12/30/2012 09:12 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2013

Easy Reader: Recommending Michael Feinstein on the Gershwins and Him, Gary Marmorstein on Lorenz Hart

"To me it's about the preservation of music," Michael Feinstein writes near the end of The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in 12 Songs (Simon & Schuster, $45, 352pp., illustrations, CD).

In a way, that's the primary message he wants to get across in a book about the importance of 20th century American songwriting. As a result, his efforts come across in a text that makes a strong bid to stand alongside Stephen Sondheim's recent two-volume scrutiny of his own work in the context of prominent predecessors, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. Even more significant, Feinstein's memoir deserves a spot right next to his mentor Ira Gershwin's Lyrics on Several Occasions.

Earlier in an impassioned yet lucidly reasoned tome, written with Ian Jackman, the celebrated entertainer expounds on how to interpret meaningfully those memorable songwriters' songs worth perpetuating but are, as he sees it, at risk of fading into obscurity.

"The most important part about performing a song is inhabiting it," he states. "To do this, I believe you must know a song's history, when it was written, why it was written, who it was written for, and how it was first performed. Although we can never have perfect knowledge of a composer's intentions, learning whatever I can about original context is essential to me."

Ostensibly, what Feinstein is offering in his book is, as its title promises, a prolonged glimpse into his life as a devoted George and Ira Gershwin protegé. He discourses touchingly and authoritatively on the subject, almost but not quite disguising his commitment to songwriting history -- his tireless work as perhaps the nation's most visible song archivist.

Having discovered the brothers' work when a young Columbus, Ohio music lover, Feinstein left his hometown for Los Angeles when he was 20 to begin playing in piano bars. Through a couple of lucky breaks -- Oscar Levant's widow June was gladly involved -- he was introduced to Ira and wife Lenore (friends called her Lee) and immediately hired to organize the volumes of Gershwin memorabilia.

What he learned at the couple's knees -- Ira sweet, lovely and still mourning George's death at 38 in 1937, Lee far more caustic -- is, of course, a strong Gershwins and Me focus. The chapter on his six years with them, ending with Ira's death is, not surprisingly, the book's core. Feinstein's knowledge of Gershwiniana was such that he often knew more facts than Ira recalled correctly. "Well, you're right again," Ira once said, "but you have an advantage over me... I've only lived my life. You've thoroughly researched it."

The Ira-Michael bond often played out with Ira, increasingly house-bound -- and visited by colleagues of equal renown -- telling stories of his past and Michael at the piano (on which his idol George Gershwin had composed) going through Gershwin songs, about some of which Ira needed reminding. On his Roxbury Drive stay, Feinstein says, "I was lucky to find Ira but perhaps he was lucky to find me, too. One thing was clear: the time we spent together was a mutual tonic. It was the most electric and exciting time of my life."

Luckily for the reader, Feinstein is highly opinionated and has the wherewithal to support his contentions. That some of them are debatable is okay. For instance, he talks about the old which-comes-first-words-or-music issue and claims that "most lyricists are worried the composer is going to ruin their work or will not capture the right accent or won't be able to create the tune that gives wings to their words."

Through the great (but always feeling inferior to his genius bro) Ira, Feinstein did meet many world-class lyricists and may know their sentiments to be true, but it doesn't quite sound right. Was, for instance, Oscar Hammerstein worried that Dick Rodgers wouldn't think up a good enough melody? Also, from time to time in his astute ramblings, Feinstein cracks the sort of jokes that he nails on stage but doesn't always bring off here.

Each of Feinstein's lengthy and pithy chapters is headed by the title of a Gershwin song meant to relate to the contents that follow. He sings each of the designated songs on the included CD, accompanied by the inventive and sensitive Cyrus Chestnut. What a bonus this is. Is Feinstein, with his incomparable glorified piano-bar delivery, the greatest living George and Ira Gershwin interpreter? You better believe it.


At one point in his book, Feinstein mentions the Gershwins arriving in "an era when Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were considered to be superior writers of sophisticated songs." That sophistication is extremely well-defined by biographer Gary Marmorstein in A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster $30, 531 pp., illustrations).

Hart -- from his earliest years a pint-sized, cigar-smoking man-about-Manhattan -- was known by his peers to be tormented. Perhaps the acclaimed lyricist's words to "Little Girl Blue" are his most autobiographical outpouring and should really be known as "Little Boy Blue."

On the other hand, one outstanding description of him is Ben Hecht's: "I was never conscious of his shortness until I read about it. This was due to the way he walked -- with the bounce of an overwound toy; and to the way he stood still, head raised, face expectant, like a man about to climb a flagpole."

Marmorstein's accomplishment is blending Hecht's portrait of the man with the wounded soul behind the creative rhymes and, deeper than that, behind the unrequited longing that streaks through the songs like a cry from somewhere fathoms within him -- songs, it should go without saying, written exclusively with the far more business-like Rodgers.

Larry Hart wrote the lyrics for "Glad to Be Unhappy," but he wasn't so glad, as his cut-short life (1895-1943) attests. Driven, plagued by alcoholism, a constant delinquent in his writing with the loyal but often infuriated Rodgers, Hart's marvelous way with words eventually failed him. The cause was the one thing with which he apparently never came to satisfying terms: his homosexuality.

Here's where Marmorstein runs up against what has to be a biographer's nagging challenge. How can he -- or anyone facing the same situation -- write a comprehensive account of someone with a secret life as pronounced as Hart's, a life Hart may have felt was as much a representative, though shameful, part of who and what he was? Given that obstacle, Marmorstein does as well as anyone might.