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Eva Gauthier playbill for "Recital of Ancient and
Modern Music for Voice,
Nov. 1, 1923,
New York City
"Stairway to Paradise" (often referred to by the first line of its
refrain, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (instead of the shorter, published title) was written for the 1922 edition of the musical revue George White's Scandals, which opened on Broadway, August 28, 1922, and closed, November 11, of the same year, running for eighty-nine performances. At this point in his career, George Gershwin had already had his initiation into the life of a Broadway songwriter having written individual songs that were
interpolated, along with the songs of others, into revues and shows; having created the better part of a score for an entire show, Half Past Eight, which never got out of previews in Syracuse; and, finally, having produced the full score for a show, La La Lucille, that ran on Broadway from May 26 - October 11, 1919.
Gershwin had also already bathed in the limelight of songwriting fame, though, perhaps ironically, not directly through Broadway but via the extraordinary success of "Swanee" (1919), for which he wrote the music and Irving Caesar the words, with no show or revue in mind. "Swanee" did make its way by a somewhat circuitous route into two Broadway productions (See the Cafe Songbook page for "Swanee" for details). This led, still in 1919, to Gershwin being hired by producer George White to write the music for the first edition of his revue, Scandals, a gig that continued through five editions of the show ending in 1924. This series of revues was intended to rival Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies, which in fact it did. Gershwin's biographer Edward Jablonski writes, "So it was that the 'Swanee' explosion found him with a fairly well-rounded education in the ways and mores of the music business and the musical theater . . . , which afforded him the chance to pick and choose [his project, and made him] ready for Broadway" (Jablonski, p. 41). This readiness was vividly demonstrated in his score for the 1922 Scandals, which included "Stairway to Paradise." (for a brief but worthwhile summary of George Gershwin's early career, see John S. Wilson's introduction to The Gershwins.)
Near the beginning of his career as a lyricist, Ira Gershwin, George's older brother, more often than not, chose to write under a pseudonym, most commonly Arthur Francis -- "Arthur" after the third Gershwin brother and "Francis," after their sister. He too had had his forays onto Broadway before joining up with George to form probably the most brilliant songwriting brother act in the history of American musical theater.
In his book Lyrics on Several Occasions, Ira (who shared lyrics credit with Buddy De Sylva for "Stairway to Paradise" and for the 1922 Scandals revue as a whole) relates the back story of "Stairway." George and Ira had written a song, never published but familiar to Buddy De Sylva, titled "New Step Ev'ry Day." Buddy remembered the song and suggested to Ira that they revive it for a scene in George White's Scandals (1922 edition) on which De Sylva and George were working. Ira was flattered to be asked, and, as it happened, he and George were having dinner with Buddy at his Greenwich Village apartment soon after. After dinner they got to work on rewriting what had been a "simple ditty" into a full fledged song. After several hours they had "Stairway to Paradise." Ira writes:
The new song had a complicated, for those days, twenty-four-bar
verse, replete with sixteenth notes and thick chords, plus a
refrainwith key changes.
Ira didn't think he would receive anything more than a credit in the program for "Stairway to Paradise" figuring the difficulties of its music would prevent it from being published (sheet music then being the key to making money for songwriters); but to his surprise it was chosen for publication, and when the bands took to it far more than the songs for Scandals that were written with commercial success in mind, Ira wound up making $3500. That was, he wrote, "enough to support me for a year" (Lyrics on Several Occasions, pp. 294-296, paper-bound Ed.)
"Stairway to Paradise" was first performed as the first act finale to the 1922 Scandals where it stopped the show. The finale was titled "The Patent Leather Forest" (an impressive and surprising production number with dancers clad in patent leather, with the song being sung by all the principal members of the cast, which included producer (and, by earlier trade, dancer) George White himself. The orchestra was led by Paul Whiteman. George Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack notes that the "daring and brilliance" of the number was "rendered with such panache . . . that years later Gershwin referred to the performance as 'one of those thrills that come once in a lifetime'." When the song was
interpolatedinto the London production of another show, For Goodness Sake, in 1923, it was also sung by a group of the principles, which included a young brother and sister duo, George's already long time friends, Fred and Adele Astaire. (Pollack, pp. 266-269).
