Nice Work If You Can Get It may be a brand new Broadway musical, but its origins date back to the early 1900s. When young Israel Gershowitz’s parents bought him a piano, they had hoped he would excel at his lessons. He didn’t. To Israel’s relief, his little brother Jacob took a liking to the instrument instead. Thanks to that piano, the Gershowitz brothers—better known as Ira and George Gershwin—made Broadway history.
From 1924 and 1936, the Gershwin brothers collaborated on more than a dozen Broadway musicals. Although the George and Ira were 26 and 28, respectively, when they wrote their first musical Lady Be Good, Ira began dreaming up song lyrics as early as sixth grade, crediting a school lesson about “varying pronunciations of the word neither as planting the seed for the song ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,’” according to Howard Pollack in George Gershwin: His Life and Work. At 15, George quit school and worked as a “song plugger,” earning $15 a week playing sheet music at customers’ request.
Although George died before his 39th birthday, the Gershwin brothers collaborated on a rich array of Broadway musicals and films, including Tip-Toes, Delicious, Pardon My English, The French Doll, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, The Show Is On, My One and Only, Treasure Girl, Shall We Dance, Strike Up the Band, Porgy and Bess and Oh, Kay!, creating a remarkable repertoire of timeless Broadway standards.
Someone to Watch Over Me
In 1926, the Gershwins’ musical comedy Oh, Kay! premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. Oh, Kay! follows the adventures of bootlegger Lady Kay (named after the Gershwins’ friend, composer Kay Swift), who attempts to hide cases of alcohol in the Long Island mansion of wealthy playboy, Jimmy Winter. Oh, Kay! opened on November 8, 1926, starring Gertrude Lawrence in the title role and Oscar Shaw as Jimmy. Oh, Kay! marked the debut of the hummable hit “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which became a jazz standard performed by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and even Sting.
Critics lauded Oh, Kay! as a rip-roaring musical treat. “Like a Sears-Roebuck catalogue, Oh, Kay! has everything,” stated the The Telegram. The production was a hit on Broadway, running for 256 performances.
Who Could Ask For Anything More?
Seventy years after Oh, Kay!'s debut on the Great White Way, playwright Joe DiPietro was commissioned by the Gershwin estate to write a new musical featuring hits by the late songwriting team. After striking musical revue gold as the co-writer of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, DiPietro set to work on They All Laughed (borrowing the title from a Gershwin song in the film Shall We Dance).
"They gave me an old show that was written in 1927 called Oh, Kay! and said, ‘Take the germ of this idea and do what you want,’” DiPietro told Broadway.com. The writer was permitted to use any song in the Gershwin catalogue, except those from Porgy and Bess. “That would be very weird putting ‘Bess, You Is My Woman’ in this show,” DiPietro quipped.
DiPietro’s revised libretto contained a revised Prohibition-era plotline: A rough-and-tough female bootlegger named Billie Bendix saves playboy Jimmy Winter from drowning on the beach, then hides booze in his basement. Starring Marla Schaffel as Billie and James Ludwig as Jimmy (pictured above), They All Laughed premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House on June 28, 2001, directed by Christopher Ashley.
Next stop? Broadway. To bring the new Gershwin tuner to the Great White Way, Joe DiPietro looked no further than director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall. After seeing her Tony-winning revival of The Pajama Game in 2006, DiPietro concluded that Marshall had the creative eye to bring a show featuring Gershwin classics to life—and the feeling was mutual. “Joe DiPietro has written this wonderful, funny and witty book,” Marshall told Broadway.com. “You’ve got these vivid characters…singing these Gershwin songs. It gives [the book] this kind of ballast.” As the production’s new director, Marshall hoped to capture the musical's “romance and beating heart.”
Under Marshall’s direction, the musical underwent several pre-Broadway workshops, readings and revisions, briefly under the title Heaven on Earth (now the name of a fictional Broadway musical on TV’s Smash), and later Nice Work If You Can Get It (from a Gershwin song originally featured in the film A Damsel in Distress). Broadway vets Harry Connick Jr. and Sutton Foster starred in developmental readings of the musical, but the roles of Billie Bendix and Jimmy Winter eventually went to three-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara (who starred in Marshall’s The Pajama Game) and two-time Tony winner Matthew Broderick (The Producers), respectively.
“I didn't write this for [Broderick], but I told him...'In retrospect, it feels as if I wrote it for you,'” said DiPietro. “And if there's a better leading lady in the business [than O'Hara], I don't know who that is.”
I've Got to Be There
Throughout the rehearsal process, Di Pietro and Marshall added songs from the Gershwin catalogue to best highlight the humor and heartwarming love story between O'Hara and Broderick. "I listened to every Gershwin song there was, and I listened to many versions of them, ” DiPietro told Broadway.com. “I picked songs that I thought fit the characters and had the plot spin the songs in a delightful way. Every time you hear a song, you hear it in a way that's a little different than you'd expect.” The musical now features “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “S’Wonderful” and, of course, “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
Nice Work If You Can Get It opens on April 24 at the Imperial Theatre—on the very same stage where Oh, Kay! premiered 86 years prior. “It's is about finding your joy,” Marshall said. “The characters let loose and break the rules and do what they wanna do. Hopefully it inspires people to find their own joy, too.”