A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut
In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."
George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.
But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.
That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."
Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."
The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."
Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.
At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)
The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."
The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."
The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.
It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.
Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.
In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."
Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.
Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.
As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)