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.

The Torchwood experience

It’s been a busy week over at TV Today, where we’ve been running a series of features around Torchwood: Children of Earth, which begins a five-episode run on Monday and continues throughout the week. The stripped scheduling is a tactic BBC1 has been using in increasing amounts, to create a buzz, or “event television”.

And so, we responded with “event blogging” – and for us at least, it seems to have worked.
Continue reading “The Torchwood experience”

Curtain Up: Any Dream Will Do

This article first appeared in the March 29, 2007 issue of **The Stage**

**BBC1 and Lloyd Webber launch second musical talent show to find star of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat**
by Scott Matthewman

BBC1 returns to the musical theatre talent show arena this weekend, as Any Dream Will Do begins its search to find the lead for a West End revival of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The show follows much the same formula as its predecessor How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, but with some changes in the judging panel. Live Nation supremo David Ian has left to join ITV1’s forthcoming Grease Is the Word series, with his place taken by Joseph co-producer Bill Kenwright. Existing judges Andrew Lloyd Webber, actor John Barrowman and vocal coach Zoe Tyler return, joined by actress Denise Van Outen.

Thousands of hopefuls auditioned for 100 places at the London recalls. Of those, 50 progressed to the intensive musical workshops dubbed ‘Joseph School’, from which 12 men have been selected as finalists for the live shows.

“There was a feeling that musical theatre didn’t have the breadth of appeal for mainstream TV,” said BBC1 controller Peter Fincham. “I’m very glad that a year ago, we took the plunge and ignored the conventional wisdom when Andrew approached us with Maria. The success of The Sound of Music has shown how effective that process was.

“Joseph is, for me, the dream follow-up. Obviously we move from girls to boys and that makes it a different series in many ways. There is also something about Joseph that makes it really special – a quintessential Britishness about it that I really love.”