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A Film by Michael Kantor


Composers, Lyricists & Writers

Ira Gershwin

A consummate lyricist, whose career spanned some 40 years, like his younger brother George Gershwin, Ira was an indifferent student, but became fascinated by popular music, and particularly the lyrics of songs. He began writing seriously in 1917, sometimes using the pseudonym “Arthur Francis,” and had a number of minor successes, including the score for the stage show, “Two Little Girls in Blue” (music by Vincent Youmans). In the ’20s and ’30s he was closely associated with his brother, collaborating on numerous Broadway shows such as “Primrose” (with Desmond Carter), “Tell Me More!” (with Buddy DeSylva), “Tip-Toes,” “Lady, Be Good!”, “Oh, Kay!”, “Funny Face,” “Rosalie,” “Treasure Girl,” “Show Girl” (with Gus Khan), “Strike up the Band,” “Girl Crazy,” “Pardon My English,” “Let ‘Em Eat Cake,” and “Porgy and Bess.” From those productions came some of the perennial standards of American popular song.

Despite the brothers’ prolific output, which resulted in hits such as “That Certain Feeling,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Do-Do-Do,” “‘S Wonderful,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, “I’ve Got a Crush On You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Embraceable You,” and so many more, Ira Gershwin found time to write lyrics for other composers. Among these collaborations were “Cheerful Little Earful” (from the stage show “Sweet and Low,” with Billy Rose and Harry Warren), “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block,” “You’re a Builder-Upper,” “Fun to Be Fooled,” and “What Can You Say in a Love Song?” (from the revue “Life Begins at 8:40,” with Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg), and “I Can’t Get Started,” “He Hasn’t a Thing Except Me,” and “Island in the West Indies” (from the revue “Ziegfeld Follies of 1936,” with Vernon Duke). In 1931, the brothers collaborated on the score for the Broadway show, “Of Thee I Sing,” which became the first musical to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Ira and George Gershwin with Guy Bolton.

Just before George died in 1937 from a brain tumor, he worked with Ira on the movies A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (“A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It”), SHALL WE DANCE (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”), and THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES (“Love Is Here to Stay,” “Love Walked In”). Ira finished the score for the latter film with Vernon Duke, and in the years immediately following his brother’s early death, wrote very little. When he eventually resumed work, he teamed with Kurt Weill on the Broadway musicals “Lady in the Dark” (1941), which starred Gertrude Lawrence, with Danny Kaye (“My Ship,” “Jenny,” “This Is New,” “Tchaikovsky”), and “The Firebrand of Florence” (1945), and worked on other stage shows with Aaron Copland (“North Star,” 1945) and Arthur Schwartz (“Park Avenue,” 1946). He also wrote the lyrics for several films, among them the outstanding scores for COVER GIRL, with Gene Kelly (“Long Ago and Far Away,” “Make Way for Tomorrow,” “The Show Must Go On,” “Put Me to the Test,” with Jerome Kern), A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland (the unforgettable “The Man That Got Away,” “Gotta Have Me Go with You,” “It’s a New World,” with Harold Arlen), and THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (“My One and Only Highland Fling,” “Shoes with Wings On,” “You’d Be Hard to Replace,” with Harry Warren).

Ira was an indifferent student, but became fascinated by popular music.

Ira Gershwin

Born: December 6, 1896
Died: August 17, 1983
Key Shows
  • "Funny Face"
  • "George White's Scandal"
  • "Girl Crazy"
  • "Lady, Be Good!"
  • "Lady in the Dark"
  • "Life Begins at 8:40"
  • "Of Thee I Sing"
  • "Oh, Kay!"
  • "Porgy and Bess"
  • "Tip-Toes"
Related Artists
  • Harold Arlen
  • Fred and Adele Astaire
  • Ray Bolger
  • George Gershwin
  • Moss Hart
  • E.Y. "Yip" Harburg
  • George S. Kaufman
  • Bert Lahr
  • Ethel Merman
  • Kurt Weill
Several of George and Ira Gershwin’s stage shows were adapted for the screen, and a collection of their old numbers formed the score for the multiple Oscar-winning AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951). In 1959, Ira published a delightful collection of his wonderfully witty and colloquial lyrics, entitled LYRICS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS. He retired in the following year, occasionally working on lyrics of past successes when they needed refining or updating for revivals of the most popular Gershwin shows. Ten years after his death in 1983, some of his most popular lyrics were still being relished in the New York and London productions of “Crazy for You,” a rehash of the Gershwins’ 1930 hit, “Girl Crazy.”

There was a full house in December 1996 when a gala concert was held at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the centennial of Ira’s birth. Stars such as leading Gershwin authority Michael Feinstein, Debbie Gravitte, Vic Damone, Rosemary Clooney, and Maureen McGovern were there, as was Burton Lane, Ira’s only living collaborator. Lorna Luft led an all-star cast in the British tribute, “Who Could Ask for Anything More!”, at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

THE GERSHWINS, R. Kimball and A. Simon
THE GERSHWIN YEARS: GEORGE AND IRA, Edward Jablonski and Lawrence D. Stewart

Source: Biographical information provided by MUZE. Excerpted from the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC, edited by Colin Larkin. © 2004 MUZE UK Ltd.

Photo credits: Photofest and the Library of Congress