He died when he was only 38 years old, less than 2 years when he wrote Porgy and Bess. He is George Gershwin. Now they have made changes to his masterful composition . I wonder how the composer would feel about that? There is a controversy going on now but people are always drawn back to the show because of the incredible music. Yes, it can be called the George Gershwin opera. It is nearly 77 years after its premier and it is now back on Broadway.
How does one tell what is good music from ok songs? I judge it by how contemporary it sounds. There is nothing better than a tune that is timeless, one that sounds fresh even it it was written years ago. Well, greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin and Billy Stewart made it a top ten hit in 1966; even Fantasia was an American Idol winner after singing the song. Summertime is one of the most recorded songs in history. The song comes from an American Opera called Porgy and Bess.
It is the story set to music of lovers, Porgy, a crippled beggar and Bess a drug addict and prostitute who see each other often on the street, Charleston’s Catfish Row. I guess things haven’t changed much in about 80 years. We still have beggars and prostitutes walking the same streets. Despite their horrible occupations, the main characters are human, real people that go through the same concerns as you and I.
Bess is a woman that has to survive. If you have no trade, no husband, nothing much and no self worth, she goes from man to man. Four time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald stars as Bess. David Allen Grier calls it an Urban Ballet. Gershwin wanted to write something new that would appeal to the many and not just to the cultured few. It is hard to believe today but at the time, George Gershwin used to receive mixed reviews for his work.
He was not of the symphonic world and not from the pop music world. Considering this was George’s first Opera it is incredibly complex and sounding great. It encompasses great music, great story, great characters and great passion. The Broadway version is streamlined, cut down to 2 hours instead of the usual 4 hours. What would you say if they said your music was great and then cut out half of it in a performance? So, now it is less like an Opera and more like a Musical.
Even another great composer, Steven Sondheim wrote the Directors that it was a shame they decided to cut out half the music. Look, the average listener has the attention span of a flea. Three minutes tops and that is if the beat and the first line of the song never changes. Just listen to the music they play on practically all radio stations. The same crap that lasts for 3 minutes tops. Thankfully.
The version of the show that opened in 1935 was full of racial epitaphs including the “N” word that was later removed. Still, it was an important vehicle for black performers. White actors wanted to play the roles in black face like Al Jolson. George Gershwin said “No! This is a piece for Africans.” The show itself became a vehicle for change. In 1936 the cast refused to perform in Washington’s National Theatre until the theater allowed Blacks to sit with Whites in the audience.
By the 1950’s the show became a national cultural export touring Europe with Leontine Price. But over time the show’s portrayal of African Americans seemed patronizing. It was radical in the 30’s to have an all Black performing show but now no one seems to notice.
Whatever the controversy be whether over the length of the show or the all black cast or simply just enjoying the great melodies of George Gershwin’s music, people have been coming back for 70 years now.