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Posts Tagged George Gershwin

The Art of Disappearing

Actor Michael Paul Levin has a knack for disappearing into his characters on stage. When he plays Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, he is Anne’s strong and gentle father. In Of Mice and Men, he is the loyal and compassionate friend, George, to the vulnerable Lenny; and in The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, he channels the brilliant George Gershwin. Currently, Michael transforms into the ever pissed off Inspector Cramer in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until July 30.

Michael Paul Levin as Inspector Cramer; E. J. Subkoviak as Nero Wolfe; Derek Diriam as Archie Goodwin; Jim Pounds as Fritz
(photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Of course, Inspector Cramer is a fully drawn out character in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries for Michael to emulate. However, Michael was also able to model his portrayal of him after his short-tempered father.

“He had little patience in dealing with people whom he considered to be fools,” Michael said. Inspector Cramer himself does not suffer fools gladly.

This side of Michael had not been something I’d experienced of him before, having watched him on Park Square’s stage as part of its Education Program for the past three seasons as Otto Frank and for a season as Lenny’s friend George, both incredibly patient men in very trying circumstances. He no doubt pulled from his own experiences of fatherhood–Michael has four sons–to portray Otto, but he turns out to have also done so for his role as George.

“One thing that appealed to me about Richard Cook directing Of Mice and Men was that he’d seen it in Spain where Lenny is characterized as being on an autism spectrum,” said Michael. “He had me audition for George because he knew that I have a son with autism. This created an interesting dynamic between the characters of George and Lenny.”

It seems ironic that an actor must dig deep within himself to be able to totally submerge into a character that is not him. Michael’s disappearing trick, seemingly done with ease, is a testament to his talent as an actor. The illusion of ease comes from years of practice–in fact, over 30 years for Michael. He was first awakened to acting as something he’d want to seriously pursue after seeing a production of Barefoot in the Park as a high school junior; ultimately, he’d reached the point of realizing “that I’m not qualified to do anything else.” His longevity in show business is itself a testament to his skills, not only as an actor but also as a playwright, instructor, voice artist and everything else in between.

In personally meeting Michael as himself, I encountered a man who may rather “fade into the woodworks” when not in the spotlight. He’s an unassuming man who would likely rather be left to anonymously go about his own business. Yet, he owns a hairless Chinese crested dog that cannot help but draw attention to itself and, hence, its owner, an apt symbol of the paradoxical nature of being a performer.

In all those years of watching Michael on stage, why had I not caught on before?  Michael doesn’t simply disappear on stage. What he does is much more complex: Michael hides in plain sight.

Henry, Gladys, and Ted

When it comes to musical theater, the idea that a person would suddenly break out into song and dance is something that we in the audience have come to accept. Musical theater was born out of the belief that when characters reached a certain emotional peak, the only way to express that level of emotion is through song. As Hans Christian Andersen put it, “Where words fail, music speaks.” 

In TV and Film, music is often used to suggest an emotion to the audience, whether it’s an intense car chase, a will-they/won’t-they couple finally kissing for the first time, or the profound sadness of a loved one dying, musical underscoring helps the audience understand the moment on a deeper level.

Even before we could easily carry our music library in our pockets and purses, music quickly became the guides that point us back to the hashmarks of our lives. Hearing certain songs conjure up very specific memories for many of us, they remind us of summers at the lake, campfires, school dances, holidays, friendships, falling in love, and broken hearts. Music can be a time machine that takes us back to days gone by. 

The music in The Soul of Gershwin takes us back to the early 20th century, but also to a time when Broadway music as played on the radio, and Jazz Standards were recorded by many different singers, decade after decade. So, songs that were written for Broadway in the 1920s were still being sung and heard in the pop culture of the 1960s. 

Which brings us to Henry, Gladys, and Ted.

Henry is the subject of a short video that went viral several years ago. It was a rough cut of a segment from a documentary entitled Alive Inside. In the video, Henry is described as, “inert, maybe depressed, unresponsive, and almost unalive.” That is, of course, until one of his caregivers puts a pair of headphones on him and presses play on the attached iPod. 

Check out a trailer for the 2014 documentary, Alive Inside, featuring Henry.

