A Fitting Tribute
As guardians of Ira Gershwin’s estate, Michael and Jean Strunsky are keeping the spirit of the famed lyricist – and that of his brother George – alive and well.
By Wally Hays
To walk into Michael and Jean Strunsky’s office is to visit a museum devoted to all things Gershwin. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with show and movie posters, plaques and awards, original music book covers, and a wide variety of art created by the famous fraternal musical duo of Ira and George Gershwin. Shelves are bursting with books about the pair and their works and other mementoes from their lives such as their original Grammy, Tony, and Olivier Awards. For a musical nerd like myself—one who was practically raised by the brothers Gershwin, George M., and Irving Berlin—there’s a profound feeling that you’ve entered a holy space when the elevator doors open and reveal the amazing collection.
Michael and Jean Strunsky represent Ira Gershwin’s estate—a task that requires as much creative firepower as it does business prowess. For Michael, PORGY AND BESS as a musical began nearly 25 years ago at a dinner conversation with the acclaimed English director, Trevor Nunn who had directed the opera over two summers and was the first to take Porgy off of his cart and allow him to stand. Over the next two decades Michael and Jean put in countless hours of work to oversee the creation of a Broadway style musical that both honored the legacy of George and Ira while making their work assessable to the public in a way it had never been done before. What finally resulted was a musical that showcased the rich, complex music and silenced any critics weary of changes to the iconic opera.
Among the artifacts and relics that are most eye opening at the Strunsky’s office is Ira Gershwin’s 1932 Pulitzer Prize that he won for writing the book to OF THEE I SING—which happened to be the first musical comedy to win the award. Michael told me that since composers did not receive Pulitzers for their work at the time—Ira was the lyricist while George was the composer—Ira told his younger brother that he would refuse the prize unless George was awarded one as well. In what family members later recalled as the one yelling fight between the loving brothers, George demanded that Ira accept the award on their behalf. Ira begrudgingly relented but had it hung on his bathroom door where it remained until his death in 1983. Michael worked to get George his Pulitzer and in 1998, the great composer finally received the posthumous award which he so deserved.