Book Review: Crawford’s “Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music” has a movie in it

As a non-fiction fan as a reader, a lifelong history buff and somebody who considers period pieces my favorite film genre, I rarely read a show biz history book without my mind wandering to the question, “Is there a movie in this?”

Years and years before Tim Robbins got “Cradle Will Rock” on the screen, I knew somebody would eventually try to capture the heady energy and political fireworks of Orson Welles, at his theatrical peak, getting Marc Blitzstein’s 1930s labor opera “The Cradle Will Rock” in a movie.

It’s a piece of theater legend any Welles fan knows -thrillingly recounted in every Welles biography –9 a WPA show that the government lost its nerve about in mid-Depression, cast and crew scrambling to find a theater to stage it on opening night, doing so in an act of artistic defiance for the ages.

I see something with even greater artistic and mass audience appeal in one slice of George Gershwin’s life, the creation, casting and production of “The Negro Opera” “Porgy & Bess.”

There was an earlier Gershwin biopic that starred Alan Alda’s dad, Robert. And apparently, there’s another in pre-production.

Gershwin cut a wide swath through the culture in his too-short life. And the temptation to try and tell all of it (learning his craft as a “song plugger” on Tin Pan Alley, rubbing shoulders with the other inventors of “The Broadway Musical” in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, Hollywood) is certainly there.

I’d guess you’d be better off with a film more circumscribed in time, something more like “Me and Orson Welles,” (THAT man again.), Richard Linklater’s charming outsider-looking-in-at-the-tyro-artist comedy with Zac Efron. That was confined to Welles’ Broadway-changing production of “Julius Caesar” from roughly the same era.

Gershwin was the composer who blended jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop into Broadway show tunes, elevating that art form in the ’20s and ’30s. Gershwin’s most famous piece, beaten to death by Woody Allen in film scores, was a signal moment in “legitimizing” jazz in “serious music” (classical) circles when it premiered, as performed by the composer himself (at the piano) and Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra in the mid-1920s –“Rhapsody in Blue.”

But the creation of “Porgy,” perhaps THE great American opera, is the surest bet, the best place to confine your movie to.

As musicologist and biographer Richard Crawford’s music-centric biography points out, Gershwin’s teaming with (white) South Carolinian Dubose Heyward was the stuff of magic. Gershwin, already schooled in jazz, mentored by African Americans and admiring others who proceded him in Tin Pan Alley, was ready to take on a project just like this. Gershwin and Heyward’s research visits to African American churches, soaking up the music and the world Heyward turned into “Catfish Row” and Gershwin animated with song, is fascinating enough. Crawford devotes much of this biography to this act of creation.

Heyward’s poem that Gershwin put to music as “Summertime,” and the casting that altered the tunes and bent the show closer to documentary reality and thrilling musicality are just a couple of the dramatic highpoints that seem most cinematic.

Yes, Gershwin hit on his young Juilliard-trained choice for Bess (Anne Brown). No “Not happening,” she said. He still crafted the role for her and put her in the history books.

Yes, the choir they hired, the other players they settled on, changed the opera, giving it musical authenticity and adding to the musical audacity. That process transformed “Porgy & Bess” into the enduring classic it became.

It’s a warm “creation myth,” one with qualities that embrace the liberalism of the time (New York theater was alive with door-opening African American efforts by white playwrights and composers, from Virgil Thomson’s “Green Pastures” to Welles’ celebrated “Voodoo” Caribbean setting of “Macbeth”). Careers were launched, and great black playwrights would soon follow.

As any number of Golden Age of Hollywood studio moguls were prone to say, knowing their word was law, “Let’s get SOMEbody on that.”

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