Joseph Vass first encountered the music of George Gershwin as a young piano student. "It appealed to me a lot, in part because he was an American," he says.
At the time, conventional wisdom had it that Gershwin took classical music and merged it with African-American influences. As Vass's experience deepened, he discovered other influences from the heady, rich stew of early 20th-century, including traditional Jewish klezmer music.
All of these ideas grew into a show tracing Gershwin's deep musical roots, which returns home to the Park Square Theatre this month in The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer.
In the remount of Vass's work, originally titled Gershwin the Klezmer, Michael Paul Levin plays Gershwin, who takes us through his influences with the help of Maggie Burton, Prudence Johnson, and T. Mychael Rambo, along with musical help form the band Klezmerica.
Over the years, Vass has added to the piece, evolving it from its original state. "We've added some nuance and additional music. There's a six-piece band instead of a five piece," he says. "The essence is still the same. It's still Gershwin on stage telling the story of his music and the music of the great American songbook."
The show has humble beginnings. Originally, Vass brought together a band and several singers to present a concert version in a church in St. Paul. "Hundreds of people were there, and Peter Moore [the production's director] came up and said, 'This would be great in the theater.' He had one suggestion. It was a kind of lecture at the time. 'Instead, why not have Gershwin tell the story himself?' We turned it from a concert into a play," Vass says.
No matter which version, the reaction to the piece has always been strong. "People are there to hear great music performed by terrific musicians, but the story is the extra thing. That story -- of how the music grows and develops -- makes it distinct. People connect to that. They will listen to these differently after they see the show," he says.
Much of the success, of course, goes back to Gershwin's timelessness as a composer. "That the music was just good doesn't hurt, but there was an extra dose of originality. It doesn't sound like other people's music. He wanted to write music that would bring things together like a melting pot, and it makes for a distinctly American kind of music."
The show includes plenty of music by Gershwin, including collaborations with his brother. "We also have gospel and klezmer styles of music, so we look at all these different things that he drew on, and the journey he took to transform it with some kind of alchemy into something special," Vass says.
IF YOU GO
The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer
Previews start Thursday Opens December 15, and runs through January 1