A complete guide to George Gershwin musicals

Learn more about the famous American composer and pianist, and discover how his songs influenced popular musicals like Crazy For You and An American in Paris.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The great American composer George Gershwin is celebrated in not just one genre of music but several — from classical and opera to jazz and pop. He also composed scores for Hollywood movies, and produced numerous Broadway musicals, such as Girl Crazy and Funny Face.

Since Gershwin’s output remains incredibly popular, his work inspires new stage musicals, too — as with the award-winning An American in Paris, or the delightful romantic comedy Crazy For You, which is coming to the West End following a hit revival in Chichester.

So, follow our guide to the unforgettable George Gershwin, and learn which of his shows you can see in London now.

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George Gershwin’s beginnings

Gershwin was born into a family of Jewish and Eastern European heritage (his birth name was “Jacob Gershwine”) in Brooklyn, New York City, in 1898. He had an older brother, Ira, who later became the lyricist to George’s composer. The pair often visited the local Yiddish theatres, and after his parents bought a piano for Ira, George eagerly played it.

Aged 15, Gershwin went to work on Tin Pan Alley, earning money for his songs. In 1919, he had a big hit with “Swanee” – particularly after Broadway star Al Jolson performed it in his show. Gershwin then made his first foray into Broadway musicals, contributing songs to Piccadilly to Broadway in 1920, with collaborator William Daly — who became a lifelong arranger, conductor, orchestrator, and advisor to Gershwin.

George Gershwin’s work

Gershwin electrified the music world by blending jazz and classical in a dynamic new way in his Rhapsody in Blue (1924). He went on to compose further orchestral pieces like An American in Paris, and in 1934 he wrote the acclaimed opera Porgy and Bess — which included the breakout hit song “Summertime.”

Gershwin also made his mark in Hollywood with work like the wonderful music for Shall We Dance, the 1937 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. That glimpsed into a new venture for Gershwin, but tragically, he died at 38 of a brain tumour. He received a posthumous Academy Award for Best Original Song for “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which appeared in Shall We Dance.

Book tickets to George Gershwin musicals in London

Gershwin’s glorious legacy is his music, some of which you can catch in theatrical productions right now. There are plenty of other Gershwin musicals – and we’ll hopefully see more of them in town soon, like the return of the wonderful An American in Paris. Read on to find out more about the history of Gershwin’s shows.

Crazy For You (1992)

This is actually a composite musical, taking some of the songs from the 1930 George and Ira show Girl Crazy, and adding others from the likes of Shall We Dance, Oh, Kay!, Primrose, A Damsel in Distress and more. That’s completely forgivable when it brings together gems like “Embraceable You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Slap That Bass,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It."

Ken Ludwig supplied the new book, a romp featuring a showbiz-crazy banker, an impresario, a feisty small-town gal, and a theatre that needs saving. Susan Stroman’s joyous revival of Crazy For You transfers from Chichester to the West End, starring Charlie Stemp, Carly Anderson, and Tom Edden.

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George White’s Scandals (1920 onwards)

The Scandals were a series of Broadway revues – Ziegfeld Follies style – that gave many entertainers their break, including Ethel Merman, Ann Miller, Louise Brooks, and WC Fields. Gershwin also cut his song-writing teeth on four of the shows, learning how to craft work for the stage.

A Dangerous Maid (1921)

George and Ira joined forces with book writer Charles W Bell for this musical version of Bell’s play A Dislocated Honeymoon, about a society boy scandalising his family by eloping with a former showgirl. The show premiered in Atlantic City and had a mini tour, finishing in Pittsburgh, but didn’t make it to Broadway.

Primrose (1924)

The Gershwin brothers travelled to London to collaborate with Guy Bolton, George Grossmith Jr, and Desmond Carter on this musical. The story follows three couplings becoming entangled in one another, with much passion, scheming, parental disapproval, and finally a happy ending. It succeeded in the West End, running for 255 performances, and went on to play in Australia.

Lady, Be Good! (1924)

George and Ira finally got their Broadway hit with this musical, co-written with Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson. It probably didn’t hurt that it starred another pair of star siblings: Fred and Adele Astaire. They didn’t have to stretch far to play a devoted brother/sister dance team in the show, which ran for 330 performances.

Tip-Toes (1925)

Again working with Bolton and Thompson, the Gershwins produced this amusing musical about the titular vaudeville act, and how Tip-Toe’s brother and uncle tried to disguise her as an aristocrat so she can bag a wealthy husband in Florida’s Palm Beach. It did decently on Broadway and in the West End, and later became a silent movie.