Gladys is virtually non-verbal after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and had survived a stroke. In another video that went viral a few years ago, a Jewish woman, Naomi Fell, sings Christian songs to Gladys and the video shows a breakthrough moment when Gladys begins to sing with Naomi

Ted is a man in the UK that was made famous with his rendition of Quando Quando Quando recorded by his son, Simon, while in the car on their way to the store. Ted was a professional singer in his earlier life, and was known as The Songaminute Man because of his voluminous knowledge of the music of his era. After his memory began deteriorating due to Alzheimer’s, he was having difficulty recognizing his own family members. But since he and Simon began making videos for his YouTube channel, The Songaminute Man, Ted is ‘back in the room’ according to his Facebook page. He even scored a record deal, and is crowd funding an album of standards he once sang as he toured around. 

I’m sure many of those in the audience at The Soul of Gershwin are there because of their love of Gershwin’s music. Some might even say that it takes them back to a time they remember fondly. And whether it takes us back to another time, or brings us back from the interiors of our mind, no one can deny the power that music has. It is our time machine, a healing balm, and the dewey decimal system of our emotional library. And while we hope you experience all the warm fuzzies of days gone by, we hope that Gershwin’s music also holds up a mirror and shows you who you used to be.

Wintertime (Sung to the Tune of Gershwin’s “Summertime”)

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Maud Hixson, Geoffrey Jones and Maggie Burton

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

 

Wintertime,
And Park Square is a hoppin’
Gershwin’s playin’
On the Proscenium

Your calendar’s
Got a spot in December
So rush music lover
Don’t miss out

One of these mornings
You’re gonna rise up singing
And you’ll keep it up
As you take a shower

‘Cause last night you heard
Snappy music at our show
With family and friends sittin’ by

Wintertime,
And Park Square is a hoppin’
Gershwin’s playin’
On the Proscenium

Your calendar’s
Got a spot in December
So rush music lover
Don’t miss out

George Gershwin had composed “Summertime” in 1934 for his opera Porgy and Bess. The lyrics are by DuBose Heyward. “Summertime” became a jazz standard and is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music. Here is a link to the actual lyrics and a performance of the song:

http://www.letssingit.com/george-gershwin-feat.-helen-merrill-lyrics-summertime-hct6q2r

Come hear “Summertime” and other popular Gershwin melodies performed by a talented cast, accompanied by a live band, in The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from December 2 to 31.

 

In Search of the Next Gershwin

In 2007, world renowned violinist Joshua Bell set up shop in a Washington

Fiddler in the Subway

That’s Joshua Bell on the far left.

DC subway station and played. A video of it went viral. It was part of a social experiment for an article in the Washington Post to see if people could, or would, recognize artistic excellence in their midst. As you might imagine, few people even acknowledged him.

Banksy New YorkIn the fall of 2013, British street artist Banksy set up a stall in New York’s Central Park, selling signed prints of his work for $60 under a sign that read “Spray Art.” Some of the pieces sold there are estimated to be worth over $170,000.

What if you later found out that the violinist you heard peripherally along your commute, or the stall of spray art you disregarded as knock-offs was actually a world famous performer playing a multi-million dollar Stradivari violin, or one of the most elusively famed street artists in the world? Would you think you missed out? Would you regret not stopping even for a moment? Would you feel cheated out of the experience because of the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding their art?

Buskers, or street performers, are still common in cities and tourist areas around the US, and like the Klezmers of Gershwin’s roots, we, as audience members, place a monetary value on their performance; we toss some change, maybe a dollar or two into their hat, or cup, or instrument case. American capitalism would remind us that the market dictates the value we place on things like art, and I’m sure you could apply concepts like supply and demand, but for art and artists, this monetary value is largely arbitrary. For example, tickets to Hamilton on Broadway (currently the hottest ticket on Broadway) are going for anywhere between $600 – $1,100 a piece. A busker out in front of the Xcel Center during a Wild game would likely make a fraction of a dollar per person who happens to catch a part of their performance on the way to wherever they may be going. But for argument’s sake let’s round up. With due respect to the cast, crew, and producers of Hamilton, is their work 600 times more valuable than the buskers? Some might say yes, some might say no. Some of the aforementioned capitalists would also say that Banksy is crazy to be willing to part with his work for $60 when he could make as much as $169,940 more. This is, of course, ignoring the fact that at the level of Hamilton or Banksy these prices are often not set by the artists themselves; there are producers, art dealers, and scores of others who stand to make a cut of the money that comes in. On the other hand, the busker cuts out the proverbial middle man and gets to keep all the money dropped in his or her hat/cup/case, no matter how little it may be.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I’m sure many of us out there have paid a pretty penny for performances that, as we left the ornate halls, theaters, and auditoriums, we thought to ourselves “well, that wasn’t worth it.”

