When Michael Feinstein was in his 20s, he had the good fortune to work as an assistant and archivist for the great Ira Gershwin, who, with his brother George, wrote some of the greatest and most beloved songs in American history. Now a beloved singer in his own right, Feinstein spoke with the Forward about his passion for the Gershwins during a break from his gig performing at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency in New York.
Sheerly Avni: How much of an impact did Jewish culture have on the Gershwins’ art?
Michael Feinstein: George was more influenced by it than Ira, who told me that he had really very little or no influence of Yiddish theatrical tradition although one of Ira’s favorite jokes is one he included in the score of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Of Thee I Sing.” When the French ambassador makes an entrance at this moment of the show, [Ira] had the chorus singing these lyrics that are supposed to sound like pidgin French. But instead, they are actually speaking a line of Yiddish: “A vu tik er vay a vou” [Tell me, where does it hurt?], which, for people who speak Yiddish, is just hysterical.
Did they listen to Yiddish music?
Musically, George recognized that ethnic music is mainly all minor key; it all sounds alike. Take “Dark Eyes” [hums]…. That could be Jewish, Yiddish, German, Italian, French…. It’s all that minor key modality. But he did spend a lot of time going to see Yiddish theater and Yiddish musicals. And he also knew the Tomashevskys, and he knew Sholom Secunda, who wrote “Bay mir bistu sheyn.” But I think that because of George’s desire to write a really American music, he included influences from every aspect of what we now call the melting pot.
The avowed intention of director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks in “reimagining” “Porgy and Bess” was to invest the opera with a sensibility that would reach modern audiences and “fully realize the characters.” That is, they hoped to achieve a theatrical authenticity they believed was missing in the original.
Their statements, which included a proposed new “happy” ending for the story, set off a firestorm, much of which has already been covered in the pages of the Forward. The new ending was dropped, though numerous other changes remain. The final result? Judging from a recent performance, the production is terribly flawed, with occasional moments of brilliance supplied by the superb lead actors.
Paulus told Vanity Fair: “What I want is for people to come to it and say, ‘I always knew the music was great, but what a story!’” Yet the beauty of Gershwin’s music has been lost through inept, small-scale rearrangements. Gone are the majesty, richness, and intricate textures of the innovative masterpiece. We are left instead with a kind of pop pap. What’s more, some of the cast members are simply not up to the job; “My Man’s Gone Now” was barely recognizable in Bryonha Marie Parham’s histrionic and imprecise rendering, while the anemic instrumental background robbed us of the original’s gripping adventurousness.