Gershwin’s Opens in New York

George Gershwin permanently blurred the distinction between musical theater and opera with Porgy and Bess and opened the door to other ambitious experiments in form.

Summary of Event

On the night of October 10, 1935, after a brief overture, the curtain rose at the Alvin Theater in New York City. The audience heard a solo soprano voice sing a plaintive lullaby, “Summertime.” From there, the joys, sorrows, laughter, and tears of Porgy and Bess cascaded from the stage. This opening, which today seems so elegant and has seemed so right since 1935, was not the first choice. Like much else in musical theater, the opening went through drastic changes before the work debuted. Prior to the world premiere on September 30 in Boston, it was planned that Porgy and Bess would open with a black piano player playing jazz in a smoky dance hall. The change was based purely on economy—the dance hall would have required another set. Such choices are part of the collaboration common in musical theater, and the story of Porgy and Bess is a story of collaboration. [kw]Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Opens in New York (Oct. 10, 1935)[Gershwins Porgy and Bess Opens in New York (Oct. 10, 1935)]
[kw]Porgy and Bess Opens in New York, Gershwin’s (Oct. 10, 1935)
[kw]New York, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Opens in (Oct. 10, 1935)
Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
Musical theater
[g]United States;Oct. 10, 1935: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Opens in New York[09000]
[c]Theater;Oct. 10, 1935: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Opens in New York[09000]
[c]Music;Oct. 10, 1935: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Opens in New York[09000]
Gershwin, George
Gershwin, Ira
Heyward, DuBose
Breen, Robert

Often referred to as George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the story about the crippled Porgy and his woman, Bess, had a genesis that was quite removed from the sophisticated composer. In 1924, an insurance salesman named DuBose Heyward decided to become a full-time writer. He had written some poetry as a hobby and had become involved in a summer writers’ colony. Heyward set out to write a novel, and he chose for his subject the people of the poor black section of his native Charleston, South Carolina. Specifically, Heyward used as inspiration a crippled man named Sammy Smalls who moved about the poorer sections of Charleston in a cart pulled by a particularly pungent goat. Heyward read a short article in the Charleston News and Courier detailing Smalls’s arrest for aggravated assault and attempted escape on his cart. Another inspiration was an area of Charleston called “Cabbage Row.” It was an area of decay, with a courtyard fronted by vegetable stands. It was a place of poverty, crowds, and numerous calls to the police. Heyward passed it every day as he went to work. In his mind, he transformed it into “Catfish Row.”

Heyward took these ideas with him to the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ community, where he met and married a playwright named Dorothy Kuhns. He worked on his novel while she worked on plays and mysteries. Heyward’s main character was first called Porgo. Like Smalls, he made his way on a cart pulled by a goat. His wife immediately saw dramatic potential in the unfinished manuscript, but Heyward was hesitant. He wanted to concentrate on his work as a novel. In addition, the mid-1920’s was not a time to put a serious treatment of African Americans on the Broadway stage.

The novel was completed in 1925, renamed Porgy, and published to a very positive response. In very little time, the former insurance salesman became a literary celebrity. Cecil B. DeMille expressed interest in filming the novel for a group called the Producers Distributing Corporation, with Paul Robeson considered for the lead. Finally, however, the business minds at the corporation ended the project because it would not sell in the South.

Others had higher hopes for Heyward’s novel. Dorothy Heyward was still at work, secretly, on a dramatic treatment. In the late summer of 1926, Heyward received a letter from George Gershwin indicating interest in and excitement about the possibility of turning Porgy into an opera. DuBose Heyward may have been unfamiliar to Gershwin, but Gershwin was very familiar to Heyward. By 1926, Gershwin’s name was quite well known.

Because he was the son of immigrant Jews, Gershwin’s name had changed several times. George began as Jacob. His elder brother’s name went from Israel to Isadore to Ira. Their last name was Gershovitz in Russia and then became Gershvin, Gershwine, and, finally, Gershwin. George began piano lessons at the age of twelve and was playing in bars at fifteen. Soon, while working for a music publishing house, he became familiar with popular music and show music. By 1916, he had written a song for a revue. In 1919, Broadway saw the first George Gershwin musical, La La Lucille. Previously in that year, Al Jolson had sung Gershwin’s song “Swanee” in Sinbad.

