Our History: The Ever-Enduring 'Porgy and Bess'
Monday, 13 February 2012 04:00
"Porgy and Bess" is one of America's most beloved musicals, even now experiencing a revival on Broadway, with incandescent actress Audra McDonald in the lead role. But the musical has a storied history, including a wealth of African-American artists who have made its songs their made its songs their own.
Here's a look at the highlights of the history of "Porgy and Bess."
GENESIS: "Porgy and Bess" began as an "American folk opera" conjured by the talented Gershwin brothers, who became Broadway legends. It was based on a novel by white author Dubose Heyward and remains his best known work. A sickly child with little interest in formal education, Heyward was a South Carolinian who nonetheless developed an interest in literature and started writing. Eventually, Heyward achieved enough financial success through a poetry institute and literature that he was able to write full-time.
His interest in black South Carolinians was likely spurred by his mother, Janie. A widow, she became interested in the specific culture of the Gullah people, who lived primarily on South Carolina's barrier islands and had their own culture separate from that of other blacks. She later became one of the South's most accomplished historians and writers, recording the specific speech and dialect of the Gullah. Heyward shared that interest, working among the Gullah at different points of his life. Catfish Row, where "Porgy and Bess" is set, was stand-in for Cabbage Row, a real neighborhood in South Carolina at that time.
At first, Heyward and his wife published "Porgy and Bess" as a novel in 1925, then a non-musical form of "Porgy and Bess" was mounted on Broadway to 1927. It did well, earning the couple a Pulitzer Prize. Eight years later, the Gershwins mounted it as an opera, with songs and music. Both versions are among the earliest Broadway plays to feature all-black casts, with the non-musical version becoming the first Broadway play ever to do so.
SYNOPSIS: Porgy is a physically handicapped beggar and Bess a drug addict who lives with a vicious dockworker, Crown. When Crown kills someone, Bess takes refuge with Porgy and they fall in love. The local drug dealer, Sportin’ Life, still has an interest in Bess, but Porgy runs him off. At a picnic that she attends alone, Bess is raped by Crown and returns to Porgy distraught. Porgy eventually kills Crown, but Sportin’ Life feeds Bess drugs and convinces her to run off with him. At the end, Porgy heads to New York to find his love.
REACTION: Writer Langston Hughes gave the play his support, saying that Heyward brought the characters in Catfish Row alive, but critics and a modern look at the show contend that it is rife with stereotypical elements. It took until 1976 for it to be viewed as a real opera when the complete score was performed by the Houston Grand Opera. Despite having being performed all around the world to international acclaim, it's still considered racist and stereotypical by many.
PRODUCTIONS: "Porgy and Bess" has been performed all over the world as an opera and was made into a movie in 1959 starring Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Brock Peters. Problems plagued the production, including a fire, and Otto Preminger replaced the original director. Harry Belafonte flatly turned down the role of Porgy, and despite the lack of black roles in major motion pictures at the time, all of the movie's eventual cast members accepted the roles with reluctance - except for Sammy Davis, Jr. The film was a commercial disappointment and was removed from Atlanta theaters when it angered black filmgoers there.
Unhappy with the final film, the Gershwin estate, with whom the rights reverted, have rarely allowed it to be seen in its entirety and rarely permits screenings, nor has it been allowed to be on DVD, VHS or any other format. The film’s one 35mm print remains in the UCLA archive library. The Broadway versions have fared better, though the opera's initial run in 1935 closed quickly. It played again in 1942 and 1953, doing better each time.
In wartime Europe, "Porgy and Bess" was done with all or mostly white casts. After a 1952 international tour starring opera singer Leontyne Price and Maya Angelou, it languished for some years because of the widely held view that it was racist and stereotypical. In the '70s, the Houston Opera Guild mounted a performance. In 1985, the Metropolitan Opera House staged a production, and in 2006, "Porgy and Bess" headed back to London.
In 2011, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" (pictured) was staged on Broadway, starring McDonald and David Alan Grier. African-American Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan Lori-Parks adapted the book to better reflect African-American audiences.
MUSIC: What has been the least controversial about about "Porgy and Bess" has been its music. Its songs - especially "Summertime," but also "My Man's Gone Now," "It Ain’t Necessarily So" and "I Loves You Porgy" - have been covered by several contemporary artists. Fantasia is the most notable of the recent performers as her rendition of "Summertime" contributed to her win as 2004's "American Idol."
Here are some of the best performances of songs from the opera.
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