Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of George and Ira Gershwin, means to introduce family's music to new generation

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Todd Gershwin, the great-nephew of George and Ira Gershwin, has embraced his family name and made their music his business.

As a trustee of the family trusts, which administer copyrights for George Gershwin's music, the next-generation Gershwin, 35, has handled musical theater, orchestral, movie and television projects that use the diverse songbook created by composer George and lyricist Ira.

It was his idea to repurpose Gershwin tunes from shows such as "Strike up the Band," "Of Thee I Sing," "An American in Paris" and "Porgy and Bess," plus the Hollywood years and symphonic works, and create something "upbeat and fun" that could play around the country.

"So much of theater is built for Broadway, with huge budgets, and I've found that so much of that never gets to the rest of the country outside of New York and L.A.," Mr. Gershwin said. "So why not create something specifically with the rest of the country in mind that would be able to play pretty much any city, anywhere, with that great upbeat, fun kind of mission behind it? That was really how it came about, and fortunately we hooked up with Ray, and he had a great concept."

"Ray" is Ray Roderick, writer-creator of " 'S Wonderful," the world-premiere show opening in previews tonight at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown. Mr. Gershwin is among the producing partners in the show with Pittsburgh CLO.

Before he got the green light, Mr. Roderick said that last fall, he, with his wife, Karyn Quackenbush (now off-Broadway in "Love, Loss and What I Wore"), and Jim Stanek (who will appear in "The Producers" for CLO this summer), performed a run-through for producing partners and members of the Gershwin family in a New York apartment.

"It's one thing to hear a pitch, but it's another thing to actually see it and hear the songs sung through; it was really exciting," Mr. Gershwin said. "And that very first time we got together, we were able to see he was going down the right path, and it was really special."

Q: How did the partnership with CLO come about?

A: One of my producing partners, Eva Price, had been working with [executive director Van Kaplan] and the CLO on a different project and thought that Pittsburgh CLO and he specifically would be a great partner, because we were looking for a producing partner to help create and launch the show. And Pittsburgh CLO's reputation is as good as any in the country, not only in terms of producing shows but in creating new work and education. Then I met Van in Manhattan and I felt really comfortable that not only was he the right person to work with us, but the CLO and the idea of the cabaret itself is just the perfect venue to launch this with.

You get back to my original idea of being able to have something fun and upbeat, well, what's more enjoyable than being able to sit and have a glass of wine or dinner in a comfortable small setting and experience this great show, in a 250-270-seat venue?

Q: I understand that the stage had to be expanded to accommodate the choreography in " 'S Wonderful." Was that ever an issue?

A: The CLO's involvement and energy and resources make up for any challenges, and so we said, we'll make whatever challenges that we may face work based on the fact that it is such a special place and such a great team.

Q: In Pittsburgh, the only live music will be a pianist. Is that how the music will continue when the show tours?

A: There's something really special about just the piano. It almost becomes George Gershwin as the pianist; the piano almost becomes like a cast member. And at the CLO, the sound of the piano alone is tremendous. On the road, we'll have to see, as it evolves, how it makes sense. In the era of big bands, of digital music, the idea of having a Gershwin musical with the piano as a focus makes it even more special.

Q: Is it your hope that audiences will discover or rediscover this music?

A: One of the most important objectives to me is to see that new generations are exposed to the Great American Songbook in general and that the show in Pittsburgh and as it travels, that a younger generation sees it and then they may say, "Oh, I've heard that song but I didn't realize it was a Gershwin song." And it's also a way to fall in love with the songbook for the first time.

Q: You've been involved in many facets of entertainment. How does this project fit into your mission statement?

A: I do things on all different scales, and to me this is as exciting as anything I've ever worked on. ... For people who love the music but maybe a Gershwin show has never come to their town before, that's just as rewarding [as introducing the music to newcomers], to finally say you don't have to come to New York, you don't have to go to a big city, we're going to come to you.

Q: I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but do you have a favorite Gershwin tune, or maybe I should ask, a favorite from this show?

A: There's no one song ... I guess for this show I should say " 'S Wonderful." You know what's great about the Gershwin catalog? It's so diverse it goes from great love songs, to upbeat songs like 'I Got Rhythm' to 'Porgy & Bess' to 'Rhapsody in Blue,' and the fact that so many genres and styles can be in one show is unique. So I guess that dodges your actual question. ...

I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by this music and history, and being exposed to such great music is an honor and a privilege. And I happen to love it, which makes this job easier.


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