For the 1922 edition of the revue known as George White’s Scandals, Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva wrote a twenty-minute “jazz opera” called Blue Monday. Blue Monday (Gershwin and DeSylva) It dealt with infidelity among African Americans, although the parts were played by white actors in blackface. After opening night, the piece was cut from the show, but it clearly indicated Gershwin’s future work with Porgy. In 1924, Gershwin made important strides in several directions. Paul Whiteman, the orchestra conductor for Blue Monday, had admired the work and approached Gershwin with the idea of composing and performing a serious work using jazz idioms. The result was Rhapsody in Blue. Later that year, Gershwin opened Lady, Be Good! on Broadway. This was his first collaboration with his brother, Ira.

George Gershwin.

(Library of Congress)

George had worked with other lyricists and he would work with others in the future. Ira also had worked with other composers and he would work with more as well, but there was something special about the brothers working together. Their other shows included Girl Crazy (1930), Strike Up the Band (1930), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical to win that award.

This was the reputation George Gershwin had started to build when he wrote to Heyward about turning Porgy into an opera. As Heyward considered a partnership with the great Gershwin, Dorothy Heyward confessed that she had been writing a dramatic version of Porgy. Both were convinced that the issue was a choice between a play or an opera. It did not occur to either that they could have both. Heyward was drawn to his wife’s work not only out of loyalty but also because it was good. He was intrigued by how well she was able to make the story work on stage. Heyward told Gershwin of his decision, assuming that it would put an end to the opera. Gershwin’s greater theater experience led him to believe that the two options were not mutually exclusive, however. In fact, Gershwin realized that working from a play would give him a needed structure.

With this news, the Heywards set to work revising the first draft. DuBose was able to make the unique contribution of accurate dialect. Dorothy, however, made the key suggestion of changing the novel’s ending to show that Porgy’s spirit had not been crushed. The play was produced by the Theatre Guild in October, 1927, under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian, Rouben It was a hit and only served to increase Gershwin’s determination to create an opera from the material.

Other proposals were made, including a musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, to feature Al Jolson in blackface. By 1933, Heyward and Gershwin were committed contractually to the project. George wrote the music, and both Heyward and Ira Gershwin created lyrics. They had very different styles of working. According to Ira Gershwin, it took the poet that Heyward was to create “Summertime,” but when it came to up-tempo, rhythmic songs such as “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Gershwin would step in. Ira could not read music; he would simply listen to the melody his brother created and work from there. In at least one instance, the three collaborated. It was agreed that Porgy needed a happy song. George played a happy melody for the two lyricists. Ira immediately suggested the line “I got plenty o’ nuthin’, and nuthin’s plenty for me.” Heyward took that line and the music and finished the song.

Mamoulian, by this time a noted film director in Hollywood, was brought back to direct the opera, once again produced by the Theatre Guild. By the time of the much anticipated Boston premiere on June 24, 1935, Gershwin had made several cuts in the score. At the suggestion of the producers and the director, he made several more as the show was prepared for its New York opening. Following the New York opening on October 10, 1935, the reviews and the public response were mixed. Many realized the genius of each of the collaborators, but others were unsure as to exactly what had been created. George Gershwin was certain that this was his stage masterpiece. As fate would have it, it was his last major work for the stage. He and his brother worked on several films following Porgy and Bess and then, in 1937, he died of a brain tumor.


In addition to the obvious contributions of Gershwin’s melodies and the story of Porgy told by Heyward and Ira Gershwin, the production of Porgy and Bess made several other unique contributions to music and theater. First among these was the use of black actors on stage. Clearly this was not the first time African Americans had been on stage; it was not even the first time black actors had serious singing roles on stage. Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, had in 1927 featured a character named Joe, who sang “Ol’ Man River.” The original stage version of Porgy featured serious black actors. For the most part, however, black actors in Broadway musicals were in revues such as Shuffle Along (1921) and From Dixie to Broadway (1924).