But if we are able to separate the ideas of value and cost, then perhaps we will begin to place a different value on the art in our communities. Perhaps we can cultivate a greater appreciation of those who, like Gershwin, play in the cafes, bars, and on street corners. And whether or not they practice enough to get to Carnegie Hall, we can expand our view of where great art happens. It’s not just in the dimmed houses where we sit silently, surrounded by other silent, nicely dressed art lovers who set aside time and money to consume art. It may very well be in the most unlikely of places, and if we’re not paying attention, we might miss it.

The Legacy of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

One of the most intriguing works of George Gershwin is the opera, Porgy and Bess, that he wrote along with his brother Ira and African American poet DuBose Heyward. Strikingly different from other major works such as Rhapsody in Blue or An American in Paris, the musical depicts the lives of the most downtrodden. In this case the people living in a rundown neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina.

The main character, Bess, is a woman trying to escape her past as a prostitute and drug addict. She is romantically involved with a criminal named Crown, who flees after committing a murder. This in turn, leads Bess to finding acceptance and solace in the arms of a crippled beggar named Porgy. When Crown returns, the pair have to make a stand.

Porgy and Bess, 1935

Porgy and Bess, 1935

You can tell from this description alone how vastly different it is from the Roaring ’20s that Gershwin is so famously associated with. As those previous orchestrations were products of their time, so was Porgy and Bess which premiered in Depression-era New York in 1935.

A “folk” opera, the work was seven years in the making and inspired by DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, Porgy. Now regarded as a classic and a standard in the American operatic canon, the initial run was deemed a commercial failure with mixed reviews. The New York Herald-Tribune, for instance, said that Gershwin’s ambition to include jazz and blues into a serious operatic score was “falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed…crooked folklore and half-way opera.” The run lasted four months and Porgy and Bess languished in mediocrity for decades until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera produced the work to glowing reviews. This is when the piece secured its reputation as a classic.

It is amazing how perceptions can evolve over time, not just artistically but socially. One of the greatest merits of Porgy and Bess today, is conversely a reason for its initial short run. Gershwin was adamant that the show be entirely cast with classically trained African American singers. Of course this was a radical casting idea in 1930s America as the common practice was for a white performer to don blackface. Al Jolson, for example, had himself almost produced an adaptation with this idea in mind. Gershwin’s casting was brave and inspiring, giving work to dozens of African American performers on the mainstream Broadway circuit.

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The original 1935 production. Courtesy Photo.

 

That bit of history, in addition to the composition and songwriting of the piece, have made Porgy and Bess the fixture in American pop culture it is today. We all know the songs, “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Produced all over the world, the last Broadway revival was in 2012.

Fortunately you won’t have to trek across the globe or travel to New York City to experience those songs, you can just get on down to Park Square Theatre this December. Selections from Porgy and Bess as well as Gershwin’s other timeless tunes will be featured in the show, The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer Dec 2 – 31. I hope to see you there!

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What IS Klezmer?

Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin

Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer will be on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from December 2 to 31. I certainly know the name Gershwin, but I’m unfamiliar with the term klezmer. Perhaps you are, too.

As Vincent Hannam mentioned in his recent blog post “The Heart and Soul of Gershwin,” klezmer is a Yiddish word that means instrument of music (derived from klay, which means instrument; and zemer, music). Klezmer came from Ashkenazi Jews, who originated in Eastern Europe, and was intended to, via the violin, imitate the human voice, including the cries, wails and laughter, of the chazzan (cantor) in synagogue. The first klezmer tunes actually came from Hebrew chants in Jewish services.

