The Astor Theatre
“Gershwin was breaking his neck trying to starve to death.” Anonymous
New Year’s Day, January 1, 1924, New York City
For 25-year-old George Gershwin, 1924 started out with a bang. On New Year’s Day, young George had both hands full writing the music for the three-act Broadway musical Sweet Little Devil. His partner for the gig was his lyricist buddy, Buddy DeSylva. They were working tirelessly to finish up the music for this Broadway musical comedy slated to open at the 1,600-seat Astor Theatre on January 21st.
The Astor Theatre was located in the heart of the “Great White Way” at the corner of Broadway and 45th Street. Sadly, the Astor was demolished along with four other historic theaters—the Helen Hayes, the Morosco, the Bijou, and the Gaiety—to make room for the Marriott Marquis Hotel in what is now known as “The Great Theater Massacre of 1982.”
Sweet Little Devil started out with the initial title of My Dear Lady, but the producers renamed it The Perfect Lady just before its shakeout performances in Boston and Providence. It then went on to the Big Apple, opening on the 21st as Sweet Little Devil. The comedy’s circuitous title change from “dear lady” to “perfect lady” to “devil” is quite remarkable. Then again, it shines a light on the Broadway producers’ twisted thinking on what theater-goers would buy into. But let’s be honest, in New York City, Broadway tickets for a show with “little devil” in the title will outsell “dear or perfect ladies” every time, hands down!
The Gershwin-DeSylva team banged out a total of fifteen songs for this Broadway musical, three of which were chopped in the final cut. So Sweet Little Devil ended up as a final production with a dozen songs. Each song of the final dozen took hours of tweaking and polishing for any number of reasons—think, accommodating a prima donna or making the tune easier for the chorus or making it longer or shorter. You get the picture. Just for the record, Gershwin was one of the most accommodating composers in the biz. Mr. Flexibility.
Sweet Little Devil ran for 120 performances, which meant it lasted the season. At the time, that was considered a successful musical.
In the early morning hours of Friday January 4th, the seeds of change were planted in the lowly, smoke-filled Ambassador Billiards Parlor on Broadway and 52nd Street. Of all the billiard parlors in all the world, the Ambassador Billiards Parlor was about to change American Popular Music forever. JAZZ was about to become the talk of the town, America, and the world! And George Gershwin was the centerpiece of this upheaval. You may be wondering, How could this possibly happen?
At the time, George was downing beers, smoking cigars, and shooting three-cushion billiards with Buddy DeSylva (who incidentally won the game). Meanwhile, his older brother, Ira, was reading the amusement page of the Herald Tribune. Ira burst out about an announcement claiming that Band Leader Paul Whiteman was producing a concert dubbed “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The article went on to state that “George Gershwin was at work on a jazz concerto,” which the Whiteman Orchestra would play at the February 12, 1924, concert in Aeolian Hall.
George looked at the newspaper and then at Ira and Buddy and told them that this was news to him! Not only that, he said it was virtually impossible because he was way too busy with the soon-to-open Sweet Little Devil. In a few day’s time, he would be leaving for Boston for the rehearsals.
Gershwin hastily called Whiteman—who was baptized “The King of Jazz”—and told him there was absolutely no way he could work on this new project. He advised the bandleader to get back to him in six months when his schedule might see the light of day. After some back-and-forth negotiations, Whiteman and Gershwin “met in the middle.” In other words, Gershwin agreed to deliver the “jazz concerto” in less than 24 days. The Whiteman Orchestra needed rehearsal time, so the sooner the work was completed the better. As you can plainly see, George’s negotiating skills were no match against the King of Jazz. Obviously, Gershwin had never read Trump: The Art of the Deal.
To be fair, Gershwin wanted to get this gig, which meant he was ready to take on just about anything for the chance to make history. George was an ambitious young man with something to prove. The times were changing all around him. Following World War I, a new dynamic America had emerged. Prohibition, speakeasies, gangsters, and the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, ruled the day. There was a new carpe diem, live for today, ethos. The machine age and the modernism movement in art were taking the country by storm.