"Stairway to Paradise"
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, reocrded September 1, 1922
"Stairway to Paradise as performed by Georges Guétary (who sings the
versein French) and dancers is from the 1951 film An American in Paris, directed by Vincent Minnelli, which included a score replete with songs by the Gershwins from all periods of George's career. Though very different from the original 1922 production in Scandals, this production number resembles the original in several ways: both were grand productions, both included lots of chorus girls, and both featured spectacular stairways that were ascended by members of the casts. George himself describes the 1922 number as follows: "Two circular staircases surrounded the orchestra on the stage, leading high up into theatrical paradise or the flies, which in everyday language means the ceiling. Mr. White had draped fifty of his most beautiful girls in a black patent leather material which brilliantly reflected the spotlights. A dance was staged in the song and those girls didn't need much coaxing to do their stuff to the accompaniment of Whiteman's music" (The Gershwins, p. 34).
In 1923, "Stairway to Paradise" was sung by Eva Gauthier in a New York City recital of "ancient and modern music" including songs by classical composers as well as by Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern. The recital received a mixed response from both audience and critics, but overall the popular "jazz" songs held their own against the classical repertoire, even with the snobbier members of the audience as well as the many critics in attendance. Gershwin accompanied Gauthier for the popular songs and aware of the controversial nature of the program introduced several bars of "Secularized" into his playing of "Stairway to the Stars," which was appreciated by many in the audience who flashed knowing smiles when they heard it. (For more on the recital, see the sidebar on the Cafe Songbook page for "Swanee," another Gershwin song sung by Gauthier.)
Howard Pollack explicates the musical structure of "Stairway to Paradise" and demonstrates how that structure is connected to the theme of ascension to heaven:
versealone is extraordinary, a twenty-four measure trip around the tonal universe, slipping and sliding through various keys-- each a symbolic step upward to paradise -- until it finally arrives at the
chorus's dominant harmony, a thrilling preparation to the high-stepping chorus, with its dramatic octave leaps and its prominent blue notes.
Pollack connects the song to jazz through the 1922 Paul Whiteman recording of "Stairway to Paradise," noting that it climaxed "in an animated final chorus that approached New Orleans jazz" (Pollack, p. 269).
In the concluding chapter of his book, Gershwin His Life and Work, Pollack uses "Stairway to Paradise" as one of several examples of Gershwin's "oft-noted ability to convey a sense of joy, even ecstasy" in his work as well as in his life. Pollack quotes Gershwin's friend S. N. Behrman (American writer for stage, screen and The New Yorker), who thought that "among his friends, Gershwin stood 'almost alone among them for possessing an almost non existent quality: the quality of joy'" (Pollack, p. 705).
Although many songwriters of popular music during the early twentieth century wanted to graduate from writing songs for a revue, to writing songs for book musicals, the form of musical theater that came to dominate Broadway as the twentieth century progressed, having its songs
integratedinto the plot in a way that moved the story forward. The revue, however, was the dominant form for the first three decades of the century. Writing for revues, such as the George White Scandals, was easier because it did not require that the lyrical content of the song to be
integratedinto a plot that sustained itself for an entire show. The songs did not have to move the action very far along if at all. The revue was simply a series of skits, each of which was built around a single song.
Gershwin, however, was an exception. He felt, as Ruth Leon explains, that "the revue format was the right showcase for his talents." And, she goes on to say, "He was correct." This was despite the fact that most of the stuff he wrote for the George White revues of 1919 through 1924 was "journeyman rather than brilliant." It was the exceptions to this lesser material, according to Leon, that proved George right, what Leon calls his "pearls" and "diamonds" of the period, most emphatically the two songs that became standards: "Stairway to Paradise" and "Somebody Loves Me." Writing for the Scandals was the "completion of his education" preparing him for a full fledged career in Broadway musical comedy (Leon, p. 36).
Leon also uses "Stairway to Paradise" as an example of Gershwin's pivotal role in the development of jazz and blues in American popular music because of his use of the blue note in it. She is quick to point out that Gershwin did not invent the blue note as some have suggested because it had been present in African American music "since African chants first hit the new world with the slave trade," as well as in Jewish liturgical and Klezmer music. But the way of integrating the blue note into the conventional western musical scale, in what became known as the blue-note scale, was at the heart of Gershwin's music as it was at the heart of jazz and blues, at least when it got written down. It was to this element of the development of jazz and blues that Gershwin was central.
