NEW YORK - Twenty years ago, George Gershwin was best remembered for Porgy and Bess, a few concert works and a dozen or so songs recorded by the classiest of singers, from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra.
Not a bad legacy.
But in the composer's centennial year -- his birth date was Sept. 26, 1898 -- the appreciation of Gershwin has widened to include much more of his musical-theater material.
That material is showcased in a new Nonesuch recording of Gershwin songs, Standards and Gems. It offers persuasive examples of why Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira, will still be celebrated 100 years from now.
Standards and Gems comes at a time when Gershwin's musical-theater output is being examined in detail usually reserved for such artists as Stephen Sondheim, the late 20th century's most revered Broadway composer.
The renewed interest in Gershwin has been sparked by several things:
[box] A resurgence of cabaret, particularly evenings created by such performers as Michael Feinstein, Bobby Short, Julie Wilson and Mary Cleere Haran, who have honored Gershwin with intelligence and taste without being overly reverential.
[box] The Broadway success of Crazy for You, the "new" Gershwin musical, created from old Gershwin songs and a new story that seems concocted in the 1930s. The show ran for more than three years in New York and has become a staple of dinner theaters.
[box] The growing popularity of concert versions of old musicals, primarily the Encores! series at New York's City Center. Earlier in the year, Encores! presented its first Gershwin effort, Strike Up the Band, in the original 1927 version that never made it to Broadway. A political satire with book by George S. Kaufman, Strike Up the Band had 1998 audiences laughing at the silly plot ø the United States going to war with Switzerland over cheese ø and then sighing at such romantic standards as The Man I Love.
The release of five complete recordings of Gershwin musicals, funded by Ira Gershwin's widow, Leonore, and restored by Gershwin archivist Tommy Krasker. The five shows -- Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band, Lady, Be Good!, Pardon My English and Oh, Kay! -- offer conclusive evidence of the spirit and drive of George Gershwin's music and the wit, whimsy and wisdom of Ira Gershwin's lyrics.
Standards and Gems draws much of its material from these five efforts, as well as some previously unreleased recordings.
Listen to Audra McDonald's wondrous rendition of How Long Has This Been Going On? It's not exactly a Gershwin standard but not completely obscure either.
The song, which celebrates a first kiss, has a bluesy, almost torchy melody that is slyly sexual. It is brash and emotional but not overdone. The song doesn't take itself too seriously either. Ira Gershwin's humor saw to that. How many lyricists could proclaim "as a tot, when I trotted in little velvet panties" and then compare kisses by smothering relatives to "an inferno worse than Dante's"?
Such evergreens as But Not for Me and Someone to Watch Over Me, other highlights of Standards and Gems, are potent reminders of why Gershwin melodies will endure. They are sweet and straightforward, especially as sung by Judy Blazer and Dawn Upshaw on this recording.
These songs express a yearning, a desire for love that is universal yet completely American in its openness. That freedom, as well as drive, can also be found in such jazzy classics as Fascinating Rhythm, a pounding hymn to the Roaring '20s. And it permeates such forgotten songs as Barbary Coast, a deliciously silly number from Girl Crazy that would have remained unknown without the Nonesuch recordings.
Even a flop, a short-lived musical like Treasure Girl (a truly lost Gershwin musical because much of its score has disappeared) can produce a winner. I Don't Think I'll Fall in Love Today is an anthem to incompatibility. The song, drolly delivered on the new recording by Ms. Upshaw and David Garrison, is the perfect mating of George's music, here very English in its preciseness, and Ira's mocking lyrics.
Standards and Gems pays the best kind of homage to George Gershwin: heartfelt but not hammy; sentimental but not soupy; funny but not foolish; bright but not overbearing. It is much like the master's melodies themselves.