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Gershwin's LA LA LUCILLE Returns to the Stage After 100 Years

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Gershwin's LA LA LUCILLE Returns to the Stage After 100 Years

For the first time in over a century George Gershwin's very first musical, La La Lucille, will be performed - not on Broadway as it was in 1919 - but in the intimate Studio Theatre at Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP) in Sturgeon Bay. This riotous, fast-paced farce about a married couple who plot to become temporarily divorced in order to claim an inheritance, opens Thursday, July 25 and runs through September 1st. When the scheme goes awry, hilarity, hijinks, and tap dancing ensue in this not-to-be-missed show.

La La Lucille is brimming with Gershwin melodies that haven't been heard in one hundred years, as well as some that have never been performed. The more amazing story, however, is that much of the original music from this show was lost. It is only through the tireless efforts of composer/director James Valcq (co-Artistic Director at TAP) who has restored and reconstructed the complete score, that La La Lucille will be seen (and heard) again, exactly 100 years later.

It all started with a manila file folder. James Valcq was barely ten years old he found a manila file folder at an antique fair in Milwaukee that was marked 'La La Lucille Selection' by George Gershwin. Valcq already knew the name George Gershwin and was instantly intrigued. Inside he found sheet music for a lengthy overture-like medley, including the music for six songs. Curious, he convinced his mother to buy it for him and he's kept it ever since - in the same manila folder.

At the time, Valcq only knew that La La Lucille was Gershwin's very first complete Broadway score and the musical opened on Broadway in 1919. When the American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle by Gerald Bordman was published 1978 (and Valcq was 15) he learned the detailed plot synopsis for La La Lucille. But it wasn't until the Internet era that he was finally able to locate sheet music of the score's published songs. At long last, he was finally able to learn the lyrics that went with the melodies from that manila folder.

In 1982, the mystery intensified when a treasure trove of material from the golden age of theatre was discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many Gershwin shows that were thought lost were found virtually complete. Unfortunately, La La Lucille was not one of them. It seemed all that remained of Gershwin's first musical was the seven published songs, two orchestrated numbers in full score at the Library of Congress, and the complete script (containing all the lyrics) in the research archives of the New York Public Library.

Fast forward to several years ago, when Valcq realized that 2019 would be the 100th anniversary of La La Lucille's Broadway debut. Inspiration struck and he began to plan how to reconstruct and restore a performable version of the show - one that could be produced at Third Avenue Playhouse. It was a daunting, yet challenging undertaking.

Valcq's first task was to visit the New York Public Library, where he and Bob Boles (the other co-Artistic Director at TAP) photographed every page of the script in order to complete a 'feasibility' study to determine its stage-worthiness. They were delighted to discover it was a very funny Feydeau-style farce. Together they deemed the show viable and agreed it could work on the stage at Third Avenue Playhouse.

Assembling the score proved to be another matter. Vlacq possessed that handful of the published songs from the manila envelope, but the remainder of the music was missing and presumed lost. The photographed script provided the lyrics for the opening choruses, ensembles, 'situation' numbers, and finales, but there was no music. Anywhere. What to do?

Valcq, a self-proclaimed, amateur Gershwin scholar, was determined to see the project through. "I have a fairly sturdy working knowledge of how Gershwin constructed his show scores - thanks in large part to having access to numerous reconstructions done in the wake of that Secaucus find in the 1980s. I set myself to the task of locating every possible piece of Gershwin music published between 1917 and 1922 - the years just before and after La La Lucille." (All of Gershwin's music from this time period is in the Public Domain.)

Valcq's plan was to find the right music to fit all the orphan lyrics in the La La Lucille script. However, there were very few instances where a La La Lucille lyric would graft onto a Public Domain Gershwin song and make sense. Valcq found he needed to meld the melodic contour from one song with the harmonic structure from another, the accompaniment pattern from a third song, and the countermelody 'fill' material from a fourth, and by alchemy create a "new" Gershwin song to fit the lyrics.

Confused? Valcq has an analogy that helps explain it: "Imagine you find a trunk filled with pieces of fabric your grandmother used to create a quilt that has since fallen apart. You decide to sew the pieces together. You don't know what the original quilt looked like, but you take the pieces you have and stitch them together in a way that makes sense. Is it your grandmother's quilt? No. Did your grandmother create everything that comprises the quilt? Absolutely."

During this process, Gershwin blogger Mike Morris generously shared some of his own finds from the Library of Congress. Incredibly, one item was the La La Lucille orchestral scores, which simply needed to be reunited with its lyric. "It was also through Mr. Morris that I acquired a sketch (in Gershwin's hand!) of an unknown and unpublished melody simply labeled Nov. 29, 1921. This little gem just needed its accompaniment idiomatically filled out to provide a lilting opening to Act Two!" Valcq recalls.

To round out the remainder of the score, Valcq interspersed a number of early Gershwin songs in their entirety, as a way to give a voice to some of the song-free characters and situations.

Now, two years after his centennial brainstorm (and many years after that antique fair find), La La Lucille will be seen - and heard - again for the very first time in 100 years right here in Sturgeon Bay. "This has truly been a labor of love," Valcq reflects. "I hope we do George proud."

Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP) is Door County, Wisconsin's only year-round professional theatre. Founded in 2000, TAP's mission is to entertain and educate by provoking thought, laughter, and tears. Facilities include the 250-seat mainstage as well as the 84-seat Studio Theatre. Led by co-Artistic Directors Bob Boles and James Valcq, TAP produces riveting performances of contemporary and classic plays, musicals, and even opera, bringing audiences face to face with powerful stories by creating the most intimate theatrical experience possible.


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