George Gershwin: Hello, Broadway, Hello

For today’s post, we are going to switch our attention to the next, new composer to open a show on Broadway. His name is George Gershwin, and his first show would come in 1919, in the form of La-La-Lucille. However, we are going to start our examination of Gershwin in October 1918. We know this sounds confusing, and it is. However, the connection will soon become apparent. At least we hope it will.

On October 24, 1918, a four-hour gala premiere was presented at the Capitol, advertised as the “largest theatre in the world.” The Capitol was, according to Howard Pollack, a biographer of Gershwin, “a lavish movie palace with a seating capacity of about 5,300 located at Broadway and West 51st Street.” The four-hour inauguration was called the Capitol Revue, “a show produced and choreographed by Ned Wayburn, an associate of Florenz Ziegfeld. It “entailed organ music, a newsreel, motion-picture shorts, musical selections by the Arthur Pryor Band and others, the Demi-Tasse Revue, and, finally, a showing of the Douglas Fairbanks film, His Majesty, the American.”

The Demi-Tasse Revue featured a good cast and was mentioned in the New York Times review as “a show in itself.” We are interested in this revue because it contained two songs by Gershwin: “Swanee” and “Come to the Moon.” At this point, George was working with other lyricists, not Ira. Irving Caesar wrote the lyrics for “Swanee” and Ned Wayburn and Lou Paley combined on the lyrics for “Come to the Moon.”

In the Demi-Tasse Revue, “Swanee” was introduced in the middle of the show by “a little-known singer named Muriel De Forrest, while ‘Come to the Moon’ … provided the spectacular finale…”

Gershwin and Caesar had not written “Swanee” for the revue; instead, they wrote it in response to a popular one-step by Oliver Wallace and Harold Weeks, called “Hindustan.” Pollack relates that Caesar suggested that they write an American one-step, like “Hindustan,” but with a mythical American setting. “We had never been south of fourteenth street when we wrote ‘Swanee.’ After the song became a hit, we took a trip down south and took a look at the Sewanee River. Very romantic, muddy little river. Very nice, nothing against it, but it’s a good thing we wrote the song first and used our imagination.”

Gershwin recalled “I am happy to be told that the romance of that land is felt in it, and that at the same time the spirit and energy of our United States is present. We are not all business or all romance, but a combination of the two, and real American music should represent these two characteristics which I tried to unite in ‘Swanee’ and make [it] represent the soul of this country.”

If ever Gershwin could have chosen two words to represent his music, “spirit and energy” would have been the preferred two words.

In keeping with the original casting of a woman to sing “Swanee,” we are going to feature Kim Criswell in John McGlinn’s “Broadway Showstoppers.” Please note the driving, rhythmic energy in the first bars of the song, starting with “I’ve been away from you a long time.”