George Gershwin's First Musical Rediscovered After Nearly A Century

La, La, Lucille based on the book by Fred Jackson, was George Gershwin's first complete score, written when he was just 21 years old.

By: Feb. 22, 2024
George Gershwin's First Musical Rediscovered After Nearly A Century
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A Michigan researcher has unearthed compositions of George Gershwin's first musical. 

While combing through the Samuel French Collection at Amherst College last summer, Jacob Kerzner discovered a box labeled "La la [sic] Lucille, containing almost 800 pages of the complete musical orchestration for what has long been considered the 'lost' Gershwin musical. 

Kerzner's findings include parts for flute, cello, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin, cello, bass and piano, making the musical possible to perform for the first time in nearly a century.

"La, La, Lucille," based on the book by Fred Jackson, was George Gershwin's first complete score, written when he was just 21 years old. The production opened on Broadway in May 1919 and toured the Northeast in 1920 and California in 1922. 

Outside of a May 1926 regional production— featuring a young Busby Berkeley the year before his Broadway debut choreographing "A Connecticut Yankee"—there is no record of "La, La, Lucille" being produced again.

Andrew Kohler, the Alfred and Jane Wolin Managing Editor of the Gershwin Critical Edition, synopsized the plot of "La, La, Lucille": "The central couple, John and Lucille Smith, are offered a way out of dire financial straits when a lawyer informs them that John's Aunt Roberta has died and that he may inherit $2 million from her (about $35 million today)," he said. 

"The catch is that he must promptly get divorced, due to the opprobrium of Lucille having worn satin pants on stage when she was in an act with her juggler father. Hijinks ensue as the couple concocts a sham infidelity to have sufficient grounds for the divorce, after ascertaining they may remarry."

Mark Clague, editor-in-chief of the Gershwin Critical Edition and interim executive director of the U-M Arts Initiative, says "to research the art of the Gershwins is to study the words and music that shaped and soon defined American popular culture." 

"It is an incredible thrill to not just deepen our knowledge of what is already well known, but to rediscover 'lost' work that offers fresh insight into the Gershwins' creative spark," he said.

Of the original score, eight piano/vocal selections were published and four orchestrations are preserved in the Library of Congress. The rest of the music, including the overture and orchestration, was thought to be lost prior to Kerzner's rediscovery last year.

Students at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance performed some of these recovered songs, including "Somehow It Seldom Comes True" and "From Now On," in a February concert honoring the centenary of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." These performances mark the first recordings with full orchestration of these previously lost songs.

"One of the wonderful things about finding this orchestration is being able to see some of these songs that we had only heard in piano form come to life with the orchestra," Kerzner said. 

"We get to hear these fun flute lines that we hadn't noticed. We get to warm up some of these ballads with strings and we get to even see some of the changes in harmony that may not have been published in the piano-vocal, but that George Gershwin or Frank Saddler may have adjusted as they developed this show for Broadway."

"La, La, Lucille" also will get the critical edition treatment from the Gershwin Initiative, a unique partnership between the Gershwin families and U-M's School of Music, Theatre & Dance leading an international and ongoing reexamination of the Gershwins' music. 

A critical edition combines the insights of archival and historical research with careful editorial review to produce a publication that represents the authors' work in the most complete, clear and accurate form possible. There are critical editions of the plays of Shakespeare, the symphonies of Beethoven and the poems of E.E. Cummings.

Through the Gershwin Initiative, U-M scholars are granted unrestricted access to the Gershwins' handwritten musical scores, letters and compositional drafts in order to create some 50 volumes dedicated to their creative body of work.

The Gershwin Initiative released its first "Critical Edition of Rhapsody in Blue" in 2023. Upcoming Gershwin critical editions will include "An American in Paris," Ira Gershwin's 1928 European tour diary; Concerto in F, composed in 1925; the musical "Of Thee I Sing," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932; and eventually, "La, La, Lucille."

"Part of the magic of the University of Michigan Gershwin Critical Edition is that we question received wisdom, test every assumption, and assume that anything 'lost' is merely misplaced until we can find it," Clague said.



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