One of the most intriguing works of George Gershwin is the opera, Porgy and Bess, that he wrote along with his brother Ira and African American poet DuBose Heyward. Strikingly different from other major works such as Rhapsody in Blue or An American in Paris, the musical depicts the lives of the most downtrodden. In this case the people living in a rundown neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina.
The main character, Bess, is a woman trying to escape her past as a prostitute and drug addict. She is romantically involved with a criminal named Crown, who flees after committing a murder. This in turn, leads Bess to finding acceptance and solace in the arms of a crippled beggar named Porgy. When Crown returns, the pair have to make a stand.
You can tell from this description alone how vastly different it is from the Roaring ’20s that Gershwin is so famously associated with. As those previous orchestrations were products of their time, so was Porgy and Bess which premiered in Depression-era New York in 1935.
A “folk” opera, the work was seven years in the making and inspired by DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, Porgy. Now regarded as a classic and a standard in the American operatic canon, the initial run was deemed a commercial failure with mixed reviews. The New York Herald-Tribune, for instance, said that Gershwin’s ambition to include jazz and blues into a serious operatic score was “falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed…crooked folklore and half-way opera.” The run lasted four months and Porgy and Bess languished in mediocrity for decades until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera produced the work to glowing reviews. This is when the piece secured its reputation as a classic.
It is amazing how perceptions can evolve over time, not just artistically but socially. One of the greatest merits of Porgy and Bess today, is conversely a reason for its initial short run. Gershwin was adamant that the show be entirely cast with classically trained African American singers. Of course this was a radical casting idea in 1930s America as the common practice was for a white performer to don blackface. Al Jolson, for example, had himself almost produced an adaptation with this idea in mind. Gershwin’s casting was brave and inspiring, giving work to dozens of African American performers on the mainstream Broadway circuit.
That bit of history, in addition to the composition and songwriting of the piece, have made Porgy and Bess the fixture in American pop culture it is today. We all know the songs, “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Produced all over the world, the last Broadway revival was in 2012.
Fortunately you won’t have to trek across the globe or travel to New York City to experience those songs, you can just get on down to Park Square Theatre this December. Selections from Porgy and Bess as well as Gershwin’s other timeless tunes will be featured in the show, The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer Dec 2 – 31. I hope to see you there!