A typical theater review should contain just enough plot information to give the reader a feel for the show while not giving the plot away and revealing any spoilers. It is also necessary to introduce the plot in a way that is breezy and engaging and not dry. The same rule should apply to books about plays or musicals. With that in mind, one kind of theater book I have absolutely no interest in reading is a collection of very long plot synopses. (Anyone with the need to check up on a given musical’s plot can go to Wikipedia. That’s what it’s there for.)
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music (published by Norton) is a pretty long book, coming in at 499 pages (not including the introduction and endnotes). An unabridged audio version lasts approximately 20 hours. And a significant amount of its content consists of Crawford giving exhaustive and exhausting, scene-by-scene plot summaries of Gershwin musicals such as Lady, Be Good, Girl Crazy, and Of Thee I Sing. A summary of Porgy and Bess is so long that it takes up multiple chapters.
But what is perhaps most beguiling of all about this is the fact that the plot of a 1920s musical comedy such as Oh, Kay! is the least interesting thing about it and the dullest way to approach it. There is a reason why the Gershwin musicals of the 1920s and 1930s are now converted into “new” musicals (i.e. Girl Crazy became Crazy for You, Funny Face became My One and Only, Oh, Kay! became Nice Work If You Can Get It): the original books are dated and flimsy by today’s standards.
Crawford is a musicologist, historian and professor best known for his expansive knowledge of early American music. In the book’s introduction, he explains that he first got involved with Gershwin by doing a lecture about the racial problems presented by Porgy and Bess (an issue that became apparent all over again a few months ago with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production). Somehow or other, he ended up writing a Gershwin biography, even though he acknowledges in the introduction that there are plenty of Gershwin biographies already in existence.
Given his background in musicology, Crawford could have easily written a book focused solely on Gershwin songs and orchestral compositions. Not surprisingly, a good deal of the book consists of technical musical analysis (something that I personally do not have the background or education to appreciate but others certainly can). Instead, he has written a long-winded, superficial and dry biography.
In addition to the plot summaries, Crawford also quotes extensively from newspaper reviews. For instance, he will go on and on describing a given city’s critical response to the latest Gershwin orchestral work. He also quotes at length from correspondence, including a series of love letters between Gershwin and Adele Astaire. His recitation of basic biographical facts is so clunky that it removes fascinating tidbits and historical developments of flavor and excitement. His guiding thesis – that Gershwin successfully melded jazz with classical music – is not exactly original thinking.
Crawford also provides no insight into the role of Gershwin’s music today, which is especially surprising considering how Gershwin’s songs are now considered the bedrock of the Great American Songbook and his compositions now mainstream programming for any concert hall.