not get the necessary personal references to qualify for a library card, in Let 'Em Eat Cake, they watched in horror as the charming fellow was led to the guillotine" -- even though it was to some interesting Gershwin tunes (2009, 58). Four days before Let 'Em Eat Cake opened, Gershwin had signed a contract with DuBose Heyward to write Porgy and Bess.
Because of his love for jazz, Gershwin had spent some time studying black culture. Ten years earlier, Gershwin read DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy about a black crippled beggar and was inspired about setting the story to music. What was it about the novel that so intrigued Gershwin? For one, writing Blue Monday (Scandals) was one reason, but another reason was that he saw spirituality in the life of African-Americans. He had said before that he wanted to write an opera. "I shall write it for niggers [sic]. They are always singing. They have it in their blood. I have no doubt that they will be able to do full justice to a jazz opera" (Hyland 2003, 159).
It took Gershwin 21 months to compose Porgy and Bess and it was the first opera every written encompassing black heritage, jazz and blues. The Metropolitan Opera House wanted to produce the show, but they would not promise Gershwin a black cast. Instead, it debuted at Boston's Colonial Theatre on September 30, 1935. The New York critics were not kind to him after the premier; they did not like the use of jazz and blues in the opera; however, they audiences loved it. Porgy and Bess was important for Gershwin because it allowed him to combine both his love for serious music and his love for jazz and blues. It was also important for theatre, in general, because it was the first black opera about black culture and life, and Gershwin stood his ground about making sure that black people played the parts. Two of Gershwin's biographers have noted, "It is astonishing today how innovative the treatment of black life in 'Porgy' was" (Hyland 2003, 162). Heyward and Gershwin worked together, mainly via mail. Heyward would finish a scene and mail it to Gershwin with suggestions as to where as song might fit (2003, 162-163). Gershwin, while being innovative with his work, also understood that people wanted to be entertained too. He urged Heyward to not write lengthy scenes. Gershwin was an adamant believer in not giving people too much of a good thing. His constant advice was to shorten the play -- by 40% (2003, 163). Gershwin's feel for the theatre was an important part of his success. Professor Richard Crawford wrote that Gershwin profited from the fact that he had spent his career submitting his music to the ruthless judgment of mass audiences; thus he knew how to break through an audience's apathy (2003, 163).
Ira had been working with Harold Arlen on Life Begins at 8:40 during Heyward and Gershwin's initial work together, but in the summer of 1934, Ira was free from work, so he helped "polish" some of Heyward's lyrics (Hyland 2003, 164). It turns out that Ira did a lot more than just polish lyrics. He wrote several of Porgy and Bess' lyrics himself and some of them in collaboration with Heyward (2003, 164). Heyward described the way the Gershwin brothers worked as such: "The brothers Gershwin, after their extraordinary fashion, would get at the piano, pound, wrangle, swear, burst into weird snatches of song, and eventually emerge with a polished lyric" (2003, 164). One of the most enduring songs to come out of Porgy and Bess was the song "Summertime."
In 1937, Gershwin began suffering from headaches, which would, in the end, be found out to be a brain tumor. Gershwin was only thirty-eight years old when he died. Gershwin's contribution to music and to the theatre cannot be overstated. He was a songwriter and composer who could move between the worlds of classical, jazz, and operas with ease. He and his brother Ira are responsible for the Golden Age of Broadway and for formatting what has become the standard Broadway musical. He was often torn between writing what he wanted and writing what he knew others wanted of him. He is best known for his show tunes, light, airy songs that are easy to hum,…