Gershwin Go-To Rob Fisher Constructs Scores for Lady, Be Good! and An American in Paris
The eminent musical director discusses the search-and-rescue process of re-creating two very old musicals.
When it comes to George and Ira Gershwin, musical director Rob Fisher is an authority. This theater season alone, Fisher has a stake in two productions that feature the tunes of the legendary songwriting duo: the New York City Center Encores! revival of their 1924 musical Lady, Be Good! and the brand-new stage adaptation of the 1951 film An American in Paris. Fisher takes on similar duties for both: reconstructing the original orchestrations and conducting for the former; arranging and adapting the score for the latter.
"Nobody's got credentials like me," Fisher says with a laugh. "I was in the right place at the right time, with certain key connections I made along the way." After he arrived in New York in 1978, he worked on the first-ever revival of the 1933 flop Let 'Em Eat Cake, which in 1987 led to his conducting Of Thee I Sing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, under the guidance of noted conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. In the late 1990s he served as the artistic advisor of Carnegie Hall's two-year centenary celebration, toasting George and Ira's 100th birthdays. "It's a lifelong thing," he says.
Lady, Be Good!, running from February 4-8, is a charmingly elaborate story about three sets of lovers. While the song list includes now-legendary tunes like "Fascinating Rhythm" and the title number, not even a piano score of the musical exists from its original run. "The only thing musically we have that are truly authentic are the full scores for about six numbers," he notes. "We know from that exactly the size of the orchestra and what it was made up of, and the style of writing." In a similar vein, he works from recordings. "George made several recordings playing the piano for [original stars] Fred and Adele [Astaire] and I use those like a bible. If George was playing it and they were singing it, I assume everybody was happy with that phrasing and those notes."
The Encores! show will feature a 30-piece orchestra and two pianos in an effort to show the audience what the show might have sounded like on opening night. At the Palace Theatre, An American in Paris will have a 19-member orchestra, which is just one more than the minimum number of musicians required at that theater by union regulations. Fisher's work on that show, which played a sold-out tryout run in December in the City of Light, was more of a collaborative effort with book writer Craig Lucas and director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
To explore the romance between a young American soldier and a beautiful French woman in more depth than the film, "[We] devised the through line for the characters and the musical line through it all, knowing that a lot more would be danced than a normal Broadway musical. There are three big storytelling ballets, with some of the best dancing ever to have been on Broadway." As underscoring for the ballets, Fisher turned to George Gershwin's concert music, specifically the "Concerto in F," "Second Rhapsody," and the "Cuban Overture" to go along with the film's "American in Paris" ballet.
Unlike Lady, Be Good!, which already has a full score of 17 numbers, bringing An American in Paris to the stage provided the opportunity to add in several songs. Joining a tune stack that includes "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," and "Our Love Is Here to Stay" are "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "The Man I Love" (a song, funnily enough, from the score for Lady, Be Good!), among others. There are many considerations when putting a list like this together. "One," Fisher notes, "is what's been in all the other Gershwin put-together shows. Audience expectations are to hear a few hit Gershwin songs. Between My One and Only, Crazy for You, and Nice Work If You Can Get It, you have to repeat some. But we're trying not to do all the same stuff."
Ultimately, the proliferation of the Gershwin "put-together" musical is born out of necessity. "Their shows would be difficult to produce today because they're so old," Fisher concludes. "The books don't have a commercial feel about them." Which is why Lady, Be Good! is a perfect fit for Encores!, becoming the earliest musical the organization has presented in its history. As for An American in Paris, Fisher was shocked by how good the word of mouth was, considering the Paris tryout was presented in English, with French supertitles. "They'd never seen a reaction like this in France. Multiple curtain calls every night. The run sold out after the invited dress rehearsal based on word of mouth. I wouldn't expect New York to behave quite like that, but I'm very hopeful that it's going to get a unique reaction here too."