Oh, Kay! (1926)

Bolton and the Gershwins teamed up with PG Wodehouse for this adaptation of a French farce. It’s a Prohibition Era classic, with bootleggers and Long Island socialites, and features the poignant song “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Starring Gertrude Lawrence, it was well received on Broadway and in London and became a silent film. An all-black cast led the 1990 Broadway revival.

Strike Up the Band (1927)

This satirical musical was more of a misfire, even after Morrie Ryskind overhauled the original book by George S Kaufman, which featured a cheese manufacturer trying to keep hold of his monopoly by getting America to declare war on Switzerland. The most enduring aspect is Gershwin’s wonderful overture.

Funny Face (1927)

The Gershwins and Astaires reunited for this giddy show, with a book by Thompson and Paul Gerard Smith. It opened Broadway’s newly built Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre). Plus, the show marked the first time Fred Astaire danced in his subsequent signature look: tails and a top hat. The show itself ran for a decent 244 performances.

Rosalie (1928)

Florenz Ziegfield produced this lavish Broadway musical about a princess who comes to America from a faraway land and strikes up a romance with a lieutenant at West Point. It featured a grand ballet and a 64-strong operatic chorus. It was turned into a movie, but oddly most of the music was replaced with new Cole Porter songs.

Treasure Girl (1928)

Thompson, Vincent Lawrence, and the Gershwins created this show — once again starring Gertrude Lawrence — about a spoiled young miss taking part in a treasure hunt. It only ran for 68 performances on Broadway. Still, the song “(I’ve Got a) Crush on You” remained popular, later recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, and Kristin Chenoweth, among many others.

Show Girl (1929)

Another opulent Ziegfeld affair, with extravagant ballet sequences — including one using Gershwin’s An American in Paris — and none other than Duke Ellington conducting the orchestra. Starring Ruby Keeler, the story centred on an aspiring showgirl, and the musical ran on Broadway for a respectable 111 performances.

Girl Crazy (1930)

Written by the Gershwins, Bolton, and John McGowan, this hit show made a star of Ginger Rogers, and also gave a huge profile boost to then-newcomer Ethel Merman. Ignore the nonsensical plot (a feckless young dude ranch owner bringing in Broadway showgirls); the score featured sublime songs like “Embraceable You,” “But Not for Me,” and “I Got Rhythm.” Three film adaptations followed, including a 1943 version starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Of Thee I Sing (1931)

This musical is a second, far more successful attempt at a political musical from the Gershwins, Kaufman, and Ryskind. In this show, the President falls in love with the wrong woman. It ran for 441 performances on Broadway and was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2006, New York City Center Encores! staged a concert with Victor Garber, Jefferson Mays, and Jennifer Laura Thompson, while Hannah Waddingham and Hadley Fraser led a version with fresh orchestrations at the Royal Festival Hall in 2015.

Pardon My English (1933)

The Gershwins weren’t so lucky with this satirical farce, co-created with Ryskind and Herbert Fields, all designed to showcase the music hall star, Jack Buchanan. It was critically panned and had a short run on Broadway. Surviving songs include the yearning “Isn’t It a Pity?”.

Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1934)

A much grimmer, darker follow-up to Of Thee I Sing, from the same team, saw a fascist Vice President attempting to seize power (can you imagine?). Audiences weren’t interested, and it was another Broadway flop.

My One and Only (1983)

The first of a series of musicals using Gershwin songs to create new shows — like Crazy For You. Peter Stone and Timothy S Mayer’s book is set in the 1920s and features various escapades to fit with songs like “’S Wonderful.” It was a Broadway hit, led by Tommy Tune and Twiggy, and again in the West End with Janie Dee.

Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012)

Joe DiPietro based his book on Bolton and Wodehouse’s material and used Gershwin songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” and the great title song. Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara led the successful Broadway premiere, helmed by Kathleen Marshall.

An American in Paris (2014)

Christopher Wheeldon gloriously adapted the movie into a stage musical, incorporating extra Gershwin songs like “I Got Rhythm,” and “The Man I Love.” It premiered in Paris and then transferred to Broadway in 2015, where it won four Tony Awards, and to the West End in 2017, where it won an Olivier — all starring the winning partnership of Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope.

Photo credit: George Gershwin (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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