A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut

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Getty

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 Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever.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."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

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.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

10 Impressive Yarnbombing Projects

LornaWatt via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
LornaWatt via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Yarnbombers make the world cozy and colorful, one tree, bench, or tank at a time.

1. THE REMEMBERING TREE

A tree wrapped in brightly colored yarn squares.
rodtuk via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Launched in December 2013, The Remembering Tree is an annual yarnbombing project in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, that raises funds for GAGA (Goodwill and Growth for Africa). Crocheted squares—half are made in the UK and half by impoverished women in South Africa "to help boost their income and gain new skills," according to GAGA's website—are sold as memorials to lost loved ones, then used to cover a tree overnight. A list of the names accompanies the display. The location of the tree is kept a secret; according to the town's website, "Although Stratford District Council are fully behind the ‘The Remembering Tree,’ and are aware of its location, we want to keep it a secret so that you can get a great sense of pleasure from the surprise." After six weeks, the squares are removed from the tree, washed, and sewn into blankets for those who need them in both Africa and the UK. You can find out more about The Remembering Tree on the project's Facebook page.

2. CHURCHILL MK 6 TANK

A tank covered in bright yarn.

At the annual Victorious Festival in Southsea, Portsmouth, UK, in 2014, more than 200 people donated crocheted squares to cover an entire World War II-era tank in yarn. The project's goal was to bring awareness of breast and testicular cancer to festival-goers. After the festival, the covering was divided into blanket-size pieces and donated to homeless shelters.

It's not the only time a tank has been covered in yarn: As part of a 2006 exhibition at Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center in Copenhagen, Danish artist Marianne Jørgensen covered a WWII M24 Chaffee tank (borrowed from the Danish Army) in 3500 pink squares knitted by volunteers. The piece was a protest against the war in Iraq.

3. ALBERT EINSTEIN

A statue of Albert Einstein wrapped in yarn.

On July 19, 2012, a true guerrilla work of art appeared in front of the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C. A statue of Albert Einstein was completely covered in crocheted pink, purple, green, black and gray yarn. The work was attributed to New York City-based artist Olek, who tweeted an image of the finished product.

There were plenty of pictures taken of the yarn-covered Einstein, but the artwork was dismantled within hours.

4. SQUID TREE

A tree covered in bright blue yard and decorated to look like a squid.
LornaWatt via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Sisters Lorna and Jill Watt are fiber artists who bring color to San Francisco and other cities on a regular basis. In 2013, Lorna was an artist-in-residence for Downtown San Mateo, California. On one municipal cleanup day, she and Jill knitted a bright blue squid around a tree. It took 40 hours and 4 miles of yarn to complete the 15-foot-tall squid—which San Mateo residents loved.

5. BUTTMUNCHES

Two benches covered in bright yard and decorated to look like monsters.
LornaWatt via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Watts created these knit-covered monster benches—which they called "Buttmunches"—outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Their choice of location was partially about the surroundings, and partially about nostalgia. "Our inspiration was to find a picturesque site in the city where both locals and tourists could enjoy our work," Lorna wrote on the sisters' website. "The Ferry Plaza is also sentimental to us since we have fond memories from the '80s of taking the ferry to the Embarcadero to have lunch with our grandfather who worked at PG&E. Our mother also worked near the Embarcadero, and we’ve been going there since we were kids."

The process of creating the bench coverings—which required 3 miles of yarn, 30 hours to create, and three hours to install—was filmed for the CCTV-America show Full Frame in 2014. "We knit the bodies, arms, legs, and mouths on the Bond Ultimate Sweater Machine with Knit Picks Brava Sport and some value acrylic from the craft store," Lorna wrote. "We crocheted the hands, feet, eyes, teeth, horns, and other details using more value acrylic from our stash." You can see photos of people enjoying the benches here.

6. LIZARD’S MOUTH YARN BOMB

Rocks wrapped in yarn.

