Ira Gershwin never wanted to appear on stage.
But here he is anyway, telling the story of his music and his life in a new play at Portland Stage Company.
“Words By: Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook” shines a light on the man who wrote the words to many of the best-known songs in American music history. Written by contemporary playwright Joseph Vass, the play opens this week and runs through Feb. 16.
The play is a musical revue, with two singers and a four-piece band, who perform about two dozen songs that Ira Gershwin helped write, including “The Man that Got Away” from “A Star is Born,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Rhythm.”
“When people hear all these songs, I think it takes them a little by surprise,” said actor Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who portrays the shy librettist. “I don’t think most people realize how many great songs he helped write.”
Through his narration, the actor leads the audience on a trip through Gershwin’s life with song and stories. Ira opens the play by talking about his life growing up in New York, his love of writing and how he and his brother began collaborating on songs.
Ira Gershwin was not a flashy guy, and spent most of his life dodging attention. Through Vass’s portrait the audience meets a sensitive, loving and loyal man, the actor said.
“We learn about Ira through his anecdotes,” Mongiardo-Cooper said. “It’s really about his love of this work and his love of his brother.”
“Words By” also offers insight into an important piece of history of American theater. Director David Ellenstein is among those who believes that the collaboration of the Gershwin brothers resulted in the most significant contribution in the history of the American musical canon.
Ira Gershwin’s life was always overshadowed by that of his beloved younger brother, the famous George Gershwin. Ira preferred second billing to his brother, whom Ira regarded as a genius.
The Gershwin brothers were born in New York just before the 20th century, and learned to love music through frequent trips to local theaters. Ira wrote the lyrics to songs for his first musical in 1921, and began collaborating with his brother in 1924.
Their first show together was the Broadway hit “Lady, Be Good.”
They wrote music for more than a dozen shows and several films, and established themselves as a pre-eminent writing team.
Ira was devastated when George died in 1937 at age 38. It took him several years to re-emerge. But he did, and how.
He collaborated with Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen.
It was with Arlen that he helped write the music for the 1954 movie “A Star is Born,” starring Judy Garland.
He died in 1983 at age 86.
This play came about after Vass had written a play about George Gershwin, staged under the title “The Soul of Gershwin.”
A representative of the Gershwin estate saw and enjoyed the show, and suggested that a play focusing on Ira Gershwin also might be appealing. Vass developed that idea into “Words By.”
The Portland Stage production will be the third for this play. The first, in 2012, opened under Ellenstein’s direction at his home theater, North Coast Rep in California, where he serves as artistic director. Mongiardo-Cooper also starred in the the Calfirornia premiere.
It moved to Minneapolis, where Ellenstein also directed, and now is in Portland.
Vass, the playwright, plans to attend opening night on Friday, Ellenstein said.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: