Porgy and Bess – George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DeBose Heyward

26 Jun

I don’t live in Seattle, but I can catch a ferry and get to Seattle and make a day trip of it. We drive to the ferry, park, take the ferry over the Puget Sound and walk to wherever we’re going and, mercifully, The 5th Avenue Theatre is only a fifteen minute walk from the ferry.

There’s nothing like seeing live musical theater. I love movies, but there’s a thrill that comes with actually being there, the connection with the music, the performers and audience. Every time I sit in the audience and the overture begins, it such a thrill of anticipation and excitement, it’s electric and almost the best part of any performance. You can literally feel the entire audience’s anticipation. Several weeks ago, when I went to see Porgy and Bess, the conductor began his down beat and I watched his head pop up and down in the pit as the music soared out of it. Music was meant to be heard live.

Sometimes, getting to the theater can be an adventure. It’s rained once and my umbrella turned inside out, repeatedly, while I kept bumping my cousin in the head with it until we gave it up and let ourselves get soaked. The worst is when I was getting off the ferry and slipped on a wet spot. My right leg slipped forward and my left knee slipped down…onto the cement. When I got up, there was a lovely tear in the knee of my pants and I was bleeding. We had to trail around Seattle looking for a Bartell drugstore to get band aids. Hole in pants, bloodstains and all, we still saw the musical (it was Cinderella) and I still have the scar.

Fortunately, in Seattle people are very casual and you can literally show up at a musical in pajamas without raising eyebrows (though I don’t recall seeing pajamas).

Several weeks ago I saw Porgy and Bess, which first opened in 1935. It’s been called a “folk opera” and was written by George Gershwin, with lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin and DeBose Heyward, the author of the book Porgy. It was meant to be an opera. It certainly sounds like an opera to me, musically. No one but operatically trained singers could perform the songs, though it is sometimes likened to a musical as well.The original opera, as performed in 1935, was apparently 4 hours long and had no spoken dialogue. The version I saw was the Broadway touring production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was adapted in 2011. It has been made more like a musical, with dialogue, some dancing, and was shortened by at least an hour and a half.

Gershwin’s music is extraordinary, a blend of jazz, European opera, African-American music, Jewish music. Gershwin was incredibly prolific and wrote music for quite a few musicals (several of which Fred Astaire and his sister Adele starred in), several movies in the 30s and several classical works like his famous “Rhapsody in Blue.” His brother, Ira, always wrote his lyrics for him. Tragically, George Gershwin died young, in 1937, of a brain tumor and his brother never quite recovered. Ira provided the lyrics for several more movies (such as Cover Girl and A Star is Born, collaborating with Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen, respectively) but his heart was never truly in it.

The story of Porgy and Bess is fairly straightforward: about the inhabitants of Catfish Row, a small community in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1930s. Porgy is a crippled peddler and Bess is the former girlfriend of the local bully, Crown, who finds love and peace with Porgy and a degree of acceptance in the community. I can’t judge what the original opera was like, but the 2011 adaptation is part romance (and a very touching romance), but really is about the community, living through loss, a hurricane, hostile police, drug addiction (especially in Bess’ case) and still managing to find joy in life.

Catfish Row is interesting, because in a way, they administer their own justice. The police only pop in when something serious has occurred – like a murder – and questions people, but they don’t seem to be providing any real order, safety or justice. That is left for the community, which creates an “us versus them” mentality.

I was very impressed with the actors who played Porgy and Bess and the duets they sing together were lovely, such as “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” “Summertime” is always a standout and the character of Sportin’ Life (who sells drugs) sings his famous song “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I do agree with one review I read that the dances (which I believe were not in the original 1935 version) were fun, but not quite as knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark wonderful to make it a great enhancement to the show – I was left faintly wishing for more.

Unfortunately, I had to catch a ferry – if I missed it I would have to wait an hour and a half for the next ferry, past midnight – so I had to rush out during the last scene, and I don’t quite know how it ends. My loss! My understanding is that it is very inspiring, with Porgy leaving for New York to find his Bess.

Many of the songs have become jazz standards, sung in a much lower register. The most famous is “Summertime.” Below is Leontyne Price’s version – she was an opera singer, who also played Bess, I believe, at some point – and then next is Sarah Vaughan’s version – a jazz singer, also known as The Divine Sarah Vaughan. Both versions are simply gorgeous.



Posted by on June 26, 2014 in Musicals


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3 responses to “Porgy and Bess – George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DeBose Heyward

  1. crafty theatre

    June 27, 2014 at 12:23 am

    So true, musicals have to be experienced live. The two renditions or Summertime are so different, it’s hard to believe they are one and the same song!


  2. christinawehner

    June 27, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I know what you mean! I heard the jazz version first, which I liked, but later heard it sung by Leontyne Price and I thought it was just incredibly haunting sung in the soprano register.

    I’ve always wondered if it would be equally thrilling to see plays live as it is musicals – like Pygmalion, The Tempest, even plays I’ve read by Agatha Christie like The Mousetrap or Witness for the Prosecution. I like to read, but I always feel like I must be missing an extra ingredient. I read Pygmalion this year and I’d love to see it done professionally.



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