PITTSFIELD — The songs of American composer George Gershwin "got rhythm;" not only rhythm — spirit, indefatigable spirit, says Barrington Stage Company artistic director Julianne Boyd.
Gershwin believed music should reflect the thoughts and inspiration of people and their time.
"My people are Americans. My time is today," he once said.
Boyd believes Gershwin’s music is as much today as it was in 1926 when he made that comment.
"His music is so upbeat. I think it matches where we are right now," said Boyd who, together with music director Darren R. Cohen, has created "Who Could Ask For Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin," a concert-style revue that began previews June 10 and officially opens June 16 in BSC’s Production Center Tent on Laurel Street, in the east end of Pittsfield, near General Dynamics.
Scheduled to run through July 3, "Who Could Ask For Anything More?" features a cast of five — Allison Blackwell, Britney Coleman, Alan H. Green, Jacob Tischler and Alysha Umphress — interpreting 24 Gershwin songs, most of them written in collaboration with his lyricist brother, Ira.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Sept. 26, 1898, the younger of two sons of Russian Jewish immigrants, George Gershwin developed an interest in, and talent for, music as early as age 11. He wrote his first published song when he was 16. Together with a variety of lyricists, Gershwin wrote for Broadway and Hollywood over his early years and virtually exclusively with lra from the late 1920s until his untimely death from a brain tumor on July 11, 1937.
Gershwin had a decade-long affair with American popular and classical music composer Kay Swift — the first woman to write a score for a hit Broadway musical — but never married and had no children.
Throughout his career, George Gershwin had ambitions of being taken seriously as an American classical composer. His opera "Porgy and Bess" and his much-beloved "Rhapsody on Blue," as well as "An American in Paris" are popular with audiences but, during his lifetime, never achieved the respect in "elite" classical music circles that he hoped for. (At his death he was developing musical sketches for a string quartet, a symphony, and a ballet).
But he did leave behind a rich legacy of popular songs that contribute mightily to the American Songbook. The Broadway shows and most of the movies for which these songs were written are long forgotten. But the songs endure — among so many others, "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Embraceable You," "But Not For Me," "A Foggy Day," "Summertime," "Fascinating Rhythm," "Oh, Lady Be Good," "Strike Up the Band," "The Man I Love," "’S Wonderful," "I’ve Got a Crush on You," "Bidin’ My Time," "But Not for Me," "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed," "They Can’t Take That Away from Me," "Nice Work if You Can Get It," "Love Is Here to Stay" and "I Got Rhythm," a line from which gives this show its title.
"[George Gershwin] was so eclectic in what he did. His early death at age 38, at the height of his career, made him iconic," Boyd said during a break in rehearsals at BSC’s Wolfson Center on North Street, where she was joined by Cohen and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page. "His early musicals weren’t outstanding," Boyd added. "He knew that. He just wanted to get his music out there."
"Perhaps he was not intending to write hit songs," Page commented. "I think (composing) was a daily journal for him; something pushing on his heart he needed to get out. You can feel the depth of his thoughts. I don’t think he was concerned about [writing songs just to make people applaud]."
The way Cohen and Boyd have conceived it, "Who Could Ask for Anything More?" is no Gershwin’s Greatest Hits show.
"We’re giving these songs more of a beginning, middle and end than they had in the shows for which they were written," Cohen said. "We’re trying to make each song in just a little different style, a different vocabulary," Cohen said. That vocabulary includes movement.
"Something in the music and lyrics tells you what to do," Page said. "We’ve reconceptualized the songs, reframed them through the way the body moves. We’re looking at the songs with a different perspective."
Page acknowledged that "Who Could Ask For Anything More?" is more dance-heavy than he anticipated when he signed on to the project.
"I came in thinking this might be a walk in the park," he said, "but during rehearsal the material said to me ‘No! I demand more of you.’"
Page, Boyd and Cohen are hoping that, when all is sung and done, theatergoers will be buoyed; uplifted.
"It’s an upbeat show," Boyd said. "It bubbles. Gershwin had fun; was full of life. We are trying to capture that spirit."