Boston was right.
Eighty-two years ago this week – on Sept. 30, 1935 – Porgy and Bess opened to raves at the city’s Colonial Theatre.
Eighty-two years ago next week – on Oct. 10, 1935 – Porgy and Bess opened to very mixed reviews at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre.
The story of a man without the use of his legs who came to love a woman of questionable virtue would seem a risky subject for a musical, although not so much for an opera. Still, Porgy and Bess opted for Broadway instead of the Met and played a mere 124 performances.
That season, even May Wine, New Faces of 1936 and Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook ran longer.
And where are they today?
On the other hand, Porgy and Bess has been on everyone’s musical theater radar since it was redeemed by its 1942 Broadway revival. Six major New York restagings have followed, most notably the 1976 edition by Houston Grand Opera.
Its still-available three-disc cast album is merely one of 41 recordings made of the landmark score by composer George Gershwin, co-lyricist Ira Gershwin and co-lyricist/librettist DuBose Heyward. They range from formal opera renditions, Broadway productions, studio cast albums, instrumental albums and jazz riffs.
Back in 1935, though, New York newspaper men spent an inordinate amount of time and energy worrying whether Porgy and Bess was an opera or a Great Big Broadway Show. The music critics who atypically attended sniffed that it didn’t have enough serious music for an opera; the usual aisle-sitters opined that it was too highbrow for Broadway.
As The Witch snarls in Into the Woods, “Who cares?!” Is it good or is it bad?
In fact, as we all recognize now, it’s great and more than arguably the greatest of all American musical stage works.
Frank Loesser liked to say that his The Most Happy Fella wasn’t an opera, but “a musical with a lotta music.” Whatever you consider Porgy and Bess, it too has a lotta music. According to Steven Suskin’s Broadway Music, “Gershwin’s original partiturs” – meaning a full musical score showing each part on a separate line or staff – “bound and carefully preserved at the Library of Congress, are a monumental piece of art: 548 pages in a beautiful, stylish and expressive hand.”
That’s what the composer originally had. Todd Duncan, the first Porgy (as quoted in Robert Wyatt and John Andrews’ The George Gershwin Reader) related that after that Boston opening night – which ended near one a.m. – there was trouble right there in Baked Bean City.
“George didn’t want one beautiful blessed note cut,” recalled Duncan. “He and (stage director Rouben) Mamoulian and (musical director Alexander) Smallens walked in the Boston Common all night long, fighting and fussing and talking about it.”
We can understand the composer’s reluctance. He’d spent nine months alone on orchestrating the score. But cuts went in.
That Porgy and Bess ever happened is a major miracle. According to James M. Hutchisson’s 2000 biography DuBose Heyward, it started simply because Heyward (1885-1940) had read a newspaper article about Samuel Smalls, better known as “Goatcart Sammy” who roamed around Charleston, South Carolina’s Cabbage (sic) Row. Although Heyward’s friends warned him about the dubious financial success of writing “a novel on Negro life,” he spent much of 1924 writing Porgy.
Porgy. Just Porgy. No and Bess. Not yet.
Wonder if “Goatcart Sammy” ever knew that he was responsible for inspiring what would become a major musical masterpiece? As Michael Moore reminds us in his current Broadway show, “One person can make a difference.” Hutchisson called the book “the first psychologically true depiction of an African-American by a white Southerner.”
The plot was much of what we know from the opera albeit with a different ending: Porgy did not embark on a journey to New York to find Bess, but sat “in an irony of sunlight … a figure of tragic pathos, defeated.”
Porgy became a best-seller that George Gershwin bought but didn’t read … until that fateful night in 1926 when he came home from an Oh, Kay! rehearsal and couldn’t sleep.
(Well, could you have slept if you’d just heard Gertrude Lawrence sing your song “Someone to Watch over Me”?)
So Gershwin picked up Porgy, and there went the rest of the early morning. Immediately after he finished it, he wrote Heyward to say he wanted to make an opera of it.
What he couldn’t give Heyward was a timetable, so Heyward and his wife Dorothy spent their time writing a play that was again simply called Porgy. Actually, it was Mrs. Heyward who began the play, according to Mamoulian biographer Joseph Horowitz. Porgy – still no and Bess – opened on Oct. 10, 1927, which, ironically enough, was precisely eight years to the day of Porgy and Bess’ opening.
At 367 performances, Porgy was the sixth-longest running play of the season. That may not sound that impressive until you realize that the 1927-1928 season was Broadway’s biggest-ever for new plays with a full 187 (yes, 187) produced – and that doesn’t count the fifty-two new musicals or the forty-five revivals of both plays and musicals.
The Heywards’ making Porgy more of a man of action than a speculative one was far more theatrical. Now at the end of the show, we saw the poignant scene of his setting out to find Bess.
Heyward did worry that the play’s success might deter Gershwin; on the contrary, the composer told Heyward that with all that dialogue in place (much of which had come from Dorothy), he’d have an easier time of it.
Still, Gershwin composed ten other musicals before tackling Porgy and Bess – eleven if you count Strike Up the Band which he saw close in Philadelphia in 1927 and then retailored it three years later when it did make Broadway.
Meanwhile, Al Jolson – already a Broadway legend – had approached Heyward with the idea of his starring in a musical version of Porgy that he’d get Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II to write – and which he’d play in blackface. Heyward, to his immense credit, was utterly adamant that Porgy not be played by anyone but African-Americans.
It was moot, anyway, for Kern and Hammerstein stopped working together and Gershwin did get it done – with a little help from his brother Ira (and apparently none from Dorothy; why she wasn’t involved hasn’t been detailed in any books I’ve read).
The Theatre Guild was the team’s first choice, but the collaborators simultaneously submitted to two other producers. All three said yes, but the favored Guild also wanted to opt for blackface. Once again Heyward staunchly refused and the Guild relented.
Mamoulian, who’d directed Porgy to success, wasn’t interested in any musical version until he heard that George Gershwin had written it. Then he signed on without even hearing a note. Mamoulian had trouble finding the right all-African American cast – some vaudevillians of yore had trouble abandoning their presentational style – but eventually he got what he wanted.
Heyward rarely gets enough credit. Remember how the 2012 revival was called The Gershwins’ (sic) Porgy and Bess? We may assume that the appearance of Ira Gershwin means that he did most of the work; Hutchisson insists otherwise. Heyward, he reports, wrote the lyrics “with hardly a syllable changed” to “Summertime,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “Buzzard Song,” “It Take a Long Pull to Get There” and “My Man’s Gone Now.”
Ira did do some work on Heyward’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.” He always gave credit to Heyward for providing the dialogue that he took as titles for “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down.”
According to Hutchisson, “Heyward always thought that everyone was smarter or more talented.” Perhaps in this case, he was indeed the third-most talented. But there’d be no Porgy and Bess without him.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.