Porgy and Bess anniversary

Thanks to Barbara Nicolazzo

It was on this day in 1935 that George Gershwin officially completed the score for the opera Porgy and Bess. Nine years earlier, during tryouts for his musical Oh, Kay! (1926), Gershwin picked up the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward. Set in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina, the book told the story of a crippled beggar named Porgy, a beautiful drug addict named Bess, and her abusive lover, Crown. Gershwin immediately envisioned it as an opera, and he wrote to Heyward asking if he wanted to collaborate. The novelist agreed, but not before he and his wife finished adapting the novel into a play, which had a new ending and became a hit on Broadway. The play became the basis for the opera. Gershwin intended to call the opera Porgy, just like the novel and play.

For several years, the opera was put on hold as George and his brother Ira worked on other projects. Then Heyward wrote to Gershwin with a dilemma: he had received a request for the musical rights to Porgy from a famous white actor, who wanted to play Porgy in blackface and collaborate with a different composer and lyricist. Heyward preferred to work with Gershwin, but he had lost money in the stock market crash and was feeling desperate. He asked whether they could consider bringing the white actor into the project, but Gershwin was adamant that he wanted a black cast, and convinced he could make his own version of Porgy a success even if someone else beat him to it. The other version fell through and was never made.

Gershwin kept hoping to find time to devote himself to the opera, which he called “a labor of love” — but he needed money, so he continued accepting smaller jobs that promised a decent cash flow. Finally, he found the break he needed: a lucrative gig hosting a radio show in New York, Music by Gershwin, which was sponsored by a laxative chewing gum called Feen-A-Mint. Gershwin became the target of plenty of jokes, but he said afterward that without Feen-A-Mint gum, there would be no Porgy and Bess. It took him almost two years to finish the opera — 11 months to write it and another nine months to do the full orchestration. About orchestrating, he wrote to his brother Ira: “It goes slowly, there being a million notes.”

While he was writing Porgy, Gershwin received a letter from a young soprano named Anne Brown. She was a star graduate student at Juilliard; she had heard that Gershwin was writing an operaand wanted an interview. At his request, she came to his apartment to sing for him. She brought music by Brahms and Schubert, and Gershwin played along as she sang. Then he asked her to sing a spiritual. Brown was offended and told him so — she didn’t think black people should be expected to sing spirituals. He backed off, but she changed her mind and sang “A City Called Heaven” a cappella. Gershwin was so moved that he was speechless. Not long after that, he called Brown back, told her that he had written the first 33 pages of his opera, and asked if she would come over again and sing the role of Bess. From that point on, he wrote with her in mind, and she often came over to sing new parts for him. Before the show opened, he asked her to meet him a café for an orange juice, and told her that he had decided that her role was so important he was changing the name of his opera from Porgy to Porgy and Bess.

Rehearsals for the opera began in August of 1935, before the finishing touches were put on the score. After the first day of rehearsals, the opera’s director felt overwhelmed and depressed, but that night while he was in bed, he got a call from Gershwin, who said: “I always knew that Porgy and Bess was wonderful, but I never thought I’d feel the way I feel now. I tell you, after listening to that rehearsal today, I think the music is so marvelous — I really don’t believe I wrote it!”

Despite many positive reviews, Porgy and Bess was a commercial flop, running for only a few months and losing its initial $70,000 investment. The composer used his royalties from the opera to pay back the copyists who had prepared the score. Gershwin died unexpectedly of a brain tumor two years later.


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