Friday, March 13, 2009

A Gershwin Friday: How Long Has This Been Going On?

"How Long Has This Been Going On?" was originally written by the Gershwins as a duet in the 1927 Broadway musical Smarty, which had a book by Robert Benchley of the Algonquin Round Table and New Yorker fame (and grandfather of Jaws novelist Peter Benchley.) After unsuccessful previews in Philadelphia, the show was rewritten (Benchley departed), revised, and renamed, and "How Long Has This Been going On?" was dropped. The reconfigured show, now called Funny Face, wound up being another huge hit for the brothers Gershwin and for brother and sister stars Fred and Adele Astaire.

As it turns out, though, Florenz Zeigfeld liked "How Long Has This Been Going On?," and it reappeared a few months later in his production of Rosalie, which already had compositions by two other famous songwriters: composer Sigmund Romberg and lyricist P.G. Wodehouse. Under pressure to finish the show in time, Romberg suggested that the Gershwins write half of the show, which they did. To fit "How Long" into the new show, Ira changed the lyrics a bit, transforming it from a duet to a solo piece.

When MGM made a film version of Funny Face in 1957, they dropped all but four of the original songs from the Broadway production.* But they brought back "How Long Has This Been Going On?" after it had been dropped from the show 30 years earlier.

Audrey Hepburn sings the solo version in the film, and while she may not have a great or powerful voice, she was . . . Audrey Hepburn. It's one of the more poignant songs by the Gershwins and I think she captures the wonder, longing and sadness well.

And here's a beautiful instrumental version by the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, with Kenny Drew on Piano, the awesome (and awesomely named) Danish double bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Alex Riel on Drums.

* It wasn't unusual for Hollywood to butcher Broadway musicals. When MGM turned Rosalie into a film in 1937, they weren't satisfied with music by hacks like George and Ira Gershwin or Romberg and Wodehouse. They dropped ALL of the songs and brought in Cole Porter to do entirely new ones.

[CORRECTION: In my original post, I said Robert Benchley was Peter Benchley's father. He was his grandfather.]


Liam said...

Nice versions. So how many musicals has Audrey Hepburn been in? More than this (which I wasn't familiar with) and My Fair Lady?

I always wondered if there was a connection between the two Benchleys. One wishes they had written a collaboration in which a shark shows up at the Algonquin round table and is brilliantly and wittily insulted by Dorothy Parker.

cowboyangel said...

You weren't familiar with Funny Face? Mon Dieu! Fred Astaire and Audrey together in a Gershwin musical remixed into a 1950s MGM Technicolor extravaganza based on the life of fashion photographer Richard Avedon and taking place mostly in Paris. You guys should watch it sometime. It's not on the level of some of Fred's best musicals, but it's very good. It might squeak into the Top 10. And, hell, it has Fred and Audrey in a Gershwin vehicle moved to Paris!

No, I don't think she did any other film musicals. But she did sing Edith Piaf in Sabrina ("La Vie en Rose") and her heart-melting rendition of ""Moon River" in Breakfast at Tiffany's." And seems like she sang in Paris When it Sizzles, though I can't remember now.

BTW, I messed up in my original post: Robert was Peter's GRANDfather. With Nathaniel Benchley in between.

One wishes they had written a collaboration in which a shark shows up at the Algonquin round table and is brilliantly and wittily insulted by Dorothy Parker.

That's brilliant.

crystal said...

Did she sing in Sabrina? Can't remember.

cowboyangel said...

Yes, she sang "La Vie en Rose" (see comment above for a link) and a bit of "Yes, We Have No Bananas."