About the Show:
Porgy and Bess is based on the novel Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward, and the play of the same name which he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy. It focuses on “African American life in the fictitious Catfish Row (based on the real-life Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s,” WK telling the story of Porgy, a crippled black man living in the slums, and his efforts to rescue Bess from her pimp (Crown) and drug dealer (Sportin’ Life).
“The opera is admired for Gershwin’s innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms.” WK “After a furiously paced apprenticeship mastering Broadway song-and-dance musical comedy formulas, from the mid-‘20s on…As early as 1922, in the one-act opera Blue Monday, Gershwin had shown a flair for drama with a confident mingling of pop, blues, and jazz, though it was unmatched by literary discrimination; and his scintillant score is undone by a ridiculous book.” AMG
Gershwin was intrigued by Heyward’s story, but other commitments prevented him from tackling the subject until February 1934. “In the course of an intense correspondence, Heyward and Gershwin, with Ira contributing lyrics, shaped the stage version into a musical conception. In June, Gershwin visited Charleston, staying for several weeks in a cottage on Ferry Island to absorb the African-American ambience from which Heyward had drawn his locale and characters. Back in New York by July 21, he continued hasty composition as he fielded new commitments and began thinking ahead to production and cast. Todd Duncan and Anne Brown were signed for the title roles, with the erratic but brilliant John W. Bubbles tapped for the central part of Sportin’ Life. Composition was completed on August 23, 1935, and orchestration by September 2.” AMG
Gershwin conceived Porgy and Bess as “an American folk opera.” WK It “featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers – a daring and visionary artistic choice at the time.” WK It was premiered in Boston on September 30, 1935 and “garnered enthusiastic notices and a 15-minute ovation, but also frightened its producers by playing over three hours” AMG Gershwin trimmed it for its October 10 opening at the Alvin Theatre in New York. AMG The shorter version “hovered between the grand opera Gershwin had conceived and an over-elaborate musical, provoking mixed critical responses. Worse, audiences thinned drastically after the opening, and the show, though it played for 124 performances, lost money.” AMG
“Gershwin considered it his finest work,” WK but it wasn’t until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera performed the complete score that it was “widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera.” WK Porgy and Bess is now “considered part of the standard operatic repertoire and is regularly performed internationally.” WK It has not, however, been without controversy as some have considered the opera to be racist. WK
Summertime , which is sung at the opening by Clara to her baby, “is by far the best-known piece from the work.” WK With more than 17,500 versions of the song recorded, it it the most-performed cover song in popular music. WK Some of the most notable versions include recordings by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Billy Stewart, who had a top 10 pop and R&B hit with his version in 1966.
Other highlights include “Bess, You Is My Woman Now, a duet between the two lovers; My Man’s Gone Now, sung by the widow of the murdered gambler; and I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin, Porgy’s joyful anthem to simplicity. The choral numbers are unfailingly appealing.” AMG Some of the more celebrated covers of songs from the opera include Sarah Vaughan’s It Ain’t Necessarily So and Nina Simone’s I Loves You Porgy, a #20 hit in 1959.
Porgy and Bess received stage revivals in 1942, 1952, 1976, 1983, and 2006. A recording of some of the songs was released in 1940 which featured the original 1935 cast. A second volume was released in 1942 which featured the cast from the revival that same year. In 1957, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald recorded an album of some of the songs. Miles Davis did the same in 1958. Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Ray Charles & Cleo Laine, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae, and Percy Faith have also recorded the songs. A soundtrack of the movie version appeared in 1959. Over the years, there have also been full-fledged recordings of the complete opera, most notably back-to-back Grammy winners for Best Opera Recording with 1976’s Decca Records version featuring Willard White and Leona Mitchell and 1977’s RCA Victor recording with the Houston Grand Opera. In 1993, a television production of Porgy and Bess was nominated for four Emmy Awards.