Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the conclusion of our six week series on the yet-to-be covered scores of George Gershwin. Although we’ve highlighted a lot of the master composer’s work in the past, the entries in this series are either really early in his career or those I initially deemed too popular and well known to be considered “forgotten.” But the time has come to give all of his brilliant work fair play, and so far we’ve highlighted La-La-Lucille! (1919), A Dangerous Maid (1921), Girl Crazy (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933). Today…
VI. Porgy And Bess (10/10/35 – 01/25/36)
What can be said about Porgy And Bess, Gershwin’s seminal work — his folk opera — that hasn’t been said before? The iconic show, based on DuBose Heyward’s novel about a crippled beggar in a poor black Charleston community who falls in love with the drug addicted girl of the lethal neighborhood bully, has one of the most breathtaking scores of any show we’ve EVER covered on this blog. In addition, Porgy And Bess, itself adapted from the 1926 play, has remained notable for its ability to harness the power and emotion of the heretofore underrepresented impoverished black culture in parts of the southern United States. Ira and Heyward collaborated on the lyrics, and the original 1935 production was staged by noted director Rouben Mamoulian. The original cast featured Todd Duncan as Porgy, Anne Brown as Bess, Warren Coleman as Crown, John W. Bubbles as Sportin’ Life, Ruby Elzy as Serena, Edward Matthews as Jake, Abbie Mitchell as Clara, J. Rosamond Johnson as Frazier, Helen Dowdy as Lily and Strawberry Woman, Gus Simons as Peter, Henry Davis as Robbins, Ford L. Buck as Mingo, Georgette Harvey as Maria, Ray Yeates as Nelson and Crab Man, and the Eva Jessye Choir. However, my aim is not to go too in depth with regards to the plot or the original production, because this work has been written about so much — and by scholars far more studied in this particular show than I — but I do want to give curious parties a taste of this magnificent feast for the ears and share some seldom heard original cast recordings!
Fortunately, most of the original cast reunited for a 1942 revival, which, like many of the revivals of this piece, eliminated some of the sung recitatives in favor of spoken dialogue. (The elimination and/or restoration of the recitatives has been the unintended major narrative throughout Porgy And Bess‘ production history, thereby complicating the show’s genre label: is it opera or musical theatre? In my opinion, Gershwin called it a folk opera; it should be performed as such.) The cast performed an hour of highlights on the radio, and this has been released on CD along with selections that Duncan and Todd recorded in 1940. This album is commonly labeled the Original Cast, but this is not 100% accurate. Still, it’s an invaluable recording and highly recommended. Above is Todd Duncan’s “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin'” from that recording.
When wanting to hear original cast performances, we must really go back to the ’30s, for many of the principal players performed selections from the score on the radio. One of these sessions was conducted by George Gershwin during July 1935, when the show was in rehearsals. This is one of the few places to hear “Summertime,” arguably the show’s most famous number, by its introducer, Abbie Mitchell. Here she is above.
From the same recording, I present Edward Matthews’ “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” (above), and Ruby Elzy’s “My Man’s Gone Now (below). The latter is particularly haunting — one of the most striking Gershwin offerings you’ll ever hear.
Other places to hear the original cast on disc include the September 1937 memorial for Gershwin at the Hollywood Bowl, for it includes selections of Porgy And Bess by Duncan, Brown, and Elzy. Here’s Duncan and Brown’s rendition of my personal favorite Gershwin song ever written, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
From the same broadcast, here’s Brown and company with the spiritualistic “Leavin’ For The Promise’ Lan’.”
Original cast members missing from the aforementioned 1940/1942 album include Mitchell, whose big number was featured above, Coleman as the menacing Crown, and Bubbles as “Sportin’ Life,” voiced in that production by Avon Long, who played the role often throughout his career. Coleman can be found on the 1951 Columbia album, the first full length recording of the score and one of my favorites. Although this isn’t one of Crown’s numbers, here’s the lilting “Strawberry Woman” and “Crab Man” from that recording.
For Bubbles, you’ll have to go to the 1963 RCA studio cast album with William Warfield and Leontyne Price, both of whom starred in a 1952 European Tour (a bootleg of which was released commercially — it’s another exceptional recording). The ’63 album first got me hooked on Porgy And Bess and it’s the one I recommend most to those who have never heard the score before. Here’s Bubbles with Sportin’ Life’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Here’s Bubbles again with “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York.”
The best revival recording is the 1976 Houston Grand Opera’s. Here’s Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale with “I Wants To Stay Here,” better known as “I Loves You, Porgy.”
I generally stay away from the other recordings, particularly the most recent revival, for although I appreciate Audra MacDonald, I do not enjoy the orchestrations or performances from the production. I also tend to stay away from the big studio albums — 1976 (Grammy winning recording by the Cleveland Orchestra — great sound), 1989 (Glyndebourne Festival Opera — lugubrious on record, supposedly better in performance), 2006 (Decca — notable for trying to preserve exactly what was heard in the October 1935 Broadway opening), and 2009 (an Austrian production recorded live, and quite complete). I do prefer some of the jazzier records, including Fitzgerald and Armstrong’s, along with the 1959 motion picture soundtrack. But again, if you’re not looking for the original cast, I’d go with the 1951 or 1963 studio recordings. Then, the 1976 Houston Grand Opera and 1952 live European Tour. But maybe your favorites are different than mine — please comment below with your thoughts! In the meantime, we’ll close today’s post with Duncan’s live 1937 broadcast of “Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way.” It’s yet another example of why George Gershwin was an artist whose genius has been unparalleled in the American theatre. This is his crowning (no pun intended) achievement and I hope this music lives on for millennia to come.
Come back next Monday for another forgotten musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the final season of WKRP In Cincinnati!