Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Long and Winding Road of the Gershwins' "The Man I Love"

One of my favorite performance songs is “The Man I Love,” Gershwin’s classic, haunting melody about the longing for an unmet lover. It’s always something of a challenge for me to perform because as a vocalist first and foremost, it’s a bit tough to focus entirely on my singing while making sure not to hit a wrong group of keys on the piano. But it’s worth every minute of angst because the song is simply gorgeous. It’s not as descriptive, lyrics-wise, as the other similar Gershwin hit, “Someone to Watch over Me,” whose protagonist tells us that the guy who will hold the key to her heart needn’t be “the man some girls think of as handsome.” The speaker/singer in “The Man I Love” has no particular picture in her mind except the possible day they’ll meet -- “maybe Tuesday will be my good news day” -- and what they’ll do: “he’ll look at me and smile, I’ll understand/And in a little while, he’ll take my hand/And though it seems absurd, I know we both won’t say a word.” A little vague, sure, but that's what makes dreamy love songs dreamy and, coupled with the beautiful melodic line, it makes this one nearly breathtakingly emotive.

So it may come as a surprise to realize that this song nearly died at birth, or at least shortly thereafter. Here is a breakdown of the song’s close brush with obscurity:

1. It was written in 1924 by the Gershwin brothers.
2. Fred Astaire’s sister, Adele, debuted it during the Philadelphia production of “Lady Be Good.” The song was excised after one week.
3. Lady Mountbatten requested Gershwin’s autograph on her personal copy of the song’s sheet music (printed in the lobby of the theater during try-outs), took it back to London and gave it to her favorite band.
4. It became popular with London and Paris-based dance orchestras.
5. In August of 1927, it was placed into a production of “Strike up the Band” which played in New Jersey and Philly but then closed quickly.
6. The producer of “Strike up the Band” let Flo Ziegfeld use the song in “Rosalie.” Ira rewrote the song twice for that production.
7. The Gershwin’s publisher convinced the brothers to take a reduced royalty rate before he published and exploited the song to his advantage. The song became wildly popular and the publisher became richer.

While the world of music publishing is filled with stories of advantage-seeking publishers, there are very few songs whose road to fame have taken such a winding trek as “The Man I Love,” a song that was one of George Gershwin’s personal favorites.

“American Popular Song” by Alex Wilder
“All the Years of American Popular Song” by Davis Ewen

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