Stephen Duneier is a hedge fund manager and financial consultant, but he’s also an artist known as the Yarnbomber. His art installations in the mountains around Santa Barbara, California, are created to attract people to the great outdoors, and are not only permitted, but encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service. Duneier and his volunteer assistants cover trees and boulders with crocheted blankets, making them stand out from their surroundings. Each installation is only up for nine days, so finding one is like discovering a treasure for those willing to hike through the landscape.

7. THE COVERED CARAVAN

The Ladies Fancywork Society of Denver crocheted a complete cover for a travel trailer in 2013. "We joined hooks forces and we made it, several hours of crocheting plus 5 days of installation,"one of the bombers wrote on her website. "Most of the yarn is from leftovers, donations from other crocheters or knitters, our own donations."

8. ANDY WARHOL BRIDGE

The Andy Warhol bridge wrapped in yarn.
TheKarenD via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In August 2013, the Andy Warhol Bridge in Pittsburgh was covered in knitted, woven, and crocheted blankets in honor of the 85th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Volunteers, under the direction of Pittsburgh artist Amanda Gross, spent 14 months making the panels to cover the 1061-foot-long bridge. The Knit the Bridge Project was conceived to highlight Pittsburgh as a city of bridges and steel, and to bring the community together to create accessible art. The bridge remained decorated for about three weeks. You can see more pictures at Pittsburgh magazine.

9. KNIT A RIVER

Knit A River at the National Theatre - Saturday 14th July 2007

From 2006 to 2007, the London-based I Knit partnered with WaterAid on Knit a River, a project meant to draw attention to the more than 1 billion people who lack access to clean water. "The sole purpose of the project was to create something to show off at WaterAid events as a means to grab public attention and to engage people with their vital work," I Knit says on its website. An estimated nearly 100,000 patches were knitted by volunteers worldwide. The knitted "river" made appearances at events across the UK, but the largest section was part of the 2007 Watch This Space Festival. According to I Knit's website, during that event the river was "draped like a waterfall from the roof of the National Theatre on London's South Bank," and made for "a spectacular sight!" You can see more photos here.

10. "FEELS GOOD TO BE YOU" CAMPAIGN

For its 2014 "Feels Good to Be You" ad campaign, 7Up recruited Austin-based urban knitter Magda Sayeg to yarnbomb both an entire square in Santiago, Chile, and a double-decker bus in London. According to DesignBoom, covering the bus required "20 suitcases full of vibrantly hued yarn."

Knitting, Sayeg said in a behind-the-scenes video about yarnbombing in Santiago, helps people "stop and smell the roses. You're desensitized by your surroundings, and then you add knitting, and you kinda look at it. You look at it differently."

This story originally ran in 2016.

GIPHY Is Launching the World's First All-GIF Film Festival

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iStock

Think you’re a GIF master? GIPHY is looking to showcase the best in extremely short films with what it calls the world’s first GIF-only film festival, according to It’s Nice That. The GIF database and search engine company is teaming up with Squarespace to launch a contest dedicated to finding the best GIF-makers in America—the GIPHY Film Fest.

To enter your work for consideration in the festival, you’ll need an 18-second-or-less, looping film that tells a “compelling, creative, entertaining, professional-grade story,” according to the contest details. U.S.-based GIF artists can enter up to three mini-films in each of five categories: Narrative, Stop-Motion, Animated, Experimental, and Wild Card/Other. The films can have music (as long as you have the rights to use it) or be silent. All that matters is that they're between one and 18 seconds long.

The grand prize winner will receive $10,000, a five-year subscription to Squarespace (to host that amazing GIF on your website), and the chance to guest-curate an official Spotify playlist. All entries will be judged by a panel of professionals from across several creative industries, including film, animation, illustration, and design.

The GIPHY Film Fest is not the first uber-short film festival in existence. In 2013 and 2014, back when Vine still existed (RIP), the Tribeca Film Festival held a competition each year to find the best six-second films—a time limit that will make 18 seconds feel practically feature length.

Enter GIPHY’s contest here before the entry window closes on September 27, 2018. The winner will be announced on November 8, during a special New York City screening of each of the top films in each category.

[h/t It’s Nice That]

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