Mr. Words: A Tribute To Ira Gershwin

The Night They Toasted Gershwin

If music is the staff of life, the fiddlers are playing loud and clear. With any luck, rock and roll will get a decent funeral and we’ll all be singing and humming and tapping our feet to good music again if the current craze for beauty continues in the upwardly mobile direction it ’s going. At least that’s the way it looks in New York.

I can offer no better proof than the positively spectacular evening that took place last week in Lincoln Center as a tribute to the genius of lyricist Ira Gershwin.

Mr. Gershwin will be 80 years old on Dec. 6. He is in such frail health that he couldn’t travel. But he must have heard the applause and the beauty of his music way out in Beverly Hills. It was a night to remember. Movie stars rubbed elbows with elderly dow agers lugging their last million in unhocked diamonds, while the cultured and the wise sipped champagne with Bette Midler freaks – proving, for always, that genius spreads to all ages and all persuasions when it has longevity.

What happened at Lincoln Center was as much a tribute to taste and intelligence as it was to Ira Gershwin, whose name and career have always been synonymous with both. Dolores Gray got everything off to a blazing start with “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm, and there was no place to go from there but straight ahead. This woman lights up a stage like the Fourth of July, and if somebody doesn’t get her back on Broadway, the world is in a sorrier state of affairs than we think.

She’s a hard act to follow, but Harvey Evans and two delectable chorines brought down the house with “The Real American Folk Song is a Rag,” and the brilliant Anita Ellis sent electric shocks down the spine with “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “I Loves You Porgy.”

Chita Rivera sailed through the night in ostrich feathers and peach chiffon like the reincarnation of Terpsichore (Ginger Rogers, eat your heart out), and people like John Raitt, Sandy Stewart and Barbara Cook sang medleys of Gershwin that reddened a thousand eyes with tears and a thousand hands with applause.

It was a night of show-stoppers, with each performer trying to top everybody else. But one major surprise that knocked the audience off its feet was the unexpected appearance of that saucy, sexy, Southern spitfire Elizabeth Ashley, wrapped in a black satin slip cut up to her Christmas decorations, swinging and swaying the Gershwin-Kurt Weill “Saga of Jenny” while six chorus boys tossed her toward Heaven. The screaming crowd went berserk, and that was only the first act.

After intermission, during which voices came from everywhere echoing approval (“They should have recorded this night!” “It makes me feel alive again!” ), Barbara Cook, who has one of the most beautiful voices ever heard by man, electrified the stately old Avery Fisher Hall with her moving rendition of “The Man I Love,” Elizabeth Ashley got sawed in half by Doug Henning of “The Magic Show” while singing “Do Do Do What You Done Done Done Before,” Kitty Carlisle Hart made one of her rare, magic appearances shimmering like a summer sundae in pink lemonade chiffon while her still gorgeous, lyric soprano voice hauntingly recreated “My Ship” from “Lady in the Dark,” a show Ira Gershwin
worked on with Kitty’s late husband, Moss Hart.

As I said, it was one of those nights that made history and made you wonder where all that beauty and genius and wit has gone, in the declining years of musical theater.

We soon found out where it went when they brought out Jerry Orbach, a tone-deaf mediocrity who appears in the current musical, “Chicago.” This was the kind of evening that separated the men from the boys, and poor, ossified Orbach proved what league he belongs in by turning out to be the night’s only nonprofessional embarrassment.

For some mysterious reason that can only be explained by the producers, Orbach was handed a plum in two of Gershwin’s greatest triumphs, “How Long Has This Been Going On” and “S’Wonderful.” He turned them into dirges, his voice wandering unsteadily through several keys beyond his range and ability.

But it was also the kind of night in which even a grave error like that could be forgiven. Quickly dismissed by mild, polite applause, he was immediately replaced before the audience whispers of astonishment could accelerate by the magnificent Chita Rivera, who woke everybody up to a standing ovation with her splashy production number, “Sam and Delilah” from “Girl Crazy.”

And there was more: Bobby Short, demonstrating the ease and polish that has crowds filling in to hear him nightly at the Cafe Carlyle, waxing “I Can’t Get Started” to a thrilling sheen.

Gotham, that daffy singing trio, appeared in safari suits and pith helmets doing Gershwin’s pastiche, “Sunny Disposish,” and then the fireworks exploded.

Another big-game hunter skated forth from the wings to tumultuous applause. Her name was Bette Midler, and if anybody still needs proof that Ira Gershwin is just as relevant and applicable to 1975 as he was to the music of the better musical years, she sealed the legend in gold.

After setting off a few kegs of her own of dynamite with the obscure comedy tune “My Cousin From Milwaukee,” she gleefully chided the audience (“This is the classiest night I’ve ever been associated with” ) and the orchestra (“We’re all working free tonight except the band – right fellas and gals?” ), and paid her own rhythmic tribute to Ira Gershwin by singing, with great feeling and emotion, her own contemporary arrangement of a song that could well be the theme of all artists who have achieved individuality and originality.

