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The Lukewarm Reception of ‘Funny Face’

“Funny Face” was the title song of the 1927 Gershwin musical Funny Face, which also included the hit song “’S Wonderful” (discussed in the previous post of the “What Makes a Hit” series). “Funny Face” has been so closely associated with Fred Astaire—the original performer of both tunes—that subsequent artists have rarely recorded the work. By Rachel Fernandes “Funny Face,” the title song of the 1927 musical Funny Face, was neither a hit nor a miss. It never became a standard and has rarely been recorded by successive artists, an aspect by which a song’s success is often measured. Instead, […]

Ira and His ‘S Marvelous Lyrics

George and Ira Gershwin wrote countless songs, but few are quite as iconic as “’S Wonderful.” In today’s installment of “What Makes a Hit,” we will explore how Ira’s use of American slang ensured this tune’s enduring popularity. By Rachel Fernandes “’S Wonderful” made its debut in the musical Funny Face, which opened at the Alvin Theater on Broadway on November 22, 1927, and ran for 244 performances. The successful show was actually based on a failed Gershwin musical titled Smarty, which opened in out-of-town previews in 1927 and was promptly canceled due to bad reviews. Both Smarty and Funny […]

A Matter of Timing: The Gershwins’ Place in History

Cultural events can shape the way a song is received, and the Gershwins’ tunes are no exception. In this second post of the “What Makes a Hit” series, we will focus on how the advancement of radio astronomy and the Great Depression played a role in George and Ira’s success. And if you haven’t read the introductory post, head here to learn more about this 8-part series! By Rachel Fernandes It’s impossible to separate a popular song from the moment in which it was written. An understanding of a work’s historical context can give us particular insight into the public’s […]

What Makes a Hit?!

Welcome to our newest series, “What Makes a Hit”! Over the past two years, Rachel Fernandes, one of the Gershwin Initiative’s undergraduate assistants, explored some of George and Ira Gershwin’s most popular Broadway songs—and a handful of near-misses—in order to answer the question: what makes a hit? In this introduction to the series, Rachel examines some characteristics that feature prominently in the Gershwin brothers’ most successful songs. Ready to learn more? Read on! By Rachel Fernandes What is a “hit” song? The Webster-Merriam Dictionary defines a “hit” as “something that is very successful”—typically measured by the profit generated by, or […]

Tin Pan Alley’s “Hawaiian Craze” of 1916

In 1916, during Tin Pan Alley’s “Hawaiian Craze”, Mele Kalikimaka was indeed the thing to say!  George Gershwin spent his teenage years, from 1914-1917, cutting his teeth as a song plugger for the publisher Jerome H. Remick & Co. in Tin Pan Alley.  In the early twentieth century, Tin Pan Alley was the hotbed of American popular song composition, churning out hit after hit by composers Gershwin admired. Many successful composers, like Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, had similarly begun their careers as song pluggers or house pianists. Tin Pan Alley songs are notorious for their use and appropriation of […]

The Blues in Spring: Gershwin’s Rhapsody and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a smashing success, even though many musicians and critics were aware of its composer’s inexperience writing more substantial orchestral works. So what might its warm reception be attributed to? More often than not, context is everything. . . Rhapsody in Blue has been memorialized as the piece in which George Gershwin broke the mold by merging popular idioms with an exploration of art music’s longer and more substantial form. What many don’t realize, however, is that his premiere’s considerable success may have largely been thanks to its timing, for when should Rhapsody in Blue have […]

Gershwin & Counterpoint: Jazzing It Up

Intent on studying the art of composition, Gershwin sought out lessons in harmony, orchestration, and counterpoint from some of the renowned composers of his time. What did some of those lessons really look like? George Gershwin may have been determined to develop into a well-rounded composer, but his path was by no means easy. His early career in popular songwriting and explorations of jazz made learning the notoriously strict rules of counterpoint and harmony tedious at best. Gershwin’s one-time teacher Henry Cowell recalled that the young composer “thought the rules of counterpoint were just about the silliest things he had […]

George Gershwin, Futurist Composer?

George Gershwin’s career was concurrent with several bold Modernist movements, one of which was Futurism. On December 4, 1926, composer and movement had a moment of overlap, as Gershwin premiered his piano preludes at a “futurist” recital. Was this “futurist” concert just a bit of press hype, or did Gershwin really belong in this group of composers? By Sarah Sisk George Gershwin, composer: modern, daring, innovative, bursting with new traditions for a new age of music. But did that make him a Futurist? The headline for a December 5, 1926 New York Times review concerning a recital at Roosevelt Hall […]

Opera Correspondence: Translating English Semantics into Musical Syntax

Inspired by our From the Archives series, this post will focus on the correspondence, music, and libretto of Act I scene i of Porgy and Bess to see how George interpreted, or translated, DuBose’s natural language (i.e. native, naturally occurring speech) requests in his letter. By Frances Sobolak When George Gershwin was inspired to transform DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy into an opera, DuBose, who had already adapted Porgy into a stage play with his wife Dorothy, agreed to write the libretto.  The two men initiated a relationship that so many opera composers and librettists before had entered—a long-distance, collaborative partnership. […]

Fascinating Woman: George Gershwin’s Friend, Lady Mountbatten

George Gershwin rubbed elbows with some interesting personalities throughout his rise to stardom. Few, however, were quite as compelling as the London socialite and heiress, Lady Edwina Mountbatten. By Sarah Sisk It was 1925, and a particular Gershwin tune was looking to be in pretty sad shape. “The Man I Love,” a George-and-Ira collaboration, began life as a misfit a few years prior. It eventually found a home in their 1924 musical Lady Be Good!, only to be promptly dropped due to lack of audience response. But “The Man I Love” was soon gifted a second chance when a friend […]

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