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He “got rhythm” in only 38 years. Who could ask for anything more?

He “got rhythm” in only 38 years. Who could ask for anything more? 3856 3024 Julia Rubens

Gershwin’s tragedy was not that he failed to cross the tracks, but rather that he did, and once there in his new habitat, was deprived of the chance to plunge his roots firmly into the new soil. -Leonard Bernstein

In honor of our first Broadway show, I wanted to give a nod to its composer – the legendary George Gershwin. When spanning important 20th century American music – jazz, showtunes, and the rise of popular music delivered on film – the name Gershwin is ubiquitous.

The odds are, you know a few Gershwin songs without even knowing that you know them.

His story starts straight out of the opening of a musical itself, on the streets of turn-of-the-century lower Manhattan. Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, George, along with brother Ira (later his lyricist) and other siblings, grew up around the Yiddish theatre in the East Village. His father was a factory man, and as he was hired and fired, Ira said the family lived in 28 apartments during their childhood.

By no means was George destined to be a composer.

In fact, famously, he first discovered the beauty of music as a 10-year-old attending a neighbor girl’s violin recital. When his parents bought a secondhand piano, it was due to Ira’s interest, not George. And it was their sister, Frances, who first supported their family with talent on the stage, singing for $40 a week and even appearing on Broadway. Yet Frances married and retired. And soon George would begin to wear out the family’s piano, not Ira.

George Gershwin

A teen prodigy, he dropped out of school at 15 to focus on piano full time with his teacher noting, “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.” As in any rags-to-riches tale, George worked hard, first as a “song plugger” in Tin Pan Alley playing new sheet music as a marketing gimmick for publishers, and later working as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway.

An accidental genius, when George started composing, he was prolific. Though his first composition earned him only 50 cents, George simply arranged, wrote, and recorded hundreds of songs in his late teens. What makes Gershwin different is that he had one foot in the classical world and one in the world of popular music, creating hybrids that have been described as “distinctly American.” But this American sound was propelled by others.

Writing “Swanee” around the time he turned 20, the hit propelled Gershwin to stardom and millions of copies sold, having been covered by everyone from Judy Garland to the Muppets. This also begins the Gershwin brothers’ complicated history with racially musical traditions, as “Swanee,” like many vaudeville numbers at the time, cannot be disassociated from the abhorrent practice of minstrelsy, and was in fact first popularized by blackface performer Al Jolson.

 

Much of the foundation of modern musical theatre comes from these shameful traditions. However, George was fascinated by African-American music and wanted the ability to tell genuine stories with black performers on stage. Porgy and Bess was the first opera (and Broadway performance) that featured a story and a cast of and about black Americans. George did travel down to Charleston, South Carolina to try to accurately capture the music of African-American spirituals in the work. And he was known to go visit all-black performances in New York, breaking segregated lines. But still, though George’s attitudes were sometimes daring in crossing the color barrier, the cultural appropriation that pervades his legacy and that of others of his time is difficult to grapple with in a modern context.

At the height of his career, George switched seamlessly between writing classical music, jazz, and truly defining the concept of “showtunes” on Broadway and in film. Yes, you’ve heard Gershwin music, even if you can’t identify it.

Consider the ubiquitous clarinet opening of the orchestral Rhapsody in Blue and the light Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Shall We Dance:

Aren’t those tunes familiar?

George’s prolific output during his lifetime alone included at least five full orchestral pieces, two operas, 15 Broadway musicals, five films, and countless piano numbers and popular sheet music. All of this output was before George passed from a brain tumor early at the age of 38. And putting this rough count together does not counting the many, many hundreds of rearrangements of his pieces in musicals and films posthumously, which is most likely how you and I first heard Gershwin.

“Gershwin’s melodic gift was phenomenal. His songs contain the essence of New York in the 1920s and have deservedly become classics of their kind, part of the 20th-century folk-song tradition in the sense that they are popular music which has been spread by oral tradition (for many must have sung a Gershwin song without having any idea who wrote it).” -Michael Kennedy

And what about An American in Paris?

The legacy of this musical, playing March 17 and 18 at The Grand, is so unusual and twists through multiple decades and even centuries. It is often cited by contemporaries as one of the best movie musicals of all time, though it lacks the name recognition of films like Singin’ in the Rain and Chicago.

