Guys, gals and gender-swapping Gershwin

Last night, I went with Steve to see The Great American Songbook at the New End Theatre, a concert performance by three singers of classic songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and more.

My review is online on The Stage website now. But on this blog, I want to concentrate on how a line in one of the earliest numbers reawakened a long-dormant irritation with concert performances of such songs: switching the gender of the singer, and adjusting the lyrics to suit, even if it ruins the rhyme of the carefully crafted lyrics. Or, in some cases, changes the sweetest romantic line into a non sequitur.

In this case, the trigger for my thoughts was a minor change which Sinatra also made when performing I Get a Kick Out of You. Both Ol’ Blue Eyes and last night’s performer, Paul Roberts, sang:

> Flying so high
> With some gal in the sky
> Is my idea of nothing to do…

While changing the original “guy” into “gal” preserves the rhyme at the end of each line, it ignores the internal rhyme fly/high/guy/sky that gives the couplet such power, and which matches the natural crescendo at that point in the music.

As I say, it’s a minor point, but it was enough to act as a trigger to this post.

A much more grave gender swap occurs on the otherwise excellent 1998 album The Glory Of Gershwin, which saw legendary harmonica player Larry Adler perform with numerous pop and rock icons in covers of George Gershwin numbers. The result is variable: Kate Bush singing The Man I Love, for example, is sublime. Elton John sings a medley of two Gershwin numbers on the album – Love is Here to Stay and Someone to Watch Over Me – and it’s in the latter that the most grievous lyric changes occur. Ironically perhaps for one of music’s most out gay performers, the lyrics have been changed from talking about a man to talking about a woman, and that’s where the problems start.

In many cases, a simple change of he to she, or his to her, doesn’t matter too much. But what does this line mean, once the gender has been changed?

> I’d like to add her initial to my monogram

In the original version, its meaning is clear — the woman singing desires marriage, so that the initial of her husband’s surname becomes her own. But the other way around makes no sense.

That’s minor, though, compared with the abuse this couplet receives. The original:

> He may not be the man some
> Girls think of as handsome
> But to my heart he carries the key

With a change of gender, this becomes

> She may not be the girl some
> Men think of as handsome…

On what planet does “girl some” rhyme with “handsome”? Far more egregious than the disruption to the fly/high/guy/sky rhyming sequence, here the gender change actively disrupts the main rhyme. Not only that, but it presupposes that being called “handsome” is something that women would aspire to — when in fact it’s more likely to be a put-down at best.

Eleven years on, it’s hard to imagine that Elton John would indulge in such gender-swapping nonsense. And there are other out gay performers who have taken songs originally sung by women and produced fine works. For example, John Barrowman’s recent album Music Music Music includes the Chess duet I Know Him So Well, with Barrowman performing with Daniel Boys. No change of lyrics, just a beautiful rendition of the song.

With so many great songs out there, from the Gershwin catalogue to the whole Great American Songbook and beyond, there are many songs that can be sung by men or by women with no lyrical changes necessary. There are some where switching the occasional pronoun will have no consequence. But there are some songs which we should just accept need to be sung about a man, or about a woman, and we should not attempt to change that.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.