ON THE RECORD: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

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07 Oct 2012

Josh Henry and Nikki Renée Daniels
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Is Porgy a musical or an opera? I consider it the former, although George himself apparently professed that he was writing an opera. In any case, like Show Boat, The Threepenny Opera and Candide, it frequently finds itself in the opera house. In either case, it is regularly, and reasonably, called Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In the same way that West Side Story is sometimes labeled Bernstein's West Side Story and Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. (Sondheim would be quick to request that the latter be changed to Sondheim & Wheeler's Sweeney Todd.)

In the case of Porgy, it's that little apostrophe that causes the trouble. You can call it The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, but it simply isn't and never was. George wrote the musical with DuBose Heyward. Along the way, Ira cheerfully stepped in to help out on some of the more Broadwayish material. Heyward was a blue-blood poet from Charleston, descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence; the poetry of "Summertime" came to him naturally, but Sportin' Life tour de forces like "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" were Ira's territory.

I consider the score to have 28 identifiable songs (or scenes-with-lyrics). DuBose and Ira collaborated on three of these: "Bess, You Is My Woman," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" and "I Loves You Porgy." Another five songs were written solely by Ira. The others, 19 of them, were credited solely to Heyward. (There is anecdotal evidence that Ira might have contributed significantly to those uncredited 19; both brothers were highly supportive and protective of Heyward.) Heyward also provided the libretto, which is to say not only the dialogue but the scenario; Ira, in his delightfully puckish "Lyrics on Several Occasions," gives full credit for this to Heyward. At any rate, the title The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess seems almost like a slap at the long-gone and all-but-forgotten-except-for-Porgy Heyward. But this is certainly not the doing of Paulus or the present-day producers. The title The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess was adopted by the Gershwin and Heyward heirs years ago; it has been in use since at least 1989.

 

NaTasha Yvette Williams and David Alan Grier
photo by Michael J. Lutch



 

If my reaction to the musical treatment of the recently shuttered version of Porgy and Bess is not too cheery, the show did indeed thrill many theatregoers. And it gave us Audra McDonald, whose presence in itself was reason to head over to 46th Street. So if The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess served to popularize the work of Gershwin — especially with people unfamiliar with the show, or even unfamiliar with the composer — you can chalk the thing up as a success. Although in my view it did no favors to George.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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Audra McDonald, cast and guests
Photo by Lisa Pacino

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