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Ghosts of Jewish music

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Joseph Vass’ The Soul of Gershwin finds lost sounds in the music of George Gershwin

By MAX SPARBER

There is a quality to The Soul of Gershwin, now playing at Park Square Theatre, that is very much like a musicology lecture. The show has a thesis, arguing that songwriter George Gershwin was profoundly influenced by the Jewish music he grew up with. The show presents evidence, in the form of testimonials from Gershwin himself, as well as by comparing Jewish songs to Gershwin songs.

If this sounds a little academic, don’t worry. It takes the form of perhaps the most popular contemporary style of stage musical, the jukebox musical. Ever since 1978, when the songs of Fats Waller were collected together into a show called Ain’t Misbehavin’, theaters have known they could expect good box office from musicals that assembled existing music. There are examples right now based on the music of Frank Sinatra (Come Fly Away), Green Day (American Idiot), the Spice Girls (Viva Forever), rap artist Tupac Shakur (Holler If Ya Hear Me), and Jewish songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Smokey Joe’s Café).

Joseph Vass, seated at the piano, and Michael Paul Levin, standing, in The Soul of Gershwin. (Photo: Petronella J. Ytsma)

These musicals can sometimes be a little lazy, leaning heavily on nostalgia while barely concerning themselves with story or character. The Soul of Gershwin, to its credit, is anything but lazy; it doesn’t even rely overmuch on Gershwin’s music, which represents only half of the music in the show, about 12 songs. By jukebox standards, this is almost miserly. Jersey Boys, based on the music of Frankie Valli, has 22 of his songs.

But, as I said, The Soul of Gershwin has a point to make. Playwright Joseph Vass parallels Gershwin’s music with the music of his era, including Tin Pan Alley songs, cantorial music and Yiddish popular songs, and makes a convincing case that Gershwin’s songwriting contained a recognizably Jewish quality.

It is possible this could be done with other sorts of music. George Gershwin was an extraordinarily accomplished synthesizer of musical genres. He spent his early years plugging sheet music for publishers, literally playing the songs on piano for potential purchasers. As a result, he was exposed to a tremendous variety of music, including classical, international music, folk songs and popular Tin Pan Alley compositions.

This is not a criticism. I would love to see a variety of shows that each tackle one of Gershwin’s influences. Gershwin and brass march music. Gershwin the polka. Gershwin the cowboy. However, Gershwin was undeniably Jewish, and undeniably a product of a Jewish environment, having been the child of Russian and Ukrainian Jews, and  raised in Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century, both the time and the place of massive Jewish migration to America. He generally lived near the Yiddish theater district, where he was a patron and occasional actor, and grew up listening to cantorial performances.

The musical finds all of these elements in the music, sometimes ingeniously. It presents three characters, a hazzan (played by actual cantorial soloist Maggie Burton), a “griot,” named after itinerant black poets and musicians (played by Geoffrey Jones), and a chanteuse (played by Maud Hixson). Each represents a specific style of music — Jewish, African, popular American — and the musical alternates them. And so we hear a Yiddish composition by playwright Abraham Goldfaden called “Noach’s Teive,” and the play isolates a phrase from the song, sung by the hazzan, and the brings in the chanteuse to sing the chorus for “’S Wonderful” by Gershwin, and they are nearly identical.

It isn’t tooo hard to find Jewish sounding noises in Gershwin’s music. The musical opens with the clarinet intro from “Rhapsody in Blue,” a glissando flowing up the scale to a high C, sounding like it takes quick breaks to chuckle on its way up, which may be one of the most Jewish moments in modern popular music, whether Gershwin intended it to be or not. It sounds exactly like a klezmer solo.

The show also includes performer Michael Paul Levin as a chummy, cigar chomping Gershwin, happily discussing the Jewish influence on his music. He tells the story of his attempt to make an opera out of The Dybbuk, S. Ansky’s famous stage play based on Jewish folklore, that was stymied by problems with the rights to the play. He instead wrote Porgy and Bess, but it is irresistible to imagine what the Gershwin Dybbuk might have looked like. We don’t know, because the opera was never written, and whatever sketches of it Gershwin wrote are lost.

Vass goes ahead and imagines, composing an original piece titled “Dybbuk #2.” It’s a bold thing to do, to place your own music in a play consisting of the songs of one of America’s greatest songwriters. But Vass is steeped in Gershwin — he arranged the music for The Soul of Gershwin and performs onstage, playing piano, throughout the show, along with a small jazz combo.

His song leans heavily on Jewish music, as it should, but it also swings a bit, as it would had Gershwin written it. It’s an appropriately spooky piece, in part because of the subject matter, but in part because it’s the ghost of another song by another songwriter for an opera that died before it was born.

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The Soul of Gershwin plays through Dec. 31 at Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Pl, St. Paul. Visit parksquaretheatre.org or call 651-291-7005 for tickets and showtimes.

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