Fourscore and seven years ago – on October 10, 1935, to be precise – a musical theater work of monumental proportions opened.
Not everyone knew that then. A mere 124 performances was the best that PORGY AND BESS could muster at the time.
The world hasn’t needed 87 years to appreciate the masterwork that the Gershwin brothers and DuBose Heyward had crafted. A 1942 Broadway revival certainly helped, as did an international tour in the 1950s. Only then was Hollywood interested; a film version was released nearly a quarter-century after the Broadway premiere.
Then, on Sept. 25, 1976, a stunning revival opened on Broadway. All six major newspaper critics raved. So did Thomas Z. Shepard, already the possessor of five Grammys (for COMPANY and RAISIN, among others), who brought the dozens of cast members and musicians into the studio. The album, still available on three CDs from Masterworks Broadway, brought Shepard his sixth Grammy, but in the Best Opera Recording category.
Indeed, this production was a full-fledged opera, unlike the controversial 2012 Broadway version. In his 1976 review, Douglas Watt for the New York Daily News wrote, “We finally have the complete PORGY AND BESS … with the recitatives and whole chunks of the score restored, the George Gershwin masterpiece stands revealed grander than ever.”
Walter Kerr in the New York Times agreed. “Now that we hear all he wrote, the characters themselves take on a stature – a size and a splendor – we have never seen before.”
His colleague Clive Barnes joined the club. “By far the best of North American operas,” he decreed.
Those opinions are quite different from the ones that many music critics expressed in 1935.
The complaints began during the Boston tryout. The music critic for The Christian Science Monitor damned with faint praise by stating that Gershwin’s music was “not insignificant.” Warren Storey Smith was more severe in the Boston Post: “(H)is score almost never rises above the level of incidental music … it never adds materially to the atmosphere created by play and production … It is not yet within Mr. Gershwin’s power to write significantly.”
Once the opera arrived on Broadway, Lawrence Gilman, music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, decreed, “The song hits scattered through his score mar it.” He topped that one by writing that the duet between Porgy and Bess was “surefire rubbish.”
Whether he meant “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” when Porgy feels he’s earned her, or “I Loves You, Porgy,” when the wayward Bess realizes that she has a good man for the first time in her life, Gilman’s harsh response makes him look quite incompetent now.
Olin Downes, the music critic for the New York Times, didn’t do any better 21 months later. For after George Gershwin had unexpectedly died, he opined that “the first act of OF THEE I SING and passages from his best light operas will rank much higher than any part of his attempted ‘folk opera.’”
Rouben Mamoulian, the director of that production, was more accurate when he said, “It took those bastards five years to realize that PORGY AND BESS was the greatest single contribution to the American musical theater.”
However, the drama critics who attended PORGY AND BESS 87 years ago were far more enthusiastic. Elliott Norton, the esteemed reviewer for the Boston Post, called it “in many ways a brilliant theatre experiment,” and “little short of a theatrical miracle” because Gershwin “has written much beautiful music; some of it so melodic and inspired that it will positively be included in the best seller lists. That best sellers could come from any opera is a miracle.”
True, Norton did say “It is a little uneven,” but that’s what Boston tryouts are for. So, 45 minutes were removed during those weeks at the Colonial. One reason “The Buzzard Song” was cut was simply to lighten the immense load carried by Todd Duncan as Porgy.
(That shaved the running time to three hours and 15 minutes.)
Norton’s bottom line was, “When it hits the clouds – and it does time and time again – it is definitely exciting and even thrilling.” He felt that Gershwin “has written an animated, vivid opera, that is as distinct of its kind and as unique as Gilbert and Sullivan.”
In New York, here too the theater critics mirrored that enthusiasm, headed by Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times. “Gershwin,” he wrote “has contributed something glorious.”
Who’d expect that Sammy Smalls, a disabled and outside-the-law South Carolina resident who actually used a goat cart to get around Cabbage (not Catfish) Row, would be the inspiration for this significant work? In the early 1920s, Heyward read a newspaper story about Smalls, and created a kinder, gentler but similarly disabled Porgy. The 1925 novel, simply titled PORGY, reached the best-seller charts, despite the sad ending in which Porgy was despondent after Bess had left him in favor of the nefarious Crown.
After Gershwin read PORGY, he approached the author and requested the rights. Heyward was about to grant them when his wife Dorothy revealed that she’d been surreptitiously turning his novel into a play. Mr. Heyward felt his first obligation was to his wife, and he began collaborating with her; Gershwin would just have to wait.
Today, we’re astonished to hear that, as the play was being readied, rumor had it that Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne would play these African Americans. (Talk about non-traditional casting!) No, that was never director Mamoulian’s intention. He also gets credit for suggesting a more positive ending: Porgy is determined to rescue Bess and cries out “Bring my goat!” Never mind that Bess is now with another man who’s able-bodied or that the trip means a 725-mile journey. He’s going.
The play opened literally eight years to the day before the opera debuted (meaning fourscore and fifteen years ago this week). It racked up 367 performances, an astonishing number for its day, and for a serious drama that centered on African Americans. Thus, it stayed on George Gershwin’s radar. As someone who had never understood why there had to be a divide between classical and popular music, he saw PORGY AND BESS as his chance to merge both.
Mamoulian signed on without hearing a note. When Gershwin played “Summertime” for him, he exclaimed “Nirvana!” For all the talk of the quiet opening solo of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” PORGY AND BESS got there first with “Summertime.”
Many assume that George’s brother Ira was sole lyricist, but “Summertime,” as well as “My Man’s Gone Now” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” were all by DuBose Heyward, who did the recitatives, too. Ira Gershwin on his own wrote “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Both collaborated on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.”
When the nation’s Bicentennial was approaching, producer Sherwin M. Goldman decided that a new production of PORGY AND BESS would be a fitting way to mark the date. Ira Gershwin, then nearing 80, was inclined to say no, but wife Leonore convinced him otherwise.
Goldman had conquered one roadblock, but there would be others. The Met, as well as the leading opera companies in San Francisco, Boston, Washington and Dallas, all turned him down. That Duke Ellington and Alvin Ailey criticized the opera for being “Uncle Tom” didn’t help.
Finally, the Houston Grand Opera said yes. But who’s to direct? Four days before rehearsals were to begin, Goldman still had no one signed. His young conductor John DeMain suggested a name known to us now: Jack O’Brien. But at this point, O’Brien’s three Broadway productions had averaged 18 performances each.
He’d do better this time. On July 1, 1976, PORGY AND BESS opened in Houston. In an era when the average musical was budgeted at well over a million, it came in for a remarkable $280,000 because of the company’s not-for-profit status. As a result, Goldman was able to bring the show to Broadway. Too bad the Uris Theatre where it played wasn’t yet known by its current name: the Gershwin.
In addition to its 1976 triumph, PORGY AND BESS had a lasting impact on the Tony Awards. It so impressed the committee that it insisted on starting a category that would honor revivals, which PORGY AND BESS won. Until we get another production just as splendid, there’s that 1976 revival cast album.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.