Played by professional musicians called klezmorim, klezmer originally consisted mainly of spirited dance melodies as well as some plaintive, reflective tunes for celebratory communal events, such as weddings. Klezmorim (and entertainers in general) were not highly regarded in Jewish society due to their secular nomadic, unconventional lifestyle, but they were respected for their virtuosity and diverse repertoire. A band usually included at least two violinists, with the most accomplished one serving as bandleader, backed by a bass or cello and other typical instruments, such as clarinet, drum, hammered dulcimers, trumpet, trombone and accordion.

As with other aspects of European Jewish culture, the Holocaust nearly decimated the tradition of klezmer music since it was passed down aurally through the generations. Surviving musicians helped revitalize the music, and musicologists worked to record their repertoires.

Traditional klezmer was influenced mainly by Romanian music but also present were Greek, Ukranian, Polish, Hungarian and Turkish influences. When European Jews immigrated to the United States, they brought klezmer with them, but it’s popularity steadily waned as Jews adopted mainstream culture. However, American klezmer grew in stature with hits from Jewish composers, such as Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers and, yes, George Gershwin, who incorporated jazz and even gospel into their sound.

The cast and musicians of Park Square Theatre’s The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, besides performing some truly terrific American classics, will also impart a slice of musical history that you may not already have known. My whole family and I plan to kick back, perhaps can’t help but move some body parts while seated and otherwise enjoy the ride when we see the show in December.

Hope to see you there!

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Sources: Klezmer from en.m.wikipedia.org; Klezmer music by Mark S. Slobin from www.britannica.com; Klezmer Music 101 by Megan Romer from worldmusic.about.com; What is Klezmer Music? by Becky Weitzman from tepel.org

The Heart and Soul of Gershwin

What do you think of when you hear Gershwin? Right now I only mean the literal name – George Gershwin. Do you think of iconic songs such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris”? How about the great opera, Porgy and Bess and it’s classic “Summertime”? Okay, now what else do you think about (again, about the man himself). Do words like “New York”, “jazz”, “immigrant”, “Great American Songbook” and “Roaring ’20s” float through your imagination?

They’re all floating about in my head and I’m just a millennial who’s about to live through a whole new ’20s!

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

 

Speaking of which, now what images are appearing in your mind? I bet it is the 1920s, the decade with which Gershwin will forever be linked. In a post-war world, the United States suddenly took the lead in cultural influence, where our figures of pop culture took on Olympian status. Athletes, aviators and artists were now more popular than any stuffy politician or war hero. Jazz, sex and money seemed to be the cultural touchstones of the era with a soundtrack composed by George Gershwin.

Born in New York City in 1898, to Roza and Jakov Gershowitz, Jewish immigrants from Russia. He had three siblings named Frances, Arthur and Ira (who would become his equally famous writing partner). The children grew up in the Brooklyn tenements and were unwittingly influenced by the cultural melting pot that surrounded them at the turn of the century.

All of this culminated in 1924 when Gershwin was commissioned to compose a jazz concerto that became Rhapsody in Blue. The piece and that opening clarinet glissando immediately established him as a serious composer at the fine age of 26.

Four years later, his next major work premiered, An American in Paris. Inspired by the years he had spent in Paris (probably the next most artistically scintillating city after New York City) he said, “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

He went so far as to include Parisian taxi horns into the composition.

With the dizzying heights reached by Gershwin and the country, it seemed poetic that the only way to go was down. The extravagance of the ’20s fizzled into the bleakness of the ’30s. The country may have been depressed but Gershwin was as busy as ever, composing a the folk opera, Porgy and Bess. A failure at the time, it is now regarded as a true American masterpiece, noted for it’s cast of classically-trained African American singers. Of course this was an extremely bold move at the time and thankfully one Gershwin was willing to make.

The work unfortunately proved to be his last, for what came after is again, almost poetic. In 1937 he suffered a  brain tumor and died.  The events were devastating as Gershwin was only 38 and seemingly poised to start a new chapter in his already stellar legacy.

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Now this winter, Park Square Theatre takes up the mantle of that legacy with The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer. That last word, a Yiddish one, means “instrument of music”. How fitting then for a man who was an instrument of so many talents.

 

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