One hundred years ago, George was enamored by French Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel and booked a trip to Paris to learn from him. Amazingly, Ravel turned him down, saying, “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”

Yet during his time in Paris, George began tinkering with a small fragment inspired by the Parisian spirit that he called a “rhapsodic ballet.” This basis began An American in Paris, a jazzy orchestral piece completed in 1928, which has often been performed with ballet dance. George noted, “My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

The composition itself, fascinatingly, splits between French styles while the character is “walking” the city and the  native American Blues of the homesick visitor. In that way, it was made for drama.

Gene Kelly vamps it up in the film version

And the score sure found it. In the late 1940’s, a movie producer named Arthur Freed was fascinated by Gershwin music and pushed Ira to sell some of George’s catalog. His vision? Use the iconic American composer and the French-sounding score to cash in on the patriotic (yet internationally-curious) post-war spirit coasting through America.

The film was a success, with the star power of Gene Kelly at the helm in 1951. It was lush, risqué, and featured stunning sets and long musical numbers that were expensive to produce – the finale alone was filmed over four weeks. The fantastical, rhapsodic ballet atmosphere Gershwin attempted to produce decades earlier burst into Technicolor life under Vincente Minelli (father of pop culture icon Liza).

And after clinching Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the golden era of musical movies burst forth in rapid succession. Without An American in Paris, movie musicals would have been stuck in vaudeville stereotypes of sequins and plunking away at a piano. When one considers the conceptual boldness of something like The Sound of Music, for example, with its extravagant tracking shot of Julie Andrews in the Austrian mountains, know that would not have been possible without the filmmakers who paved the way for the success of the genre.

Stunning dance work pervades the Broadway show

It is no surprise, then, that the stage adaptation for Broadway was directed by Christopher Wheeldon – less of a typical theatre director and more a visionary ballet choreographer, at home in the largest ballet companies in America. Wheeldon ups the stakes of the original movie, placing the plot closer to the door of World War II and emphasizing the war-torn nature of 1940’s Paris. The rhapsodic ballet of Gershwin survives well into the 21st century, nominated for 11 Tony Awards and winning four, including Best Choreography. NPR called it “a perfect mélange of Franco-British-American artistic traditions of dance and theater.”

And soon, An American in Paris dances to our very doorstep. Who could ask for anything more?

The musical will play March 17 and 17 and tickets are available for purchase here and at 478-301-5470. To complement your Parisian evening, a multi-course preshow meal package from Lazy Susan Tapas called Midnight in Paris is available as an add-on at checkout.

-Julia Rubens is the Director of Arts Marketing for The Grand Opera House

It’s Not A UFO, It Is Throat Singing

It’s Not A UFO, It Is Throat Singing 4190 2683 Joe Patti

Chances are, you haven’t heard of Tuvan Throat Singing. Chances are, you also haven’t heard of Tuva, a small country in the Russian Federation located south of Siberia.

All that is okay. We invited the group to Macon so you have an opportunity to encounter something new.

Here at The Grand we have big, flashy shows full of spectacle that often cost you $50 or more to attend.  We are also a place you can have small, intimate experiences where you can meet artists and satisfy a curiosity to learn new things without feeling you are risking your time and money.

Alash is one of those groups. I have worked with Alash before and they are a lot of fun.

Actually, the fun part is watching people in the audience, from 4 year old kids to 80 year old grandparents, trying to replicate the sound coming out of the singers’ mouths.

The one comment many people make is that the singing style must strain vocal cords.

People are surprised to learn the technique is very natural and relaxing even though it sounds like the throat is constricted to an inch of its life.

Just check out the video below. Often they are creating a really big sound but their lips are barely open. You almost wonder if it is real or a trick with the microphones.  The sound had to be loud. The technique was developed as a way for people tending herds to sing back and forth to each other across fields and valleys.

My favorite technique starts at the 3:00 mark. To me it sounds exactly like the sound effect for a hovering UFO, but there are no tricks, just his mouth.

If you are thinking, these are strange things that people from other places do, remember the goal of beatboxers and a capella groups is to create a whole range of sounds with just their voices.

There is a beatboxer from Baltimore who goes by the name Shodekh who traveled to Tuva to learn the technique. He will be on the tour with Alash and can answer questions about how beatboxing and throat singing work well together.

You may have seen him in the video below we have posted about the show.

