During a harrowing cab ride across Manhattan, George Gershwin once tapped the driver on the shoulder and said: “For God’s sake, man, drive carefully! You’ve got Gershwin in the car.”
The sad truth is that despite being wildly famous and wealthy — he made more money during his lifetime than any other composer in history — Gershwin wasn’t really very well taken care of.
His parents moved 20 times during his childhood and were indifferent to his later success. Tan and buff, Gershwin dated starlet after starlet but never married. His brain cancer was misdiagnosed as hysteria, and he died at 38, exiled to the guest house of his brother and lyricist Ira.
Fascinating Rhythm, a musical revue at the Piccolo Spoleto festival, aims to take good care of George Gershwin, or at least his legacy and music. It was written by Ira Gerswhin’s official biographer, Philip Furia, and produced by Brad and Jennifer Moranz. No slouches themselves, Brad played Seymour in the off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors. Jennifer is a former Rockette and was in the original Broadway show of 42nd Street.
The Moranzes, who live in Mt. Pleasant, met almost 20 years ago, during the national tour of Singin’ in the Rain — “I was playing the Donald O’Connor role, she was in the chorus, we met and haven’t left each other’s side since,” Brad says.
They came to Charleston in 1995 to perform in Calvin Gilmore’s Serenade show at the Charleston Music Hall. They met Furia in Wilmington, where he is head of the creative writing department at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and soon they were collaborating on Fascinating.
Furia narrates the show, backed by film clips and photos, giving the background story for each song performed.
“What’s amazing about [Furia],” Moranz says, “is he’s a writer, he teaches writing … well, that’s not all the story at all. Phil is the most charming entertainer, has not just a knowledge but a passion for what he’s talking about. Just listening to him, it reminds us what storytelling is all about.”
Laurie Williamson, a soprano who was principal soloist at Carnegie Hall for an Andrew Lloyd Webber tribute, and Michael-Demby Cain, who’s done eight Broadway shows, sing an extensive Porgy and Bess medley.
Other performers include Tiffany Parker, a local law student who has headlined on cruise ships; Amy Banks, whom Moranz describes as “a throwback to the 1940s, like a wonderful crooning Sarah Vaughn;” and Omar Cepero, who made it to the Hollywood round of American Idol.
The orchestra is led by six-time Emmy-award winning Lanny Myers, one of the arrangers for the Tony Awards. And the triple-threat Moranzes sing as well, plus do all the dancing, portraying Fred and Adele Astaire for “Lady Be Good.”
Fred Astaire met George Gershwin in 1916, when the composer was a teenage song-plugger at Jerome H. Remick’s on Tin Pan Alley. The equivalent of the headphones at Millennium Music, a song-plugger played sheet music in order to sell it to potential customers.
Gershwin was the preferred plugger of the pop songwriters, and he soon put his talent to writing his own material — more than 700 songs over the next 20 years. A few in Fascinating Rhythm include “Love is Here to Stay,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “Foggy Day,” “S’Wonderful,” “The Man I Love,” “Strike Up the Band,” and “Summertime.”
“George died so young, and yet they left more standards than anybody, of a quality that is just unimaginable,” Moranz says. —Jonathan Sanchez
Fascinating Rhythm: A Musical Tribute to George and Ira Gershwin • Piccolo Spoleto’s Songwriters Series • $29, $26 seniors and students • June 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. • Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St. • 554-6060