Lady, Be Good! embodies several milestones which make it memorable for more than just its foot-tapping entertainment value. It was the first full-length collaboration between George Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira Gershwin -- a partnership which gave birth to an unprecedented number of deftly crafted standards -- as well as the Gershwins' first collaboration with the already popular brother-and-sister dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire. It was around the Astaires' phenomenal talents that Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson crafted the fluffy situation comedy, full of snappy dialogue, that formed the basis for Lady, Be Good!, and it was for them that Gershwin developed a style of parlando song for non-singers -- a sort of syncopated patter song -- which threw his brother's smartly articulate lyrics into bold relief ("I'd Rather Charleston" is a fine instance, while "Fascinating Rhythm" is perhaps the supreme example). Indeed, the Astaires became the visual incarnation of the score's visceral pull. Finally, in Lady, Be Good! jazz and blues-inflected melody melded with musical comedy with unprecedented expansiveness, richness, and rhythmic compulsion. "Fascinating Rhythm," one may well say!
As familiar as Gershwin's multi-faceted style has become, it is difficult to grasp just how electrifying its still-potent elements must have been in their time. Gershwin, after all, had just completed Rhapsody in Blue for Paul Whiteman's Aeolian Hall "experimental" concert of jazz crossover compositions given on February 12, 1924; he began putting Lady, Be Good! together for its Philadelphia tryout in October of that year.
The show opened on Broadway at the Liberty Theatre on December 1, running for 330 performances -- a smash hit for its era -- throughout which the make-up of the score continued to change. Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, as the butler, not only performed Gershwin's "Little Jazz Bird" but several of his own numbers -- when he left the show, they went, too. Likewise, the duo piano team of Arden and Ohman were allotted several routines in which they improvised on Gershwin's tunes; they, too, eventually decamped. At this point, the notion of a "score" seems problematic -- as Tommy Krasker found when he prepared a performing edition of Lady, Be Good! in 1991. Remarking that "manuscripts indicated how much the original production varied from night to night ... as the performers (in true vaudeville fashion) adjusted, shaped, and stretched their material," Krasker concludes that "Lady, Be Good! was a perpetual work-in-progress; its only constant was its success."
But between what remains and what has been reconstructed with a fair degree of authenticity, Lady, Be Good! looms as a crossover landmark as revelatory and fertile in its way as Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (1928) was to prove for European composers. And though few can quote the source, it has given us such enduringly palpitating standards as "Hang On to Me," "So Am I," "Oh, Lady Be Good," "The Half Of It Dearie, Blues," "Swiss Miss," "I'd Rather Charleston," and, of course, the ubiquitous "Fascinating Rhythm."