Alec Wilder, in his classic study, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950,"acknowledges that most Gershwin aficionados consider "Stairway to Paradise" the "first true beginning of the songwriter's style and career as a theater writer"; and also, along with "Swanee," his first real foray into music that was associated with jazz as defined by the popular music critics of the day. Wilder himself, however, calls it differently. He credits the above response to the "non-jazz atmosphere of the musical theater of the early twenties" which "must have thrilled listeners familiar with the more polite melodies of Friml and Romberg." Gershwin, on the other hand, Wilder points out, used notes "which had been virtually the early jazz players' and blues singers' private property." This he suggests would have been "delightfully shocking to the average theater goer." Wilder certainly didn't consider himself that and recalls finding "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" stiffly contrived and synthetic" -- in a sense, the antithesis of jazz, yet still containing its building blocks.
Click here to read the lyrics for "Stairway to Paradise."
Lyricists Ira Gershwin and B. G. De Sylva begin with a
versethat extols dancing by addressing "All you preachers / Who delight in panning the dancing teachers" delivering a message to those clergymen who would inveigh against the dance, actually preaching against having a good time, the bedrock philosophy of The Roaring Twenties. The lyric's message is that dancing, "the Steps of Gladness," are "The quickest way to Paradise" and the most virtuous thing one can do is to "build a Stairway" to it "with a new step "ev'ry day." The lyric is, in fact, a reverse sermon delivered by a member of the congregation, or better yet the congregation itself, to the pastor whose voice demands temperance when it comes to dancing; it is a lyric that foreshadows Johnny Mercer's sermon in "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" from twenty-two years later, words that express the parallel notion that "You got to spread joy up to the maximum / Bring gloom down to the minimum." For Gershwin and De Sylva "joy" is most compellingly expressed by dancing, a form of entertainment that had, by 1922, become so often considered as inappropriate by society's behavior code enforcers as to be seen as sinful -- as in the Black Bottom, Charleston, etc. and so became fodder for many a Sunday sermon. The song can be seen an the anthem of the era, a defiant counter-sermon urging action against the gloom in life by asserting,
I'll build a Stairway to Paradise,
With a New Step Ev'ry day.
I'm going to get there at any price;
Stand aside, I'm on my way!
How perfect a prognostication of the unstoppable (until the crash) pursuit of the hedonistic joy of the Twenties -- where "step" suggests both a step on the staircase to heaven as well as a series of ever-changing dance steps used to get up there, dance steps which are at once condemned and sanctioned from on high.
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The Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet: Selected Recordings of
"Stairway to Paradise"
(All Record/Video Cabinet entries
include a music-video
of this page's featured song.
The year given is for when the studio
track was originally laid down
or when the live performance was given.)
(*indicates accompanying music-video)
Notes: "Stairway to Paradise" was first performed as the first act finale to the 1922 George White Scandals where it stopped the show. The finale was titled "The Patent Leather Forest" (an impressive and surprising production number with dancers clad in patent leather, with the song being sung by all the principal members of the cast, which included producer (and, by earlier trade, dancer) George White himself. The orchestra was led by Paul Whiteman. The Whiteman recording on the video (below left) is not from the show but the recording Whiteman and his orchestra made on Sept. 1, 1922. Video: (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
Notes: the 1945 Decca sessions recorded on the new unbreakable 12 inch disks include along with "Stairway to Paradise" Gershwin songs "My One And Only" with Bobby Hackett on cornet, "Oh, Lady Be Good," "The Man I Love" and "Swanee"
(Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
1957 Sarah Vaughan
album: Sarah Vaughan Sings
same track as on album referenced above
Notes: Sarah sings the verse on Hal Mooney's arrangement -- with his orchestra, Jimmy Jones (piano). Capital Recording Studios, New York (March 20, 1957-April 25, 1957). ". . . Sarah came into the studio unrehearsed and didn't even know many of the songs. She really created the album on the spot. It all has a wonderful feel to it, aided by Hal Mooney's evocative arrangements and Mercury's loving engineering. A gem forever." (from an Amazon customer review).
(Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
Notes: "Giordano and members of his band treat the music with respect and often perform note-for-note from original arrangements or recordings. Just compare the Nighthawks' arrangement of "I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise" with the 1922 recording by Paul Whiteman (forgetting Rufus Wainwright's vocal for the moment). It's uncanny! However, where the 1922 Whiteman recording suffers from the tinny sound of acoustical recording, Giordano's Nighthawks burst forth in full-range, stereo sound" (from Amazon Reviewer "Gimpy" Peach Johnson). Video: View on Cafe SongbookMain Stage above. (not the same track as on the album) (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)