Sunday October 10, 2021’s Smile of the Day: “Porgy & Bess”
On this Day:
In 1935, George Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” opened on Broadway, New York.
Porgy and Bess is an English-language opera by American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name.
Porgy and Bess was first performed in Boston on September 30, 1935, before it moved to Broadway in New York City. It featured a cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring artistic choice at the time. After an initially unpopular public reception, a 1976 Houston Grand Opera production gained it new popularity, and it is now one of the best known and most frequently performed operas.
The libretto of Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black street beggar living in the slums of Charleston. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer. The opera plot generally follows the stage play.
In the years following Gershwin’s death, Porgy and Bess was adapted for smaller-scale performances. It was adapted as a film Porgy and Bess in 1959. Some of the songs in the opera, such as “Summertime”, became popular and are frequently recorded.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the trend has been toward productions with greater fidelity to Gershwin’s original intentions. Smaller-scale productions also continue to be mounted. A complete recorded version of the score was released in 1976; since then, it has been recorded several times.
In the fall of 1933 Gershwin and Heyward signed a contract with the Theatre Guild to write the opera. In the summer of 1934 Gershwin and Heyward went to Folly Beach, South Carolina (a small island near Charleston), where Gershwin got a feel for the locale and its music. He worked on the opera there and in New York. Ira Gershwin, in New York, wrote lyrics to some of the opera’s classic songs, most notably “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Most of the lyrics, including “Summertime”, were written by Heyward, who also wrote the libretto.
Gershwin’s first version of the opera, running four hours (counting the two intermissions), was performed privately in a concert version in Carnegie Hall, in the fall of 1935. He chose as his choral director Eva Jessye, who also directed her own renowned choir. The world premiere performance took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935—the try-out for a work intended initially for Broadway where the opening took place at the Alvin Theatre in New York City on October 10, 1935.
During rehearsals and in Boston, Gershwin made many cuts and refinements to shorten the running time and tighten the dramatic action. The run on Broadway lasted 124 performances. The production and direction were entrusted to Rouben Mamoulian, who had previously directed the Broadway productions of Heyward’s play Porgy. The music director was Alexander Smallens.
The leading roles were played by Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. Brown was a 20-year-old student at Juilliard, the first African-American vocalist admitted there, when she read that George Gershwin was going to write a musical version of Porgy. She wrote him and asked to sing for him, and Gershwin’s secretary invited her. Gershwin was impressed and began asking Brown to come and sing the songs as he composed them for Porgy. The character of Bess was originally a secondary character, but as Gershwin was impressed with Brown’s singing, he expanded the part of Bess and cast Brown. When they had completed rehearsals and were ready to begin previews, Gershwin invited Brown to join him for lunch. At that meeting, he told her, “I want you to know, Miss Brown, that henceforth and forever after, George Gershwin’s opera will be known as Porgy and Bess. Influential vaudeville artist John W. Bubbles created the role of Sportin’ Life; the role of Serena was created by Ruby Elzy.
After the Broadway run, a tour started on January 27, 1936, in Philadelphia and traveled to Pittsburgh and Chicago before ending in Washington, DC, on March 21, 1936. During the Washington run, the cast—as led by Todd Duncan—protested segregation at the National Theatre. Eventually management gave in to the demands, resulting in the first integrated audience for a performance of any show at that venue.
In 1938, many of the original cast reunited for a West Coast revival that played in Los Angeles and at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Avon Long took on the role of Sportin’ Life for the first time, a role he continued to play in many productions over a long career.
In the summer of 1934, George Gershwin worked on the opera in Charleston, South Carolina. He drew inspiration from the James Island Gullah community, which he felt had preserved some African musical traditions. This research added to the authenticity of his work.
The music itself reflects his New York jazz roots, but also draws on southern black traditions. Gershwin modeled the pieces after each type of folk song which the composer knew about; jubilees, blues, praying songs, street cries, work songs, and spirituals are blended with traditional arias and recitatives.