Lack of experienced black actors made casting a challenge, and it meant that the performers who eventually were hired were in many cases in need of coaching. The original Porgy, Todd Duncan, was a music teacher from Washington, D.C. Anne Brown (Bess) and Ruby Elzy (Serena) were both graduates of Juilliard. A vaudeville performer, John W. Bubbles, was hired to play Sportin’ Life. The Eva Jessye Choir, a black touring choir, was added to the chorus. As is the case with most productions that open and then tour, Porgy and Bess went through many cast changes over the years. The musical afforded unique opportunities for many black performers.

In the early 1950’s, Robert Breen, the former general director of the American National Theatre and Academy, began a crusade to revive Porgy and Bess and tour it worldwide. Over the next seven years, the show toured with various casts to London, Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. It was the first American theatrical production to play in the Soviet Union since the 1917 revolution. There was some hesitation about a production there, as it might communicate a false impression to audiences about how black people lived and acted in the United States. Another view was that Porgy and Bess showcased members of a minority who were gifted artists and should be given the opportunity to share their gifts. That view won out. Otto Preminger directed a 1959 film version starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.

A contradiction existed concerning the show itself. Some critics thought it was an opera, whereas others were sure it was a Broadway musical. The various arguments are clear. It appeared first on the Broadway stage, although it became part of the repertoire of several leading opera companies. It was composed by a “popular” composer, and there are “standard” songs in the score. At the same time, this “popular” composer did work in the classical arena, and the score is filled with recitatives and choruses. Another argument made is that Porgy and Bess does not have the kinds of characters usually found in opera—this is basically the same argument used later concerning the status as a tragedy of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949).

The debate concerning classification of Porgy and Bess is in part a question of attitude. Although Porgy and Bess may not be populated with the usual characters of opera, it certainly has opera characteristics. Technically, it has elements of a sung-through score, grand passions, and tragedy. For some, the fact that it is in English—American English, no less—precludes it from consideration as an opera. Others perceive its blending of forms between Broadway and the opera as leading to Frank Loesser’s Most Happy Fella (1956), Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Evita (1979), and other such shows. Whether George Gershwin wrote an opera therefore is debatable, but he certainly wrote a great work of art that led to other great works. Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
Musical theater

Further Reading

  • Alpert, Hollis. The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Exceptional study of the show uses research and interviews to re-create the experience, from the newspaper article that gave Heyward his idea to the 1959 film. Focuses as much on the art as on the business. Includes pictures and summary of the original New York production. Useful resource for the layperson as well as the scholar.
  • Engel, Lehman, with Howard Kissel. Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto. Rev. ed. New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2006. A serious look at the needs and problems of the libretto in the musical theater by a conductor and theorist of the musical. Includes a helpful discussion of opera and the differences between the opera and the musical. An essential book for serious study of the musical.
  • Hutchisson, James M. DuBose Heyward: A Charleston Gentleman and the World of “Porgy and Bess.” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. Biography of the originator of the story that became Porgy and Bess places the work’s creation in the context of the author’s life and times. Chapter 4 addresses the transformation of the story into a work for the stage. Includes index.
  • Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. History of the genre focuses on how themes in American musical theater productions relate to how Americans view themselves. Chapter 8 addresses Porgy and Bess within the context of a discussion of race and ethnicity. Includes useful appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Laufe, Abe. Broadway’s Greatest Musicals. Rev. ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1977. Standard history gives a good, if basic, chronological overview of the growth of musical theater in the United States. Includes numerous illustrations.
  • Smith, Cecil, and Glenn Litton. Musical Comedy in America. 1981. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1991. Excellent overall history of the musical theater provides photographs and thorough and literate text. Goes beyond the expected chronology and discusses technique. Provides a good explanation of the opera/musical debate concerning Porgy and Bess.

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