The Gershwins: Managing A Lucrative, Much-Loved Musical Legacy In the 1920s, it wasn't uncommon for the Gershwin brothers — composer George and lyricist Ira — to have two shows on Broadway at once. This season, it's happening again. As Jeff Lunden reports.
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Managing The Gershwins' Lucrative Musical Legacy

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Managing The Gershwins' Lucrative Musical Legacy

Managing The Gershwins' Lucrative Musical Legacy

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In the 1920s, it was not uncommon for the Gershwin Brothers - composer George and lyricist Ira - to have two shows running on Broadway at the same time. They were that prolific and that popular. This season, 75 years after George's death, it's happening again, with "Porgy and Bess" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

Jeff Lunden reports this is no coincidence. Both shows were generated by the Gershwin estates, the heirs to the Gershwin fortune.


JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Neither George nor Ira Gershwin had children, so their heirs are nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. And these family members are charged with looking after intellectual property that is not only highly-loved, but immensely lucrative; a multi-million dollar a year responsibility.

MICHAEL STRUNSKY: It's our job to search out and find uses for this treasure trove of music. And both the George Gershwin family and the Ira Gershwin family take this responsibility very seriously.

LUNDEN: Michael Strunsky, Ira Gershwin's nephew, is trustee of his uncle's estate. He used to be in the construction business. Strunsky says sometimes, they make decisions to license Gershwin songs for films or ads.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come fly the airline that's uniting the world. Come fly the friendly skies.

STRUNSKY: Those are business decisions that any business organization might make. I think, in many ways, the estates are business organizations.

LUNDEN: On Broadway, right now, are two shows which come directly out of the estates' desire to keep the Gershwin legacy in the spotlight. Although "Porgy and Bess" premiered on Broadway in 1935, its home has been in the opera house, where an uncut version of George Gershwin's masterpiece runs almost four hours.

The Gershwin estates wanted to create a Broadway-friendly version. They worked with the DuBose Hayward estate. He authored the book the opera was based on and collaborated with George and Ira on it. Director Diane Paulus was hired and she brought in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and jazz composer Diedre L. Murray to adapt the opera. Paulus says all three were given...

DIANE PAULUS: The encouragement, from both the Gershwin and the Dubose Heyward estate, to look at the libretto and look at the characters and strengthen what is there in a way that would make the piece viable, as a musical theater version on Broadway.


ANDRA MCDONALD: (as Bess) (Singing) I loves you, Porgy. Don't let him take me. Don't let him handle me and drive me mad...

LUNDEN: Their version of "Porgy and Bess," which stars Audra McDonald, runs about two and a half hours. There are some significant changes made to the music and drama. The reigning dean of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, wrote a scathing letter to The New York Times, before the show opened its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston.

Director Diane Paulus.

PAULUS: It was a little bit hard when we hadn't even opened the show and we were being attacked. Because it felt like wait, we haven't even done it yet.

LUNDEN: But when the show did open on Broadway, some critics had problems with it. Anthony Tomassini, of The New York Times, points out that in the original version, "Summertime" is sung as a solo lullaby by Clara, which underscores that the living is not easy in the African-American community of Catfish Row. But in this version, it becomes a duet, with her husband Jake.


JOSHUA HENRY: (as Jake) (Singing) Then you'll spread your wings and you'll take to the sky...

ANTHONY TOMASSINI: So, now it becomes a nice sentimental romantic duet for a married couple. It's nostalgic. To me, it's less gritty, less modern, less contemporary, more stereotyped.


JOSHUA HENRY AND NIKKI RENEE DANIELS: (as Jake and Clara) (Singing) With daddy and mamma standing by...

TOMASSINI: That's not just a directorial touch, that's a rewriting and re-conceiving of the music

LUNDEN: But Ira Gershwin trustee Michael Strunsky heartily approves of the changes. He points out the new version of "Porgy and Bess" is meant to co-exist with the operatic version.

STRUNSKY: This is the first version that has ever been truly accessible for "Porgy and Bess." And although everything isn't perfect, you know, the audiences express their joy every night.

LUNDEN: Joy is what director Kathleen Marshall and her collaborators on the other Gershwin show are going for.


LUNDEN: "Nice Work If You Can Get It" has bootleggers, naughty chorus girls, Matthew Broderick, Kelli O'Hara, and lots, and lots and lots of Gershwin tunes.

KATHLEEN MARSHALL: The thought was that "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is sort of a Gershwin comedy fest. So it feels like that kind of wonderful, sort of absurd screwball comedy from that era, but then hopefully with a nice dose of romance and heart, at the same time.


LUNDEN: The show is partially the brainchild of trustee Michael Strunsky, who saw a version of the Gershwin Brothers 1926 musical "Oh, Kay" done in San Francisco almost 20 years ago. He convinced the other heirs to hire playwright Joe DiPietro to write a new libretto, which has morphed into something almost entirely different.

Like the current version of "Porgy and Bess," director Kathleen Marshall says the team on "Nice Work" was given kind of carte blanche by the estates to do as they pleased.

MARSHALL: They basically gave us permission to use everything in the Gershwin catalogue, except for "Porgy and Bess" and "Of Thee I Sing," which, of course, is a kind of its own complete show.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Won't you tell him, please, to put on some speed. Follow my lead. Oh, how I need. Someone to watch over me.

LUNDEN: Michael Strunsky says the Gershwin estates will soon be watching over another project, a stage adaptation of "An American in Paris."

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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