Book by Dubose Heyward
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin & Dubose Heyward
adapted from the play Porgy, by Dubose & DorothyK. Heyward

INFO:

Opened at the Alvin Theatre   January 27, 1936   124 performances (often revived)
Original Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Original Choreographer: N/A
Original Producer: The Theater Guild
Original Leads: Porgy: Todd Duncan   Bess: Anne Brown   Sportin’ Life: John W. Bubbles
Cast Size: Male: 17   Female: 7   Ensemble: 0-as many as you can   Total Cast Size: 24-larger
Orchestra: Large, it’s an opera.
Published Script: Chilton Press
Production Rights: Tams Witmark
Recordings: Many. The Glynbourne Opera presentation conducted by Simon Rattle is beautiful.
Film: 1969, starring Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr., directed by Otto Preminger. (Poitier’s singing was dubbed.) A lot of music was cut to make it “more like a musical.” Eh.
Other shows by the authors: Gershwins: Of Thee I Sing     Ira Gershwin: Lady In The Dark

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

Opera companies, Broadway, only the largest companies with access to classically-trained voices. Some colleges or universities with large music departments.

Be Warned:

It’s an opera. Your High School can’t do it.  It’s a huge production, and requires legitimate and highly-trained voices.

It also has a lot of “des” and “dis” and other attempts in the language to imitate the language of the era for Black characters, which I find annoying to read and listen to. I imagine actors can figure this sort of thing out without being told.

THE STORY: (Outline from Wikipedia and other sources.)

ACT ONE: The opera begins with a short introduction which segues into an evening in Catfish Row. Jasbo Brown entertains the community with his piano playing. Clara, a young mother, sings a lullaby to her baby (“Summertime”) as the working men prepare for a game of craps (“Roll them Bones”). One of the players, Robbins, scorns his wife Serena’s demands that he not play, retorting that on a Saturday night, a man has the right to play. Clara’s husband, the fisherman Jake, tries his own lullaby (“A Woman is a Sometime Thing”) with little effect. Little by little, other characters in the opera enter Catfish Row, among them Mingo, another fisherman, and Jim, a stevedore who, tired of his job, decides to give it up and join Jake and the other fishermen. Porgy, a disabled beggar, enters on his goat cart to organize the game. Peter, an elderly “honey man” returns, singing his vendor’s call. Crown, a strong and brutal stevedore, storms in with his woman, Bess, and buys cheap whiskey and some “happy dust” off the local dope peddler, Sportin’ Life. Bess is shunned by the women of the community, especially the pious Serena and the matriarchal cookshop owner Maria, but Porgy softly defends her. The game begins. One by one, the players get crapped out, leaving only Robbins and Crown, who has become extremely drunk. When Robbins wins, Crown attempts to prevent him from taking his winnings. A brawl ensues, which ends when Crown stabs Robbins with a cotton hook, killing him. Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself but that he will be back for her when the heat dies down. Sportin’ Life gives her a dose of happy dust and offers to take her with him when he goes to New York, but she rejects him. He flees, and Bess begins to pound on doors, but is rejected by all of the residents of Catfish Row, with the exception of Porgy, who lets her in.

Serena’s room, the next night. The mourners sing a spiritual to Robbins (“Gone, Gone, Gone”). To raise money for his burial, a saucer is placed on his chest for the mourners’ donations (“Overflow”). Bess enters with Porgy and attempts to donate to the burial fund, but Serena rejects her money until Bess explains that she is now living with Porgy. A white detective enters and coldly tells Serena that she must bury her husband the next day, or his body will be given to medical students for dissection. He suddenly accuses Peter of Robbins’s murder. Peter denies his guilt and says Crown was the murderer. The Detective orders Peter to be arrested as a material witness, whom he will force to testify against Crown. Serena laments her loss in “My Man’s Gone Now”. The undertaker enters. The saucer holds only fifteen dollars of the needed twenty-five, but he agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back. Bess, who has been sitting in silence slightly apart from the rest of those gathered, suddenly begins to sing a gospel song and the chorus joyfully join in, welcoming her into the community. (“Oh, the Train is at de Station”)

ACT TWO: Catfish row, a month later. Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work (“It take a long pull to get there”). Clara asks Jake not to go because it is time for the annual storms, but he tells her that they desperately need the money. This causes Porgy to sing from his window about his new, happy-go-lucky outlook on life. (“I got plenty o’ nuttin”). Sportin’ Life waltzes around selling “happy dust”, but soon incurs the wrath of Maria, who threatens him. (“I hates yo’ struttin’ style”). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and farcically divorces Bess from Crown. When he discovers Bess and Crown were not married, he raises his price from a dollar to a dollar and a half. Archdale, a white lawyer, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. The bad omen of a buzzard flies over Catfish Row and Porgy demands that it leave now that he finally has found happiness. (“Buzzard keep on flyin’ over”.)

