Joe Vass is back to indulge his fascination with the Gershwins. Vass earned an Ivey Award for his 2011 production of “The Soul of Gershwin,” which focused on George, the famous composer. His new show, “Words by … Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook,” brings to light the lesser-celebrated Ira, who had a long and fruitful career as a lyricist — with kid brother George and several others. It opens Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
“It seemed like there was a missing story there,” Vass said. “Because George was the great composer, he gets and deserves a lot of credit. Not so much is said about Ira.”
Vass’ show about George Gershwin originally was called “Gerswhin the Klezmer,” and it brought to light the strong influence of Jewish and Yiddish folk songs on the composer. It opened at Park Square in 1999 and returned several times. By 2011, the title had changed and Vass snagged the Ivey for musical direction with his band, Klezmerica.
Vass developed the Ira Gershwin show, then let producers know he was open for business. David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Rep, nibbled on the bait so Vass took his keyboard out to San Diego. The two of them tuned and tweaked it, and put the show up for 31 performances.
Ellenstein will direct the Park Square production, which features Ari Hoptman as Ira Gershwin. Singers Jennifer Grimm and T. Mychael Rambo stand by to give voice to the music, and Vass will again lead a combo, from the piano bench.
With his brother, Ira Gershwin wrote such standards as “The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” He was part of the writing team that won the Pulitzer Prize for “Of Thee, I Sing,” and he was lyricist with DuBose Heyward for “Porgy and Bess.” Ira did not work for three years following George’s death in 1937, but he re-emerged to work with Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill. He died in 1983 at age 86.
“People don’t necessarily think of Ira and what he did to make a memorable song — the range of material and emotions he could express,” Vass said. “He would suit what needed to be written for the character and for whatever the emotional significance of the story was.”