The Beginning of a New Era in Broadway Musicals: Lady, Be Good!

We are finally at the point where we can consider George Gershwin’s first Broadway musical written after Rhapsody in Blue. Howard Pollack starts his story after Primrose had its premiere: “While in London, Gershwin met with Alex Aarons, Guy Bolton, and Fred Astaire about a Broadway musical for the fall, tentatively called Black-Eyed Susan. George and Ira completed the score over the summer, and inspired by one of the songs, “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” Aarons and coproducer Vinton Freedley renamed the piece Lady, Be Good! The show proved not only Gershwin’s first big musical-comedy hit, but also one of the quintessential American theatrical works of the 1920’s.” It ran for 330 performances.
Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson collaborated on the book; Fred and Adele Astaire headlined an excellent cast that included comedian Walter Catlett and singer Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards. I had known that Edwards was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio, but I learned that Catlett provided the voice for Honest John in the same movie, singing “Hi-diddle-dee.”
Thompson went on to work on other Gershwin musicals in the 20’s, including Tell Me More (1925), Tip-Toes (1925), Funny Face (1927) and Treasure Girl (1928).
Howard Pollack calls the show “animated.” It is also contrived and artificial; however, the music permitted Gershwin to find his true “comic voice.” The music more than anything else contributed to the show’s success, as “madcap,” “daft,” “batty,” “demented,” “lunatic,” “nutty,” “hysterical,” “giddy,” “blissfully idiotic,” “wonderfully inane” and “charmingly absurd,” according to Pollack. “Such lunacy, which marked the show a key work of the 1920’s, also looked ahead to Hollywood’s screwball comedies of the 1930’s, including the Astaire-Rogers musicals.”
Fred Astaire, who seemed to be close to any number of composers, including Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, may have played a more supportive and creative role than most think. He later commented that the show had “a new look to it, a flow, and also a new sound…. This was no hackneyed ordinary musical comedy. It was slick and tongue-in-cheek, a definite departure in concept and design.” Similarly, the Astaires staged a dance to the music of “Fascinating Rhythm” that Gershwin called “miraculous.”
Besides the two main songs, we will always remember one song that was dropped during tryouts but published separately by T.B. Harms. ” ‘The Man I Love’ also garnered more critical praise than practically any other Gershwin song. Paul Rosenfeld called it ‘a moving and beautiful expression of a simple human feeling, akin to that in Shubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” only definitely less tragic.’ Wilfred Mellers deemed it ‘the most moving pop song of our time.’ “
Compare this love song with “Fascinating Rhythm,” which Pollack states “became paradigmatic not only of a certain side of Gershwin’s work but of the Jazz Age itself. Both the low-down verse, with its insistent blue notes (a mirror image of ‘The Man I Love’), and the explosive chorus, with its dizzying polyrhythms, charted new territory.”
I would say this more plainly: the song has a driving, syncopated style that is both hypnotic and irresistible to the listener. It impels you to dance or at least move some body part in rhythm with the music.
Now, on to the music.