Article abstract: From the 1920’s to the 1960’s, Gershwin helped popularize the American musical by writing lyrics for Broadway productions and motion pictures that combined slang with light verse. Three of his songs were nominated for Academy Awards, and in 1932 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in Of Thee I Sing.
Morris and Rose Gershovin, Jewish immigrants from Russia, gave birth to their first child, Israel, in 1896. A shy, easy-going, and scholarly boy, Israel “Ira” Gershwin grew up on the Lower East Side of New York with his brothers, George and Arthur, and his sister, Francis. Poetry and books fascinated Ira during his childhood years. In 1910, he earned a position in Townsend Harris Hall, a high school for bright students. While attending Townsend, Ira wrote a column for the school newspaper in which he mocked his teachers and fellow students in light verse. That same year, Rose bought a piano to further encourage her oldest son’s gifts. Ira’s little brother George, however, stunned the family by immediately sitting down at the instrument and playing a song. Rose abandoned her idea of providing Ira with lessons and instead allowed George to begin studying. While George developed his skills as a pianist, Ira continued to focus on his schoolwork and writing. In 1914, he began attending City College, where he wrote humorous poems in a column called “Gargoyle Gargles” for the campus newspaper.
In 1917, Ira dropped out of college and disappointed his parents by spending his free time going to see vaudeville shows and motion pictures. George, meanwhile, composed music for Broadway productions and convinced the family to change their last name to Gershwin. Although Ira toyed with the idea of becoming a lyricist, it was not until 1920, when George approached him to write the words for a song in the musical The Sweetheart Shop, that he seriously pursued this goal. Ira wrote the lyrics for “Waiting for the Sun to Come Out” under the pseudonym Arthur Francis. The show’s producers not only included the song in The Sweetheart Shop but also had it recorded and published the sheet music. Pleased with the success of this initial undertaking, George and Ira, who was still using the name Arthur Francis, cooperated to supply all the songs for a new musical, A Dangerous Maid (1921). George also introduced Ira to other composers, and, during the next few years, “Arthur” wrote songs for the shows Two Little Girls in Blue (1921), Pins and Needles (1922), The Greenwich Village Follies (1923), and Top-Hole (1924). Ira initially wrote his lyrics after a composer completed the music. He experimented, however, with developing new techniques and using novel material such as slang and dialect. Later he would earn the nickname “The Jeweler” for crafting verbal phrases that precisely matched the musical notes provided by his brother and others. In 1924, Ira started to view himself as an accomplished lyricist and even allowed his real name to be used in the musical Be Yourself.
By December, 1924, the Gershwins were standing at the center of the United States’ cultural awakening. Ira had developed his writing sufficiently to begin collaborating full-time with George. He admired his brother’s musical talents without reservation and considered himself a helpmate to George’s genius. Both Gershwins expressed interested in writing for musical comedies, a new genre that mixed vaudeville revues with light operettas. Ira especially favored this style, since he disliked writing freestanding songs not linked to scripts or stories. He always wanted to start with a title, an idea, and a witty last line when beginning a new song.
Many critics regarded the first George and Ira Gershwin musical to open on Broadway, Lady Be Good (1924), as one of the first “truly” American productions. George’s music mixed blues and jazz, while Ira’s lyrics used everyday phrases and slang. The production moved faster and more energetically than similar shows of the time. It starred Fred and Adele Astaire and featured the songs “Oh, Lady Be Good!” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” After a strong run in New York, it traveled to London. The Gershwins followed this success by composing for a series of lively musicals, including Tell Me More (1925), Tip-Toes (1925), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Rosalie (1928). During this string of hits, Ira began to receive significant notice for his witty and sophisticated lyrics. This recognition made him more determined to write clever songs that contributed to a story’s development.
Ira’s resolve alone, however, could not produce a successful musical. In 1927, the Gershwins collaborated on Strike Up the Band, a political satire that examined the question of war profiteering. This show integrated more fully than any previous Gershwin...
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