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Porgy and Bess is an opera, first performed in 1935, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. It was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy and subsequent play of the same title, which he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy Heyward. All three works deal with African-American life in the fictitious Catfish Row (based on the area of Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s.
Originally conceived by George Gershwin as an “American folk opera”, Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in the fall of 1935 and featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring artistic choice at the time. Gershwin chose the African-American musician Eva Jessye as the choral director for the opera.
The work was not widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera production of Gershwin’s complete score established it as an artistic triumph. Nine years later, the Metropolitan Opera of New York gave their first performance of the work. This production was also broadcast as part of the ongoing Saturday afternoon live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. The work is now considered part of the standard operatic repertoire and is regularly performed internationally. Despite this success, the opera has been controversial; some critics from the outset have considered it a racist portrayal of African Americans.
The song “Summertime” is the best-known selection from Porgy and Bess. Other popular and frequently recorded songs from the opera include “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, “I Loves You Porgy” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'”. The opera is admired for Gershwin’s innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms.
Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black beggar living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer. Where the earlier novel and stage-play differ, the opera generally follows the stage-play.
2011 The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (Paulus adaptation)
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, directed by Diane Paulus, with book adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, and music adapted by Diedre Murray, was presented by the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Broadway production was produced by Buddy Freitag and Barbara Freitag. Previews started August 17, and the show opened August 31, 2011. Following Trevor Nunn’s production, the ART Porgy was the second production initiated by the Gershwin and Heyward estates to adapt the opera for the musical theatre stage. Again spoken dialogue, here written by Parks, replaced the opera’s sung recitatives. New orchestrations were created by Christopher Jahnke.
Prior to the opening, Paulus, Parks and Murray made statements to the press about the production’s primary goal being to “introduce the work to the next generation of theatergoers”. They discussed changes to the opera’s plot, dialogue and score that were being explored to make the work more appealing to a contemporary audience. In response, Stephen Sondheim wrote an editorial letter taking exception to the premise that the original opera is a flawed work that needs to be improved. Critic Hilton Als countered in The New Yorker that Sondheim had very little exposure to black culture and that the Paulus version succeeded in “humanizing the depiction of race onstage.”
The original cast included Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, Phillip Boykin as Crown, Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara, and Joshua Henry as Jake. The production began previews on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in December 2011 and officially opened on January 12, 2012. All of the major roles are played by the same cast as in Cambridge.
Early reviews of the show were positive to mixed. All praised McDonald’s performance of Bess, but critics were divided on the success of the adaptation, staging and setting. Some praised the intimate scale of the drama and the believability of the performances; others found the staging to be unfocused and the settings to lack atmosphere. Time magazine ranked the show as its number two choice among theatre productions in 2011. Theatre review aggregator Curtain Critic gave the production a score of 74 out of 100 based on the opinions of 20 critics. This production won the 2012 Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Leading Actress in a Musical.