“Words by Ira Gershwin”: Where’s the man behind the legendary lyrics?

BURBANK, Calif. – Joseph Vass’ Words by Ira Gershwin has great music and dance numbers performed by the estimable Elijah Rock, the sleek Angela Teek and a four-piece band conducted by keyboardist Kevin Toney, in this work’s L.A. County premiere at Burbank’s Colony Theatre. A total of 26 songs with lyrics written by Ira, set to music by his younger brother George, Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and others, are sure to delight your ears, while the titillating tunes will set your toes tapping. But if you wanted to see a play with everything you ever wanted to know about Ira Gershwin, to paraphrase one of his songs, this ain’t necessarily it.

Vass’ script has little dramatic arc or insight. The show’s tagline is “Meet the man behind the legendary lyrics.” But after more than two hours spectators will learn precious little about Ira (Jake Broder), the lyricist of countless hits, including “Fascinating Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Love is Here to Stay,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” and the opera Porgy and Bess. Indeed, at one point the rather bland Broder “confesses” in character that not only should listeners not examine his lyrics to discover anything about their creator’s inner life, but that he purposely kept personal details out of the words he wrote.

Really? Did Ira Gershwin ever assert that? Expressing oneself is the raison d‘être for most Western artists. Did the man who wrote the words to “Summertime,” “Embraceable You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (none of them in Words) ever say that? Maybe he did, but this work reveals almost nothing about the inner life of the lyricist of literally hundreds of love songs. We find out matter-of-factly sometime in Act 2 that Ira was married – Exhibit A of journalism’s cardinal sin of burying the lead. Although the playwright seems to break this illusion when alluding to George Gershwin’s untimely death, rather curiously, this show is largely devoid of biographical details, let alone penetrating its prolific protagonist’s psyche.

Furthermore, while Ira wrote the words for political songs and satires – including the first Broadway musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, 1931’s Of Thee I Sing, and for the number “Union Square” in the 1933 sequel, Let em Eat Cake – Vass’ script makes a grievous omission regarding Ira’s political activism. Ira served on the executive board of the left-leaning Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. When the House Un-American Activities Committee began its fascistic purge of Hollywood in 1947, Ira hosted meetings, including, reportedly, the very first powwow of the Committee for the First Amendment, attended by Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, at his Beverly Hills home; and he lent his famous name to the anti-HUAC cause, co-signing, for example, an anti-Blacklist Variety ad.

Opposing the inquisition in Hollywood earned Gershwin a summons to testify before the California Senate’s witch-hunting Tenney Committee. There is a revival of interest in the Hollywood Blacklist, with books, theater and film about this reds-under-the-beds period. Vass’ vast oversight is truly a missed opportunity, a neglectfulness in keeping with the curiously non-revelatory nature of his script. (To be fair, it does cover Ira’s friendship and collaboration with lefty lyricist Yip Harburg, whose credits include the Depression classic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and Judy Garland’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow.”)

Where Vass does shed light is on Ira’s creative process, and the dramatist deserves kudos for this. Ira likens songwriting to making a mosaic (which probably suggested the set’s backdrop). However, perhaps out of modesty, Ira demurs, declining to liken his lyric writing technique to poetry. But I beg to differ: In “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Ira imaginatively rhymes “panties,” “aunties” and “Dante’s.” And consider these gleefully, skillfully wrought lyrics from “Love is Here to Stay”: “In time the Rockies may crumble,/Gibraltar may tumble/They’re only made of clay/But our love is here to stay.” While he may not have been Shelley or Shakespeare, in popular music Ira’s word play ranks alongside such peers as Cole Porter, Noel Coward and John Lennon.

I don’t remember Jake Broder being so monotone in both acting and singing when he starred as Louis Prima in Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara indeed, quite the contrary. So I suspect the fault is in the script and possibly David Ellenstein’s direction. However, even if Ira Gershwin wasn’t a live wire offstage, there’s a way to play a lackluster character without boring us.

Having said all this, the music – and in particular, the stellar, show-stopping Elijah Rock -makes this work worth seeing and hearing. The youthful Rock is establishing himself as one of his generation’s foremost interpreters of the Great American Songbook, making Rock’s casting in Words fortuitous and natural. This is really his show.

Words by Ira Gershwin is being performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, through May 17 at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank, CA 91502. Free parking is adjacent. For info: (818) 558-7000, x15; www.ColonyTheatre.org. For more info on the superb Elijah Rock see: www.elijahrock.net/


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.