Musical Makes Old Gershwin New

Songs plucked from `Girl Crazy' and other of the composer's gems enrich `Crazy for You'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

I'VE been afraid that people would go thinking they're going to see an old revival, and that's not what it is," says choreographer Susan Stroman of the current Broadway hit "Crazy For You." The show at the Shubert Theatre is not a revival, but brand new, and Ms. Stroman's work helped make it this year's Tony winner for Best Musical.

"One of my fears," says producer Elizabeth Williams, "was that we'd be perceived as a revue." Despite the seemingly foolproof notion that a big, bubbly Gershwin musical would be a welcome addition to any theater season and the uniformly dazzling reviews and healthy box-office response it has drawn, the project "was not a sure-fire thing," Ms. Williams says.

She points out that its viability hinged on the ability of a creative team to work together. She and her partner in the project, producer Roger Horchow, brought together Stroman, director Mike Ockrent, and author Ken Ludwig. "That coalescence happened. But," she cautions, "you never know for sure."

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Mr. Ockrent says that they originally intended to do a revival of George and Ira Gershwin's 1930 musical "Girl Crazy." Ockrent was familiar with revivals from his direction of "Me and My Girl," a 1940s show, which he brought to Broadway in 1986. He says of the present project, "I heard a concert version and loved it. But then I read the book, and it made no sense," he says. The producers then turned to Mr. Ludwig, fresh from his successful writing of "Lend Me a Tenor."

"Even compared to other books of that period, it wasn't very good," Ludwig recalls. "In those days, books for musicals tended to be patchy and not have strong plots. And they also tended to rely heavily on stereotypes that we'd find offensive today."

The team decided a complete rewrite of "Girl Crazy" was in order. "With this show," Ockrent says, "we wanted to make a very strong leading character, and we wanted to make him be a dancer. We did want an old-fashioned musical comedy, but we wanted to intellectually underpin it. It deals with the differences in culture and renewal." They also decided to bolster the musical further by selecting some songs from "Girl Crazy" and adding other Gershwin numbers.

Fortunately, the Gershwin family offered the full catalog of songs for the project, with the exception of material from the opera "Porgy and Bess."

With Stroman on board, the process of shaping a story that was clear began. Ockrent explains, "We discussed a story line first, then met with the Gershwins and said, `we need this type of song here, and a love song there.' They literally delved into everything."

The result is a score laced with 18 elegant, rhythmic classics such as "Shall We Dance?" "But Not For Me," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and "Embraceable You." Once the team realized that only five original songs and none of the book survived, they agreed on a new title, "Crazy for You."

Asked what attracted her to the project, Stroman says unequivocally, "the music." As a child, she grew up hearing her father play standards on the family piano, so she knew just about every tune they wanted to use. "The chance to take a Gershwin melody and develop it into a dance arrangement is every choreographer's dream," Stroman says, explaining, "you can take any piece and make a story out of it, but there's something about a Gershwin melody that actually allows the music to dance on its own, like `N ice Work If You Can Get It.' "

Her challenge was to be true to the era and still create dances that would appeal to today's audience. She researched dance styles, Western mining towns, and Art-Deco style. The result is splendid choreography that earned her a Tony Award.

"It was quite an undertaking for Ken to write a script with interpolated songs where we could not change the lyrics," Stroman also notes.

IN "Crazy For You," there are dozens of examples of Stroman's clever, witty style. Chorus girls with lengths of rope turn into upright basses, plunked by musical miners. A barricade of saloon chairs added to a rousing orchestration turns into a sly poke at "Les Miserables." Washboards, buckets, and a tin roof equal percussion instruments that bring the stage to life with unexpected sounds.

None of the creative team members singles out a specific film or play from that era as a predominant influence.

"This show had its own story to follow," Ludwig says. "The two films with the closest elements to it might be `Damsel in Distress' and `Shall We Dance?' " both Gershwin musicals. One clear influence of '30s films shows up in the overall look of the show.

Director Ockrent has scene changes move more like dissolves in a motion picture. "There's a real feeling of cinematic technique," Ockrent says. This technique would never have been possible on the Broadway stage 60 years ago, but modern electronic and computerized stagecraft makes it look seamless. Because the songs are drawn from the entire decade, they needed to settle on a mid-'30s time frame to maintain the '30s sound within the orchestrations.

For producer Williams, the show's future looks bright, with plans coming together for a London production in March and a national tour shortly after. "We've had a few nibbles about doing it as a feature film," she says.

For Stroman, the success of the show stems partly from the timeless appeal of its story line. "The idea that someone giving up everything to try and get the girl he loves is still something people can relate to today," she says. "There's nothing greater than singing and dancing about romance, and I feel like we've kept that wonderful theme, but yet staged it and created it in a '90s fashion."

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