Ira Gershwin Essay - Critical Essays

Philip Furia

Ira Gershwin

Among this reviewer’s most prized possessions are a book called LYRICS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS (1959), Ira Gershwin’s presentation of about one-seventh of his 700 song lyrics, and an old LP entitled TRYOUT, a private recording on which the lyricist and the composer Kurt Weill sing several witty selections from their 1945 film WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, including an unusual twelve-minute fantasy sequence of sung dialogue. Furia’s new book is a perfect complement to such treasures as well as to Robert Kimball’s compilation, THE COMPLETE LYRICS OF IRA GERSHWIN (1993).

Furia analyzes the above-mentioned film as a pioneer work in which the music and lyrics are integrated with the story, advancing rather than retarding the plot. As he traces Ira Gershwin’s progression from Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood, the author takes a nostalgic look at the golden age of American songwriting. Ira Gershwin is perhaps best remembered as the collaborator of his younger brother George. More self-effacing than the composer, Ira invariably fitted his words to his brother’s music, and he shared his successes (PORGY AND BESS) as well as his flops (PARDON MY ENGLISH). Ira’s careful craftsmanship earned him the nickname “The Jeweler.” After George’s untimely death in 1937, Ira worked with noted composers such as Kurt Weill (LADY IN THE DARK), Harold Arlen, Vincent Youmans, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Arthur Schwartz, and Burton Lane. The advent of rock music caused him to retire from songwriting in 1954, and he devoted the remaining three decades of his life to such scholarly pursuits as editing, preserving, compiling, and annotating.

Meticulously researched and zestfully written, Furia’s book is full of fascinating backstage and workshop lore. The author skillfully places his subject in the cultural context of his lyric predecessors (W. S. Gilbert) and contemporaries (Yip Harburg, Oscar Hammerstein, P. G. Wodehouse) and through copious quotations and perceptive commentary brings out Ira Gershwin’s linguistic brilliance and verbal playfulness, his ingenuity, sophistication, and adaptability.