Tag Archives: Ira Gershwin

Gershwin (& Heyward) genius

Ira Gershwin was the first lyricist to win a Pulitzer prize. He and his brother George were superstars of musical theatre so it must have been quite the coup for author Dubose Heyward when they approached him to turn his novel and stage play Porgy into a folk opera. The Gershwin(s)-Heyward collaboration premiered in 1935.

You’d reckon Dubose Heyward was radical, eccentric or just strong given he was a white American writing (with wife Dorothy) about African Americans in the south, long before equal rights were achieved. Not only that, but his lead character is a man with a disability competing with another man for the love of Bess. Heyward clearly wasn’t afraid of tackling taboo topics.

My (brief) research suggests Heyward wrote most of the lyrics for the Opera, including the smash hit, Summertime. He worked with Ira Gershwin on the other numbers. Writing with such established stars, Heyward’s contribution seems to have been inadvertently undervalued. Stephen Sondheim apparently says of him that: “His work is sung but he is unsung.”

I have a CD of the Ella Fitzgerald – Louis Armstrong album of Porgy & Bess (based on the recommendation of a good friend and former colleague who happens to be a jazz reviewer, among many other things). The Ella – Louis combo borders on breathtaking.

Anyway, this has been a long-winded way to get to some of the wordplay from the soundtrack – particularly Ira’s efforts in It Ain’t Necessarily So. You’ve got to smile at rhymes such as:

“He made his home in / that fish ab-dome-n”
“He fought Goliath / who lay down and dieth”
rhyming ‘gospel’ with ‘possible’ by dropping syllables.

Great stuff. If you’re going to write in rhyme, why not be a little audacious?

And, while I’m thinking of trailblazers, I’m reminded of Ivan Southall who made the most beautiful girl in his YA novel To the Wild Sky part Aboriginal. TtWS was published in 1967 so I reckon that might have been controversial at the time, too.

Are there any teachers, readers or librarians who remember whether this was an issue for that novel back then? It’s not today and that is something we should be thankful for. We owe authors like Heyward and Southall for bringing unfamiliar narrative perspectives into the mainstream.