As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the church picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island, Sportin’ Life again offers to take Bess to New York with him; she refuses. He attempts to give her some “happy dust” despite her claims that she’s given up drugs, but Porgy grabs his arm and scares him off. Sportin’ Life leaves, reminding Bess as he goes that her men friends come and go, but he will be there all along. Bess and Porgy are now left alone, and express their love for each other in “Bess, You Is My Woman, Now”. The chorus re-enters in high spirits as they prepare to leave for the picnic (“Oh, I can’t sit down”). Bess is invited to the picnic by Maria, but she demurs as Porgy cannot come (due to his disability, he cannot get on the boat), but Maria insists. Bess leaves Porgy behind as they go off to the picnic. Porgy watches the boat leave (“I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin” reprise).

On Kittiwah Island, that evening. The chorus enjoys themselves at the picnic (“I ain’t got no shame”). Sportin’ Life presents the chorus his cynical views on the Bible (“It Ain’t Necessarily So”), causing Serena to chastise them (“Shame on all you sinners!”). Everyone gets ready to leave. As Bess, who has lagged behind, tries to follow them, Crown emerges from the bushes. He reminds her that Porgy is “temporary” and laughs off her claims that she has been living decently now. Bess wants to leave Crown forever and attempts to make him forget about her (“Oh, what you want wid Bess?”) but Crown refuses to give her up. He grabs her and will not let her go to the boat, which leaves without her, and then forcefully kisses her. He laughs at his conquest as her resistance begins to fail, and commands her to get into the woods, where his intentions are only too clear.

Catfish Row, a week later. A week later, Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, one of whom observes that it looks as if a storm is coming in. Peter, still unsure of his crime, returns from prison. Meanwhile, Bess is lying in Porgy’s room delirious with fever, which she has had ever since returning from Kittiwah Island. Serena prays to remove Bess’s affliction (“Oh, Doctor Jesus”), and promises Porgy that Bess will be well by five o’clock. As the day passes, a strawberry woman, Peter (the Honey Man) and a crab man each pass by with their wares (“Vendors’ Trio”). As the clock chimes five, Bess recovers from her fever. Porgy tells Bess that he knows she has been with Crown, and she admits that Crown has promised to return for her. Porgy tells her she is free to go if she wants to, and she tells him that although she wants to stay, she is afraid of Crown’s hold on her. Porgy asks her what would happen if there was no Crown, and Bess tells Porgy she loves him and begs him to protect her, and he promises that she will never have to be afraid again. (“I Loves You, Porgy”)

Clara watches the water, fearful for Jake. Maria tries to allay her fears, but suddenly the hurricane bell begins to ring.

Serena’s room, dawn the next day. The residents of Catfish Row are all gathered in Serena’s room for shelter from the hurricane. They drown out the sound of the storm with prayers and hymns (“Oh, Doctor Jesus”) while Sportin’ Life mocks their assumption that the storm is a signal of Judgment Day. Clara desperately sings her lullaby (“Summertime” [reprise]). A knock is heard at the door, and the chorus believes it to be Death (“Oh there’s somebody knocking at the door”). Crown enters dramatically, having swum from Kittiwah Island, seeking Bess. He shows no fear of God, claiming that after the long struggle from Kittiwah, God and he are friends. The chorus tries to drown out his blaspheming with more prayer, and he taunts them by singing a vulgar song. (“A Redheaded wWman”). Suddenly, Clara sees Jake’s boat float past the window, upside-down, and she runs out to try to save him, handing her baby to Bess. Bess asks that one of the men go out with her, and Crown taunts Porgy, who cannot go. Crown goes himself, yelling out as he leaves “Alright, Big Friend! We’re on for another Bout!” The chorus continue to pray as the storm rises.

