Nobody loves a Gershwin tune more than I do. In the parlour game of whittling down my favourite tunes into the eight discs I would take with me should Kirsty Young cast me away onto Radio 4’s fabled desert island, a huge number of the songs that make my all-too-long shortlist have music composed by George with lyrics by “his lovely wife Ira”.
Which is one of the reasons why I ought to adore Crazy For You, which is currently playing in the West End’s Novello Theatre in a transfer from a summer run at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. And by the end of the show, I did wholeheartedly. But it didn’t half make it hard to love.
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.
Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/14825/porgy-and-bess)
Savoy Theatre, London Author: DuBose Heyward Composers: George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin Director: Trevor Nunn Producers: Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group, Tulbart Productions Cast includes: Clarke Peters, Nicola Hughes, Cornell John, Dawn Hope, OT Fagbenle, Melanie Marshall, Lorraine Velez, Edward Baruwa, Des Coleman, Sam Douglas Running time: 3hrs
Converting George Gershwin’s only full opera into a piece of musical theatre was never going to be easy and while Trevor Nunn’s adaptation struggles at times, it couldn’t fail to be a visual and aural spectacle.
Removing the operatic recitatives and replacing them with spoken dialogue, sourced either from DuBose Heyward’s original novel Porgy or his later play adaptation, certainly allows the big show-stopping numbers space to stand out – but it also robs some of the opera’s lesser songs of their musical context.
In converting the original three-act piece into a standard two-act musical, the decision of where to place the single interval must inevitably draw compromise. Musically, it make sense to position it as here, with the residents of Catfish Row leaving for Kittiwah Island. That allows for a barnstorming commencement of Act II, with the ensemble clearly relishing the non-stop frivolity of I Ain’t Got No Shame, before O-T Fagbenle as a suitably demonic Sporting Life lets rip with It Ain’t Necessarily So. However, it does mean that there is none of the crucial pre-interval dramatic tension. A more effective break would surely have been at the end of the island scene, with Bess under the influence of her former lover.
Bess herself, as played by Nicola Hughes, struggles to justify her frequent changes of character – while this is also a fault of the original operatic structure, Nunn’s abbreviated form makes her transformation seem all the more unlikely.
Clarke Peters’ crippled Porgy, meanwhile, stands out as he should. An incredibly physical performance which never fails to convince, Peters gives us a character who, unswerving in his faith in Bess from the outset, proves to be truer of heart than all the God-fearing ladies who initially turn their back on her.
The supporting cast all excel, most notably Dawn Hope’s Serena, who as the mourning widow renders My Man’s Gone Now as a sobbing, grief-stricken lament. Jason Pennycooke’s choreography and John Gunter’s stunning set designs add much to the evening’s enjoyment and help ensure that the three-hour running time rarely drags.