Crazy for You, The new GERSWIN® musical comedy

By Megan Diehl

From the moment of its premiere, Crazy for You made a lasting mark on the landscape of musical theatre. In his review of the original Broadway production in 1992, Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote, “When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolution began last night.” In an era of musical theatre dominated by Cameron Mackintosh Broadway blockbusters imported from across the pond (Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon), the inventive “new” Gershwin musical stood out as a shining icon of a glorious golden age of American entertainment.

Crazy for You contained all of the affability of a nostalgic musical comedy classic, woven together from hits and neglected pieces of Broadway history and highlighted by the new book by Ken Ludwig and the stunning choreography by Susan Stroman. Defined by its intense charm and comedic escapades, audiences reveled in the familiar Mickey-and-Judy, boy-meets-girl plot devices, heightened by elaborate Fred-and-Ginger eleventh-hour dance numbers, with plenty of “let’s put on a show” gumption.

At the heart of the new hit, however, was the memorable score packed with indelible American standards from the composer and lyricist team of George and Ira Gershwin. The pair of brothers who grew up poor on the Lower East Side of Manhattan became one of the signature songwriting teams of the century with musical comedy hit shows such as Lady, Be Good!, Oh, Kay!, Funny Face, and Strike Up the Band.

Originally born Jacob and Israel Gershovitz, the Gershwin brothers were sons of immigrant parents who fled St. Petersburg, Russia on the same wave of czarist pogroms that brought many to American shores at the turn of the 20th century. George Gershwin dropped out of school at the age of 15 and had by that time secretly learned to play the piano in his family home. He rose to success as an arranger and composer, and his Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris would go on to define a new era in American music. Ira Gershwin was more bookish, attended college, and even temporarily wrote under a pseudonym, not wanting to capitalize on his brother’s fame.

Upon teaming up, the Gershwins would go on to write a series of meteoric Jazz Age successes, and Of Thee I Sing would become the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. They remained partners until the unexpected death of George at the age of 38, the height of his career. Ira Gershwin once remarked, “I always felt that if George hadn’t been my brother and pushed me, I’d have been contented to be a bookkeeper.”

For playwright Ken Ludwig, the opportunity to create a new Gershwin musical came “out of the blue” when Texan multi-millionaire Roger Horchow, known for The Horchow Collection luxury mail order catalogue, called him with the opportunity. Ludwig’s 1990 hit comedy Lend Me a Tenor was currently running on Broadway, and Horchow, who had acquired the rights to the Gershwin songs, was looking for a playwright to construct a story around them. Ludwig had never written a musical before, and graciously turned down the opportunity. After two more refusals, Horchow flew to DC, where Ludwig lives and works, and finally persuaded him.

Crazy for You weaves together a deep catalogue of Gershwin hits and hidden gems in a substantial reworking of the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy (the production that made stars out of newcomers Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers), and incorporates songs from seven other Gershwin shows. Horchow originally proposed a simple reworking of Girl Crazy, but Ludwig found the script somewhat unfit for adaptation as it originated in a time before the popularization of the “book musical,” prior to the era of Kern, Rodgers, and Hammerstein.

“The challenge with the musical is making sure that the songs tell the story; that they aren’t just dropped in and just take an emotion and sing about that emotion,” says Ludwig. “They need to forward the story.” The new structure he created took hummable tunes like “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” out of their old settings and transported them into invigorated characters and show-stopping dance numbers.

For Ludwig, the most attractive element of the Girl Crazy story was the Easterner protagonist who goes west to find a new life and fall in love while he’s at it. In Crazy for You, Bobby Child is a discontented banker who is sent to Deadrock, Nevada, to foreclose on a property that is home to a failing theatre in a deserted mining town. Bobby has big dreams of being a hoofer on the Broadway stage and rather than closing down the theatre, ends up revitalizing it, not to mention falling in love with his leading lady.

“Absolutely, but I wasn’t conscious of it at the time,” says Ludwig of the similarities between him and Bobby Child. Once upon a time, Ludwig was a young artist who reluctantly attended Harvard Law School at the behest of his parents. While there, he happened to meet and form a relationship with legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, who encouraged his love of music and theatre. “I was a music geek who had to make a living. That’s why I practiced law for years, but it was a day job. I had to make a living, but my heart was in the theatre.”

Ludwig’s love for theatre eventually found its way into a prolific career as one of America’s leading comedic playwrights. His work on Crazy for You would lead to a four-year run on Broadway, winning three Tony Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, and two Drama Desk Awards. Crazy for You continues to be performed all around the world and is rumored soon to be headed for a Broadway revival.

“I think there’s a perennial appeal to a musical that is well-constructed and tells a story in an engaging way where you become really involved in characters who you come to love,” says Ludwig.

And then of course you have the incredible music.”

With the original Broadway production hailed as “riotously entertaining,” Ludwig is confident that audiences will continue to find a much-needed release in the joyfulness of revisiting old classics.

More than just a remembrance of a beloved era of musical theatre, however, he hopes that a piece like Crazy for You will continue to delight audiences and bring them together. “It’s a chance to take a breath and look on the parts of life that make us happy.” With each new play or new production, he aims for his work to be “pushing the ball forward, just a little bit” towards a sense of a shared community. “We have to keep in touch with the things that give us joy as human beings.”

Megan Diehl (Advancement & Communications Manager) is a dramaturg, director, and writer in her 16th season with PSF. She recently obtained her MA from Villanova University with a Certificate in Nonprofit Management, and is an alumna of DeSales University.