ACT THREE: Catfish Row, the next night. A group of women mourn Clara, Jake, and all of those who have been killed in the storm (“Clara, Clara, don’t you be downhearted”). When they begin to mourn for Crown as well, Sportin’ Life laughs at them and is told off by Maria. He insinuates that Crown may not be dead, and observes that when a woman has a man, maybe she’s got him for keeps, but if she has two men, then it’s highly likely she’ll end up with none. Bess is heard singing Clara’s lullaby to her baby, whom she is now taking care of. (“Summertime” reprise). Once Catfish Row is dark, Crown stealthily enters to claim Bess, but is confronted by Porgy. A fight ensues which ends when Porgy kills Crown. Porgy exclaims to Bess, “You’ve got a man now. You’ve got Porgy!”

The next afternoon. The detective enters and talks with Serena and her friends about the murders of Crown and Robbins. They deny knowledge of Crown’s murder, frustrating the detective. Needing a witness for the coroner’s inquest, he next questions an apprehensive Porgy. Once Porgy admits to knowing Crown, he is ordered to come and identify Crown’s body. Sportin’ Life tells Porgy that corpses bleed in the presence of their murderers, and the detective will use this to hang Porgy. Porgy refuses to identify the body, but is dragged off anyway. Bess is distraught, and Sportin’ Life puts his plan into action. He tells her that Porgy will be locked up for a long time, and points out that he is the only one still here. He offers her happy dust, and though she refuses, he forces it on her. After she takes a whiff, he paints a seductive picture of her life with him in New York (“There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York”). She regains her strength and rushes inside, slamming the door on his face, but he leaves a packet of happy dust on her doorstep, and settles down to wait.

A week later. On a beautiful morning, Porgy is released from jail, where he has been arrested for contempt of court after refusing to look at Crown’s body. He returns to Catfish Row much richer after playing craps with his cellmates. He gives gifts to the residents, and pulls out a beautiful red dress for Bess. He does not understand why everyone seems so uneasy at his return. He sees Clara’s baby is now with Serena and realizes something is wrong. He asks where Bess is. Maria and Serena tell him that Bess has run off with Sportin’ Life to New York (“Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?”). Porgy calls for his goat cart, and resolves to leave Catfish Row to find her. He prays for strength, and begins his journey. (“I’m On My Way”)

THE SONGS:

“Summertime”, “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”, “They Pass By Singing”, “Crap Game Fugue”, “Gone, Gone, Gone”, “Overflow”, “My Man’s Gone Now”, “Leavin’ Fo’ De’ Promis’ Lan’”, “It Takes A Long Pull”, “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”, “Woman To Lady”, “Bess, You Is My Woman, Now”, “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”, “I Ain’t Got No Shame”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “What You Want With Bess?”, “Time And Time Again”, “Street Cries”, “I Loves You, Porgy”, “Oh de Lawd Shake de Heaven”, “A Redheaded Woman”, “Clara, Don’t You Be Downhearted”, “There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”, “Buzzard”, “Where’s My Bess”, “I’m On My Way”

Hits include “Summertime”, “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”, “My Man’s Gone Now”, “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’, “Bess, You Is My Woman, Now”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “I Loves You, Porgy”, “There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon For New York”

MY OPINIONS:

This is my opinion. You can read it and pay heed, or shrug and decide that it ain’t necessarily so, and move on. Over to you.

Porgy & Bess is an opera. In fact, it’s pretty much a Grand Opera, and opera companies are the only people who can do it well, nowadays. It is not a musical, though it has some very limited dialogue. There’s just too much music in the piece, and music in a grandiloquent mode, to consider it anything but an opera.

There has been a recent attempt to reduce the orchestration that Gershwin originally used, and to reduce seriously the amount of music in the piece. Led by Director Trevor Nunn and others, the show is being “adapted”, replacing recitative (sung dialogue) with spoken dialogue from the original play that the opera is based on. That’s nice. But this show is too big, too broad to work as a conventional musical. It is an opera, as Gershwin intended it would be. Its emotions assume the stage at an operatic scale.

I believe that the talented people making this effort feel, as I do, that this piece is in danger of becoming somewhat extinct. Oh, people will probably always sing the big songs from Porgy & Bess. But the show as a show is very hard to put up, and has always had a limited audience. Like Street Scene, with music by Kurt Weill, Porgy & Bess originally played Broadway in the hopes it would run longer in a Broadway theatre than in an opera house, and in both cases, they were right. (The Most Happy Fella, by Frank Loesser, is essentially opera as well, and enjoyed success on Broadway.)

