World stages echoing Gershwins' songs. Anniversary inspires a number of projects

Strike up the band for the Gershwins. Brothers George and Ira have been making news in various ways in this 50th anniversary year of the composer's death.

Last March, it was disclosed that a cache of manuscripts discovered in a New Jersey warehouse included works by the Gershwins.

More recently came word that Neil Simon is writing ``A Foggy Day,'' which will be set in London and Vienna in the 1930s and will use Gershwin songs for its musical score.

On Aug. 24, a splendid PBS special honored the composer's achievements and paid due respect to Ira, his longtime lyricist.

As to the stage: the Houston Grand Opera production of ``Porgy and Bess'' has been touring for several seasons, and the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut is presenting ``Lady, Be Good!'' - one of its relatively rare Gershwin revivals - through Oct. 2.

The record industry has been making an appropriate contribution to the Gershwin celebrations. In 1985, singer-pianist Michael Feinstein recorded his excellent first album, ``Pure Gershwin'' (now on the Elektra label).

The album contains 13 songs from shows and other sources, opening with ``'S Wonderful'' (1927) and closing with ``Someone to Watch Over Me'' (1926). According to the jacket notes, Mr. Feinstein was hired in 1977 by Ira Gershwin to organize the enormous Gershwin catalog - a treasury to which Mr. Simon has presumably received the key.

A number of current and forthcoming record releases draw on the Gershwin legacy. Angel is offering ``Kiri Sings Gershwin,'' with Kiri Te Kanawa doing the vocal honors, and ``Gershwin Overtures,'' conducted by John McGlinn, who led concert versions of ``Primrose'' (premi`ere) and ``Pardon My English'' (1933) at the Library of Congress in Washington, last May.

CBS Masterworks is issuing ``Of Thee I Sing'' (1931) and ``Let 'Em Eat Cake'' (1933) as performed last season in Brooklyn and Washington under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas; ``Rhapsody in Blue,'' using a Gershwin piano roll, again conducted by Mr. Thomas; and ``Oscar Levant Plays Gershwin,'' a 1940s recording now available on a compact disc.

Broadway doffed its cap to George Gershwin in 1983, when the Uris Theatre - at which the Tony Award ceremonies were being held - was renamed for the composer.

That season, Tommy Tune and Twiggy starred in ``My One and Only,'' a revamping of ``Funny Face'' (1927). The adapters retained the title song as well as such warmly remembered tunes as ``He Loves and She Loves'' and ``'S Wonderful.'' The show dipped into the Gershwin song bag for ``How Long Has This Been Going On?'' from ``Rosalie'' (1928), the title song and ``Soon'' from ``Strike Up the Band!'' (1930), as well as ``I Can't Be Bothered Now'' and ``Nice Work If You Can Get It,'' from ``Damsel in Distress,'' a 1937 film.

While a ``collaboration'' between the Gershwins and Simon, the leading American comic playwright of his time, is an intriguing prospect, some musical comedy fans may wonder why the songs in their original settings might not be equally enjoyable and more authentic. Besides the fact that the Gershwin estate exercises strict control over its treasury, musical comedy scores are usually more durable than musical comedy books. Shows from an earlier decade can sometimes bridge the generation gap, as did ``My One and Only'' and ``No, No, Nanette'' (in a 1971 version). But as is more often the case, when the shows have ended, only the melodies linger on.

Master lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II once wrote in Variety: ``There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be - it has to be good.''

An old show biz axiom has it that you can't whistle the scenery. And you can't hum the choreography.

Stanley Green wrote (in his preface to ``The World of Musical Comedy'') that he chose to tell the story of musicals through their most significant composers and lyricists because ``music is the one essential ingredient in this form of entertainment. Of all the arts that are mobilized in this field, music has the most consistency. A good song is a good song whether it was written in 1900 or yesterday, since it has the power to affect people's emotions long after the particular work for which it was composed has been forgotten.''

Who better, then, could Neil Simon turn to for the score of a musical about the 1930s than to George and Ira Gershwin?

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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