‘The jeweler’ shines

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Michael Strunsky, Ira Gershwin’s nephew, said his uncle tended not to like to be in public.
Michael Strunsky, Ira Gershwin’s nephew, said his uncle tended not to like to be in public.

They called him “the jeweler” for his meticulous use of words and rhythms as lyricist to his brother George Gershwin’s expansive songbook of American classics. Ira Gershwin — born Israel — was perhaps the less famous of the two talented brothers, but his contributions to American popular music continue to resonate. From his pen poured elegant bon mots, scintillating rhymes and surprising rhythms; he possessed an uncanny ear for vernacular patois.

“While I wouldn’t call him an introvert,” said Michael Strunsky, 79, and Ira Gershwin’s nephew. “He did not like to be in public. [His] home was the intellectual headquarters of Hollywood for a period of time from the late ‘30s to the ‘60s. His wife, Leonore, was known as Lee Gershwin, and she was quite an entertainer and a magnet for people in that community.”


Ira, though, often hung back. “He very much liked to have bright and special people around him, especially in his own home … he was not a great socializer as much for when he was placed in a social environment: he’d sit in the corner and watch.”

Watch — and listen. That’s how he trained his ear for the cadences and linguistic quirks that show up in so many of the finely honed works Gershwin songbook. Opening today at the National Theatre, Porgy and Bess is by far George Gershwin’s most ambitious work. This version, Strunsky is quick to point out, is a re-invention of the work George envisioned as an opera, but which made its debut in 1935 on a Broadway stage. That production kept many of the operatic trappings intact, including sung-through recitative rather than spoken dialogue, which is a feature of this newest version.

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The tragic tale of a crippled man, Porgy, who falls in love with a wayward woman, is set in a 1920s working-class black neighborhood in Charleston, S.C., called Catfish Row. Love, passion, dishonor and murder unfold among these working class folk. The libretto was originally written by DuBose Heywood and the lyrics by Heywood and Ira Gershwin to George Gershwin’s soaring compositions have become classics, especially “Summertime,” which Strunsky called the act one aria.

Strunsky wanted a new generation of audiences to identify with these vivid characters. He said he had been working on a revival since the late 1990s in his capacity as director of the Gershwin Trust, which oversees licensing of the entire Gershwin oeuvre. The result is the re-titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, with a script by hot, young playwright Suzan-Lori Parks that fleshes out the character types Heywood sketched.


The music remains intact. “George loved the black-inspired music he heard growing up in New York,” Strunsky said. “I remember my father telling me that George, when he was maybe 13, would roller-skate to Harlem and stand in the door of saloons watching and listening to the stride pianists. The Porgy music is based on his trip to Charleston and the Gullah islands, and the forces (some may call it Jewish heritage) that motivated all his compositions.”

But dig a little deeper into the Jewish flavor of the Gershwin oeuvre and Strunsky gets uncomfortable. “Somebody once asked me whether George’s second prelude was somehow tied to klezmer music,” Strunsky said. “I don’t think so, but at the same time it may have reflections of something he heard, some phrase he heard. Did he ever study klezmer music? Not that I know of.” But he did grow up on the Lower East Side of New York with its heavily Jewish immigrant population at that time.

While some scholars and musicologists have noted similarities, for example, between the blessings for reading the Torah and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” he bristles. “Don’t read more into than it is.”

Strunsky doesn’t have any memories of Jewish holiday celebrations or observances with his Uncle Ira. He mentioned that, like many assimilated American Jews of the era, they had a Christmas tree as a celebration of the season.

Strunsky explained the disproportionate number of Jews who contributed to the birth of both Broadway and Hollywood as a fortuitous circumstance: Broadway and Hollywood in the 1930s were “arenas that Jews were accepted in, there was a place for them to go and work.” Both George and Ira Gershwin were an integral part of this milieu.

“I can tell you that George and Ira were not religious, not involved Jews,” he added, “but never for a moment did they deny their Judaism.”

The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is onstage through Dec. 29 at the National Theatre in the District. Tickets, at $48-$153, are available by calling 202-628-6161 or visiting www.thenationaldc.org.

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