Black History Month – PORGY & BESS at Robinson Auditorium

porgy-bess-robinsonOn December 6, 1943, one of the great love stories of the 20th Century came to Robinson Auditorium.  Cheryl Crawford’s Broadway revival of PORGY & BESS was presented for one performance.

The show was on a national tour after having played Broadway in 1942 and 1943.  The cast included Todd Duncan, who had originated the role of Porgy in 1935 and Etta Moten, for whom George and Ira Gershwin had originally written the part of Bess.  Avon Long played Sportin’ Life (as he would for much of his long career).  The Eva Jessye Choir was the chorus, as they had been for the original 1935 Broadway debut and were in the 1942 and 1943 Broadway revivals.

Conductor Alexander Smallens had been associated with the title since its 1935 debut. The design team of Herbert Andrews (settings) and Paul Du Pont (costumes) had been brought to the project in 1942 by producer Crawford.

This production of Porgy & Bess eliminated some of the singing and changed most of the recitatives to spoken dialogue. It made it less like an opera and more like conventional musical theatre.  While it may not have been true to George Gershwin’s original intent, it was financially more successful than the original production.  In fact, the Crawford version played Broadway in 1942, 1943, and 1944, with national tours after each of the stops on the Rialto.

In 1942, the cast of the revival had performed a one hour version on radio. This was recorded and released, making it one of the first original cast recordings of a Broadway production.

Based on the play by DuBose and Dorthy Heyward,  George Gershwin envisioned Porgy & Bess as an American opera. It had a libretto by DuBose Heyward, who also supplied lyrics along with George’s brother Ira.  While the original production seemed to have slightly confounded critics and audiences who were expecting something more along the lines of the breezy Gershwin shows of the 1920s and early 1930s, it has proven to be a durable title.  It fell out of favor in the 1960s and early 1970s as the Civil Rights movement was causing people to rethink the depictions of African Americans.  In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera staged a new production which restored most of Gershwin’s score and returned it squarely into the realm of opera.  This production played Broadway in 1976 (and won the 1977 Tony for Best Revival) and was revived in 1983 on Broadway.

The most recent notable production of Porgy & Bess originated at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre in 2011.  It officially opened on Broadway in January 2012 (where Little Rock native Will Trice was one of the producers).  In addition to winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, it captured a Tony for Audra McDonald’s performance of Bess (Miss McDonald’s fifth Tony).