The song was “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and until you hear Bette Midler sing Ira Gershwin, you don’t know what love is. What seemed like 10 high school marching bands suddenly descended upon Lincoln Center at that precise moment, playing “Strike Up The Band” while baton-twirling nymphets and acrobats and cheerleaders turned the night into a cheering, screaming, riotous circus of joy and happiness. And above it all, the smiling caricature of Ira Gershwin beamed down from the massive stage with amusement and pride.

(Rex Reed is a syndicated columnist.)

The Gershwins, SIGNED by MANY!

New York: Atheneum. 1973. First edition. An extraordinary copy of this important and profusely illustrated book. Signed by the authors and by 15 important singers and entertainers associated with the Gershwins! Among those who have signed this book are: Frances Gershwin (sister of George and Ira); Irving Caesar (important lyricist, author of the words to Gershwin’s “Swanee,” and Youman’s “No,No Nanette,” which includes “Tea for Two”); Barbara Cook (legendary singer and actress, famous for creating roles in “Candide” and “The Music Man,” among many others); Kay Swift (long-term lover of George Gershwin and the first woman to write the score to a hit Broadway musical, “Fine and Dandy”); Hazel Scott (important pianist and singer, star of many films including “Rhapsody in Blue,” and first African American woman to have her own TV show); Avon Long (Tony-award winning African American actor and singer, who starred in the 1942 Porgy and Bess revival); Larry Kert (actor and singer who starred in the 1957 Broadway production of “West Side Story,” in many original Sondheim productions, and who in 1987 starred in the first complete recordings of Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing,” and “Let ‘Em Eat Cake”); Bette Midler, Doug Henning, Elizabeth Ashley (all of whom starred in a the 1975 Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center Tribute to Ira Gershwin); Robert Alda (actor who played George Gershwin in the 1945 film “Rhapsody in Blue” ); Edward Jablonski (Gershwin biographer); William Bolcom (Pulitzer-Prize winning composer). Stunning hardcover volume in very fine condition, with bright orange cloth boards, stamped in metallic purple! (1987)

Ira Gershwin Tribute 1975 Avery Fisher Hall Lincoln Center


Mr. Words was a benefit concert held at Avery Fisher Music Hall on November 16, 1975 in aid of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the George Junior Republic. The show itself was a salute to lyricist Ira Gershwin, who in his amazing career had penned well over 700 songs.

The event featured some of the top musical performers of the day, including Dolores Gray, Larry Kert, Harvey Evans, John Raitt, Jerry Orbach, Bobby Short, Kitty Carlisle, Andre DeShields, Barbara Cook, Chita Rivera and of course Bette Midler, who was set to close out the star studded evening.

The show began on a high note with Dolores Gray performing the well known standard “I Got Rhythm” from the motion picture Girl Crazy, but it soon headed downhill due to frequent audio problems which made subsequent performers almost inaudible at times. A few of the nights highlights were considered to be Kitty Carlisle’s rendition of “My Ship” and “By Strauss” as well as Andre DeShields (who coincidentally had been Bette’s chorographer on The Divine Miss M Tour in 1973) stopping the show with his satanic rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

When Bette took the stage near the end of the night she came out wearing a safari outfit and sang “Sunny Disposish” alongside the musical group Gotham. Being the only performer of the night to actually talk to the audience, she opened saying, “I just love a tribute. I love to work for free.”  Then playing right into the hands of the mostly aristocratic audience, she quipped, “this really is the most tasteful event that I have ever been associated with.”  To the delight of the few fans in the audience, but apparently everybody else’s mortification, she then declared that “Ira never had to pay for it in his life.”  This comment just seemed to leave the audience stunned, yet it was later said that Mr. Gershwin’s wife, who had been in attendance, found the comment quite amusing.  Upon introducing her next song and dishing the one previous as “the pits,” Bette proceeded to sing “My Cousin In Milwaukee.”  Perhaps sensing that she was starting to loose the audience at this point, she quickly followed with “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Strike Up The Band” which brought the show to an end.

Bette’s appearance left a sour taste in many peoples mouths and was not very well received in the press. Arthur Bell of The Village Voice, who had been awfully critical of Bette many times in the past, was eloquent as ever in his review, “I can dismiss the remarks about not getting paid for performing at the benefit, though she didn’t have to appear. I can dismiss her gobbled version of “My Cousin in Milwaukee” because melodically, there’s not much to work from. I can dismiss her desire to make the show her own because she’s about to embark on a tour that’ll take her out of New York for three months, and it’s wise to ‘leave that impresh.’ But I can’t dismiss her methods of impressing, such as her flip quip that “Ira Gershwin never had to pay for it in his life.” In the context of the evening, it was like dumping ketchup on caviar.” Bette’s friend Vito Russo of The Advocate laid most of the blame for the evening’s failure on Bette’s writers, “[they] seem to know more about fag jokes and a lack of taste than what makes people laugh. Bette personally has a superb sense of humour and good instincts; she should start following them.”

Despite the nights overall lacklustre feel, it did raise money to help underprivileged children and beautifully showcased the wonderfully talented works of Mr. Gershwin, who sadly had been too ill to attend the show himself.  Bette later went on to sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” a few more times during her Songs For The New Depression tour, but quickly dropped it deciding it really wasn’t suited for her.

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