“How Long Has This Been Going On?” was originally written as a duet by George and Ira Gershwin for a Broadway show called Smarty. It was a song for Adele Astaire and Jack Buchanan on the occasion of their first kiss. According to lyricist Ira Gershwin in his book Lyrics on Several Occasions, the musical received a lukewarm reception at the Philadelphia preview. Two weeks later the song was dropped from the show and replaced by “He Loves and She Loves” (“not as good a song as the former,” says Gershwin, “but one that managed to get over.”) In his book Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist Philip Furia says the song was dropped because it was not in the vocal range of Allen Kearns (mistakenly referred to as “Alex” in Furia’s book) who replaced Stanley Ridges in the starring role.
After many changes in the book, the music, and the cast, Smarty became Funny Face, which featured both Adele and Fred Astaire. The show opened for a successful run of 244 performances on November 27, 1927, but without “How Long Has This Been Going On?” However, Ira credits the origin of the song to Funny Face in his book. Other hits from the show included the title cut, “S’Wonderful,” “My One and Only,” and “High Hat,” which featured Fred Astaire wearing top hat and tails in a solo tap dance. “This would become his trade mark, especially in the movies,” says William G. Hyland in The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950.
Thirty years later Fred Astaire starred with Audrey Hepburn in a film version of Funny Face in which “How Long Has This Been Going On?” is sung by Hepburn and also appears as an instrumental. In the Broadway show brother and sister each fall in love with someone quite different from themselves. But in the movie Astaire is a fashion photographer who discovers a bookish waif whom he turns into a top model, and they fall in love despite an apparent age difference.
After being dropped from Smarty, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” quickly found a home. “Two months later,” says Ira, “the eliminated song, because [Florenz] Ziegfeld liked it, found itself in Rosalie. There being no spot in the show for it as a duet, it became--with a few line changes--a solo for the soubrette, played by Bobbe Arnst.” Operetta composer Sigmund Romberg and lyricist P.G. Wodehouse were in the process of scoring the Broadway production. According to David Ewen in Complete Book of the American Musical Theater, “Ziegfeld demanded the full score in three weeks, a deadline Romberg could not meet; Romberg suggested to Zeigfeld that George Gershwin be recruited for half the score.” So both of the Gershwins, Romberg, and Wodehouse contributed songs to the show.
Rosalie, starring Marilyn Miller, opened on January 10, 1928, with a book by Guy Bolton and William Anthony McGuire. The plot revolved around a princess from a mythical kingdom who comes to school in America and falls in love with a West Point cadet. The show enjoyed an extended run of 335 performances. The only song to become famous was the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On?” In 1937 when Rosalie was filmed in Hollywood, Cole Porter wrote new music and lyrics for the film which used none of the songs from the original Broadway production.
“How Long Has This Been Going On?” didn’t catch on with the public until after the show closed when Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman. Lee Wiley also recorded a fine version. In The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin editor Wayne Schneider suggests that the tenor of times may have reflected on the song’s popularity since many people in the 1920s still considered jazz “the devil’s music.” Many whites feared the infiltration of black culture into otherwise “white” music. “In this context, the blue thirds of ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ were sufficient to contaminate the entire piece in the ears of some listeners. From today’s perspective, one can see and hear those blue thirds as attractive reflections of black music encapsulated within the thirty-two-measure American popular song.”
In his book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design Allen Forte attributes the “charm and vitality” of the song to “its innovative and strategically placed harmonies” which he describes in detail. In Listening to Classic American Popular Songs Forte devotes eight pages of to an in-depth analysis of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” a song which expresses the delight experienced with a first kiss. He praises the song’s integration of lyrics, rhythm, and harmony as an example of the best songs of the period and points out George’s use of the pentatonic scale which relates back to the folk and religious music of black Americans.
As an example of Ira’s unique talent as a lyricist he cites the third line of the lyric--“Little wow, tell me now”--which introduces the end rhyme for the first word of the title, “How.” In the bridge, against the backdrop of George’s exotic chords, says Forte, “Ira gives us his all, with the erotic lyric ‘Oh, I feel that I could melt; into heaven I’m hurled’--erotic for that time, that is. Contemporary listeners did not need to call Dr. Freud to tell them what those lines implied.”
Forte concludes with this observation: “I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Ira’s two ‘learned’ references in the verse of ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’: the first to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ the second to Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (‘Nevermore’). He seemed to take great pleasure in these and in other ways mixing high-class and low-class elements.”
Sarah Vaughan recorded a definitive version in 1978, and both Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass recorded it several times. The song’s continuing popularity is affirmed by artists who have recorded it at the turn of the century: pianists Brad Mehldau (in 2001 and 2004), Bill Charlap (2005), and Ralph Sharon (2001); vocalists Kelley Johnson (1998), Janis Siegel (1999), and Karrin Allyson (2004); trumpeter Till Bronner (1996); and guitarist Frank Vignola in his 2007 Gershwin tribute.