Rather than compose “Porgy and Bess,” what if George Gershwin had instead scored the opera “Dybbuk and Leah”?
Though the latter title is imaginary, Gershwin did start in on a Dybbuk-themed work, only to learn that the opera rights to the Yiddish play by S. Ansky had been tied down earlier by an Italian composer. Only then did Gershwin turn his talents to a “Negro,” rather than Jewish, folk opera.
This bit of musical arcanum comes courtesy of Rodney Greenberg, a prolific British producer, director, writer, pianist and historian with an encyclopedic grasp of the life and music of Gershwin.
Greenberg will bring his multimedia show, “The Glory of Gershwin,” to America for the first time with a one-night performance on Oct. 14 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
“Growing up in Manchester, I heard a Gershwin record as a kid and was hooked immediately,” Greenberg recounted in a trans-Atlantic phone call. His father was a piano teacher, who set his 3-year-old son on a high chair to start practicing his scales.
“Gershwin’s glory was that he was a genius as both a classical and a popular composer, who was equally at home on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg will illustrate the composer’s two sides through his piano interpretations, complemented by his historical collection of Gershwin slides, vintage films, piano roll recordings, music clips, audio tracks, videos of Judy Garland and others performing the master’s songs, anecdotes and even an audience singalong.
“Rodney is hilarious, skilled and passionate,” said Dale Bell, a long-time collaborator, whose Santa Monica-based Media Policy Center is presenting Greenberg’s American appearance.
“The Glory of Gershwin” is based on Greenberg’s book, “George Gershwin” (Phaidon, 2008), and follows the composer’s brilliant career from his 1898 birth in Brooklyn as Jacob Gershovitz to his death at 38 from a brain tumor.
As a youth, his parents took him to the thriving New York Yiddish theater and to synagogue, where he absorbed different Jewish musical styles.
Such youthful influences affected his later compositions, Greenberg said, with musicologists tracing popular songs such as “ ’S Wonderful” to Jewish melodies.
Gershwin’s first big break came in 1919, when Al Jolson, then at the height of his career, made the composer’s “Swanee” part of his repertoire. The song by the 21-year-old sold an incredible 2 million records plus uncounted song sheets.
Despite his fame and immense popularity, Gershwin was not immune to attacks by anti-Semites, foremost Henry Ford in his virulent weekly newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Joining in were composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who referred to Gershwin’s “gefilte fish orchestration,” and English composer Constant Lambert, who charged that “the Jews have stolen the Negroes’ thunder.”
Greenberg’s show also will pay tribute to Ira Gershwin, George’s older brother, collaborator and lyricist, who for most of his life resided in Beverly Hills.
Greenberg is a veteran of 46 years in show business, on stage, radio and television, who has produced and directed some 300 TV musicals in Europe and America as a regular on BBC in Britain and PBS in America. He won an Emmy for the NBC “Live From Studio 8H” series and produced 40 segments of the BBC’s “Masterclass” series.
During his television career, Greenberg has collaborated with such musical greats as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, André Previn, George Solti, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern.
The one-night performance of “The Glory of Gershwin” will start at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 14 at the Broad Stage of the Santa Monica Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St.
For information and tickets, phone (310) 434-3005 or visit www.smc.edu/eventsinfo.