Gershwin wholeheartedly embraced this new modernism through his music. In fact, Gershwin and his Rhapsody in Blue would become the champion of this new America. Actually, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was the herald of The Jazz Age and The Roaring Twenties. . . . But I am getting a bit ahead of myself here.
In the first days of 1924, George hopped a train to Boston for the première of Sweet Little Devil. This train ride to Boston provided the inspiration for his Rhapsody masterpiece. He wrote:
“I was summoned to Boston for the première of Sweet Little Devil.…It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that…I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end.…I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America.…By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece.”
“As for the middle theme, it came to me suddenly, as my music sometimes does. It was at the home of a friend, just after I got back to Gotham….all at once I heard myself playing a theme….No sooner had it oozed out of my fingers than I knew I had found it.…Within a week after my return home from Boston I completed the structure in the rough of the Rhapsody in Blue.”
Gershwin said that he began writing the piece on January 7th and finished eighteen days later on the 25th—two and a half weeks! However, in a June 1926 article titled “Jazz Is the Voice of the American Soul,” which appeared in Theatre Magazine, Gershwin said, “I wrote it in ten days.” So who are we going to believe? Eighteen days or ten days? George Gershwin or George Gershwin? You decide. Either way—IT WAS REALLY, REALLY FAST!
So, upon his return to Gotham from Boston, George dove exhaustively into his newest and about to be his greatest project. George dubbed the working title of the piece American Rhapsody but changed it when his brother and master wordsmith, Ira, suggested Rhapsody in Blue inspired by Whistler’s “Nocturne in Blue and Green.” George loved Ira’s suggestion because the music had, “a dominant theme derived from the fashionable ‘blue’ or melancholy rhythm.”
Enter Ferde Grofé, Paul Whiteman’s longtime crackerjack arranger. Since the Rhapsody needed to be completed in breakneck speed and Grofé knew the ins and outs of the Whiteman Band as well as the capabilities of each and every musician in said band, he could put his masterful arranging hand on the accelerator.
Every day while living with his parents and siblings in the family’s uptown Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street apartment, Gershwin would compose several pages of his magnum opus on the upright piano in the back room. Grofé would snag the “catch of the day” and hustle off to his studio to transform Gershwin’s two piano form creation into a fully orchestrated work designed specifically for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
This exquisite dance of the two extraordinary virtuosos ended on January 25th—eighteen days from Gershwin’s’ start to finish! Remember, Sweet Little Devil premièred January 21st, a mere four days earlier.
Since Gershwin was pressed for time and knowing he was booked as the pianist for the performance, he delivered only 60% of the work to Grofé on the 25th. It’s fair to ask then, if Gershwin handed Grofé 60% of Rhapsody, what happened to the rest of the piece?
Short answer: Gershwin intended to improvise the remaining 40%. THAT’S JAZZ!
On the original final manuscript, 181 bars of the 452-bar manuscript were intentionally left blank with Gershwin’s handwritten directive “Wait for nod,” advising conductor Paul Whiteman that his piano improvisation was concluded and to cue the orchestra to resume.
Grofé sequestered himself in his studio to wrap up his orchestrating duties. He finished orchestrating the work in ten days, on February 4th, giving the orchestra a scant eight days to learn and rehearse Rhapsody in Blue, not to mention the twenty-two other pieces slated for the concert. Ergo, “An Experiment in Modern Music” featuring George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the citadel of the hoity-toity, high-culture blue bloods, Aeolian Hall, was ready for Prime Time.
George Gershwin’s January 1924 proved to be the start of one of the most momentous years of his short 38-year life. Imagine Gershwin riding the train to Boston hearing its “steely rhythms” and “rattle-ty-bang” saying, “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.”
The Astor Theatre Interior