The most fundamental influences on the composition and orchestrations in evidence throughout Porgy and Bess, aside from those of American jazz and black religious music, are the European composers whose music Gershwin studied and absorbed during his tutelage with the likes of Edward Kilenyi, Rubin Goldmark, Charles Hambitzer, and Henry Cowell. Cowell’s key contribution, however, may have been to suggest that Gershwin study with Joseph Schillinger, whose influence, if not as important as his followers claim, is notable throughout. Some commenters have believed they heard similarities to melodies heard in Jewish liturgical music in Gershwin’s opera. Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski heard a similarity between the melody of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the Haftarah blessing, while others hear similarities with Torah blessing. In a sociological survey of Jewish American culture, the author remarked, “One musicologist detected ‘an uncanny resemblance’ between the folk tune ‘Havenu [sic] Shalom Aleichem’ and the spiritual [sic] ‘It Take a Long Pull to Get There’ from Porgy and Bess.”
The score makes use of a series of leitmotifs. Many of these represent individual characters: some of these are fragments of the opera’s set numbers (Sportin’ Life, for example, is frequently represented by the melody which sets the title words of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”). Other motifs represent objects (such as the sleazy chromatic “Happy Dust” motif) or places, notably Catfish Row. Many of the through-composed passages of the score combine or develop these leitmotifs in order to reflect the on-stage action. Particularly sophisticated uses of this techniques can be seen after the aria “There’s a boat dat’s leaving soon for New York” in act 3, scene 2. The opera also frequently reprises its set numbers (these might be considered extended Leitsektionen). Notable in this respect are the reprises of “Bess, you is my woman now” and “I got plenty o’ nuttin’ ” which conclude act 2, scene 1. The song “Summertime” is stated four times alone.
The duration of the work is about 180 minutes (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
I am obsessed with Gershwin musicals on Broadway, but that might just be a stage…
Second, a Song:
“Summertime” is an aria composed in 1934 by George Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. The lyrics are by DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy on which the opera was based, although the song is also co-credited to Ira Gershwin by ASCAP.
The song soon became a popular and much-recorded jazz standard, described as “without doubt … one of the finest songs the composer ever wrote … Gershwin’s highly evocative writing brilliantly mixes elements of jazz and the song styles of blacks in the southeast United States from the early twentieth century”. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has characterized Heyward’s lyrics for “Summertime” and “My Man’s Gone Now” as “the best lyrics in the musical theater” (per Wikipedia).
Norah Jones (born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar; March 30, 1979) is an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. She has won multiple awards and her albums have sold more than 50 million records worldwide. Billboard named her the top jazz artist of the 2000s decade. She has won nine Grammy Awards and was ranked 60th on Billboard magazine’s artists of the 2000s decade chart.
In 2002, Jones launched her solo music career with the release of Come Away with Me, which was a fusion of jazz with country, blues, folk and pop. It was certified diamond, selling over 27 million copies. The record earned Jones five Grammy Awards, including the Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. Her subsequent studio albums—Feels Like Home (2004), Not Too Late (2007), and The Fall (2009) all gained platinum status, selling over a million copies each. They were also generally well received by critics. Jones’s fifth studio album, Little Broken Hearts, was released on April 27, 2012; her sixth, Day Breaks, was released on October 7, 2016. Her seventh studio album, Pick Me Up Off the Floor, was released on June 12, 2020. Jones made her feature film debut as an actress in My Blueberry Nights, which was released in 2007 and was directed by Wong Kar-Wai.
Jones is the daughter of Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar and concert producer Sue Jones, and is the half-sister of fellow musicians Anoushka Shankar and Shubhendra Shankar (per Wikipedia).
Here is Norah Jones performing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“The Gershwin legacy is extraordinary because George Gershwin died in 1937, but his music is as fresh and vital today as when he originally created it.” – Michael Feinstein
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky