Porgy and Bess
In September 1925, a novel by DuBose Heyward was published, describing a moral tale about a place called Catfish Row in South Carolina. The novel had taken its inspiration from a Negro cripple, named Samuel Smalls, who got around in a goat cart in the Charleston area. The novel was an instant success.
In 1926, Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, started to work on a play that would be based on the novel, while at the same time George Gershwin contacted Heyward directly to suggest that they collaborate on an opera based on the novel.
The Heywards agreed to pursue both opportunities. The play was written and then produced by The Theatre Guild, with Rouben Mamoulian as its director. Opening night was in October 1927, just a few months before Show Boat opened on Broadway. Because Gershwin had a very busy schedule of work that he had already contracted for and because Gershwin felt he needed to take more time than usual to develop the score, the opera would not come to the stage for another eight years.
In the meantime, Gershwin went to see Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and Jules Bledsoe in Show Boat, both in 1927. Gershwin had already written 135th Street, Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F. In 1927, he finished work on Funny Face and then completed work on An American in Paris the following year. In 1930, two more of his Broadway shows were produced (Strike Up the Band, 1930.02 and Girl Crazy, 1930.31), followed by his Second Rhapsody in January 1931 and the December opening of the Broadway show Of Thee I Sing (1931.48).
It would not be until December 1933 that the Gershwin brothers made their first trip to Charleston to get to know the area and its people. Initially, everyone worked from home (the Gershwins in New York City and the Heywards in the Carolinas); they made great progress until George Gershwin could return south for an extended stay on Folly Island, with visits to neighboring James Island and then to Hendersonville, before returning to New York.
Casting started in early 1935, with The Theatre Guild willing to produce the opera. Mamoulian again signed on to direct. Porgy and Bess (1935.13) opened at the Alvin Theatre in October 1935. The significance of this show was demonstrated by the fact that Hollywood stars, such as Leslie Howard, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Katherine Hepburn joined Metropolitan Opera stars Lily Pons and Kirsten Flagstad in the audience. Another new era was born.
Porgy and Bess has the reputation of being one of the most controversial shows ever produced. A white author and a white composer wrote an opera about an African-American community. Right or wrong, some people object to this because they consider a white person’s viewpoint as being non-authentic.
Given the significance of Porgy and Bess for Broadway, we would like to share with you the reaction of one of our team members who has viewed the movie and listened to a number of recordings:
“I instinctively knew that Robbins should not play dice with Crown; I wept with Serena; I was sure that Porgy could defend himself against Crown; I was devastated when Bess weakened and left with Sportin’ Life; and I prayed that Porgy could make it all the way to Harlem to rescue Bess. I have never experienced quite the same involvement with a cast nor experienced the range of emotions that went through me that summer in 1959.”
Looking back to the opening of the original opera, little did the original cast realize that in less than two years from opening night in 1935, Gershwin, age 38, would die of a brain tumor. Broadway had lost one of its greatest contributors of all time.
As with Show Boat, so with Porgy and Bess–everything changed again on Broadway with this 1935 opera and yet nothing changed; by and large, composers wrote the same type of songs after October 1935 as they had written prior to that date. With maybe one exception.