If any of this stimulates your curiosity in the least, swing by The Grand on March 12, 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10

-Joe Patti is the Executive Director of The Grand Opera House

Love Letters Meet And Greet Pictures

Love Letters Meet And Greet Pictures 500 648 Joe Patti

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Love Letters meet and greet with Barbara Eden and Barry Bostwick.  The staff traveling with the performers provided us with some of the pictures they took. If you are one of the people below and would like an original, please email us at TheGrand@mercer.edu with the number(s) of the images you want.

Thanks!

 

The Search for Neverland

The Search for Neverland 2048 1365 Sarah Webster

Win 2 Free Tickets to see Finding Neverland

The Search for Neverland begins

Friday, Feb. 1 and ends Friday, Feb. 8 at 3 p.m.

Everyone who completes ALL the tasks will be entered to win 2 FREE tickets to see Finding Neverland on Feb 12 & 13. (5 pairs total)

The Grand Opera House invites everyone who doesn’t want to grow up to join us on our Search for Neverland right here in Macon. Complete each of the tasks below around town and document your experience, posting to Facebook OR Instagram and using the hashtag #NeverlandMacon. (Make your posts public to ensure we see your photos!) Tag the Grand Opera House in your photos. Complete in any order. Look for the Search in the current issue of 11th Hour, on stands now!

Here are the tasks:

  1. Fairy dust is great, but there’s also Mercedes Benz of Macon to get us around. Go take a picture in the driver’s seat of a showroom car!

  2. Strike a Peter Pan pose and snap a pic in front of the Beverly Olson Children’s Hospital at Navicent Health. Navicent Health is our show sponsor!

  3. Visit a library and take a photo of yourself reading Peter Pan.

  4. Show us your best Captain Hook pirate impression in the boat sculpture at Bernd Park. (video)

  5. Take a video of yourself “flying” across the pedestrian bridge at Mercer University.

  6. Remember your childhood! Take a video of yourself going down the slide at Society Garden.

  7. Let’s see your musical skills. Take a video of yourself playing the piano on Poplar Street.

  8. Take a pic with the sculpture located at Cherry and Third Street. Copy her pose!

  9. Go to the Macon Arts Gallery and get a selfie with your favorite piece of art.

  10. Take a picture of your shadow stretching out over the fountain in Tattnall Square Park

 

For more information about Finding Neverland or our other upcoming Broadway shows check out the events below!

No event found!

Christmas at The Grand

Christmas at The Grand 2100 1391 Sarah Webster

The holiday season is truly unique. It brings people together unlike any other time of the year. There’s something about the cold weather, festive decorations and cheerful music that makes us feel that sense of joy and belonging each year. This year, we are presenting several holiday events perfect for you and your friends and family to visit the theater and celebrate the season. Check it out below!

Nutcracker of Middle Georgia

Dec. 5 – 9 | Matinee and Evening Performances

The Nutcracker of Middle Georgia returns for its 34th season at the Grand Opera House. Come witness the magic of this Christmas tradition at one of six performances! Learn more.

 

Celtic Angels Christmas

Dec. 11 | 7:30 p.m.

Produced in Ireland, ‘Celtic Angels Christmas’ will enrapture audiences with the magic of Christmas in an awe inspiring show which encompasses vocal and instrumental seasonal favorites alongside Irish, contemporary and original Christmas themes…all with a Celtic twist. Learn more. 

Movie: Love Actually

Dec. 14 | 7 p.m.

Nine intertwined stories examine the complexities of the one emotion that connects us all: love. A romance for all to enjoy, with a perfectly timed showing during this Christmas season. Learn more.

A Christmas Carol

Dec. 15 | 3:00 p.m.

From Nebraska Theatre Caravan comes the beloved Dickens’ classic story, rich with thrilling ensemble music, alive with color and movement, and sure to bring the joy of Christmas to audiences of all ages. Note: this performance is a matinee. Perfect for bringing little ones to the theater! Learn more.

Christmas Stories and Songs with John Berry

Dec. 22 | 7:30 p.m.

Returning to The Grand for the 22nd year, John’s special take on the Christmas season has become a Macon tradition, mixing such Berry classic hits as “Your Love Amazes Me” and “Standing On The Edge Of Goodbye,” and “I Think About It All The Time” with holiday favorites, including his always-standing-ovation performance of “O Holy Night.” Learn more.