So, who wrote the words? Ira Gershwin claims (and I believe him) to have written the lyrics for “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin”, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “I Loves You, Porgy”, “A Redheaded Woman”, “Oh, Heavenly Father”, “There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon For New York”, and “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess”. The rest of the lyrics are presumably by Dubose Heyward.No less a brilliant lyricist than Stephen Sondheim speaks very highly of Dubose Heyward’s lyrical contribution to the opera, which include at least “Summertime”, “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”, and “My Man’s Gone Now.” (He also is not overwhelmed with Ira Gershwin’s contribution, and in this as in some other things, Mr. Sondheim and I part ways.) The work of these two very different artists blend effectively in this opera, each making its own unique contribution to the whole.

So, is Porgy & Bess a good opera? Yes. It is a good modern opera. It uses modern musical forms, including a lot of song, to tell it’s story, but it also bears the burdens of opera in recitative and fragmentary melodies, and in that area, Porgy and Bess is a little less than satisfactory. But it’s a fine opera, and I enjoy it better than most operas, I guess.

Is Porgy & Bess a good Musical? Nope. Porgy & Bess is not a Musical. It is not a Musical Comedy, not even a Musical Play. It’s an opera. I find it too melodramatic, with far too much rangy and dramatic music to consider it a Musical, and that’s sort of what dramatic operas specialize in. I’m giving it a two-star rating as musical theater, it is an exceptional work of Musical Theater. I guess you could say the same sort of thing about rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.However, the chances of Porgy & Bess surviving on productions outside of opera houses is not very great, despite its often gorgeous music. Because normal companies can’t do it, like they can do J.C. Superstar.

Porgy & Bess is an opera, and it needs to be done by groups set up to do opera. If you are, you should do it. And Street Scene. And TheMost Happy Fella…

MY RATING: ** (An excellent opera, well worth considering.)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

It’s an opera. The singers will need to be classically trained, with operatic registers and strengths. Your Musical Director needs to be Superman. He must play all sorts of styles like a God (or Gershwin), teach complex pieces blessed with jagged rhythms and interesting harmonies, and make that orchestra play tight as a drum. He must be very well-equipped to deal with classical voices and their needs. Only an expert can do this job. Ranges listed are classically trained, for opera.

Porgy – Bass. Emotionally expressive voice. Power in upper register.

Bess – Soprano. Emotionally expressive voice. Strong mid-range, almost a belt.

Sportin’ Life – Tenor. Expressive of character.

Crown – Baritone. Expressive of character.

Serena – Soprano.

Clara – Soprano.

Maria – Alto.

Jake – Baritone.

Mingo – Tenor.

Robbins – Tenor.

Peter – Tenor.

Frazier – Baritone.

Annie – Mezzo.

Lily – Mezzo.

Strawberry Woman – Mezzo.

Jim – Baritone.

Undertaker – Baritone.

Crab Man – Tenor.

Ensemble – If you use an ensemble, all ranges for choral work.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Well, this is an opera, and not a dance show. That said, the Choreographer will need to have a hand in numerous numbers, including any large number carried by the ensemble or company. There won’t be any dance, and a gifted Director who can stage well to music may not require a Choreographer.

If you’re brought into this show to put movement together, think of the period, the way of life, traditional dances of the time and place, and borrow from those if possible. Could be an interesting assignment, but not likely to be too strenuous.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Porgy – Ages 25-40ish. Disabled (lame, perhaps). A strong man physically and emotionally, but he has a breaking point. In love with Bess for a while, unwilling to say anything because he feels he’s not enough man for her. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Bess – Late teens-twenties. Sexy, self-destructive, indecisive, self-involved. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Sportin’ Life – 20s-30s, sly, a trickster and a user of other men. Street-wise, dishonest, a dope-peddler. Cast for acting, type, voice.

Crown – Anywhere from 25-40-ish, a large and dangerous man, a murderer without conscience. Utterly self-involved, possessive, small-minded, a blight on the community. Broad, muscular, a stevedore. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Serena – 20-30 years old. Robbin’s wife. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Clara – Late teens – mid 20s. Jake’s wife. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Maria – A mature woman, 30s-50s. Keeper of the cook-shop. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Jake – Mid 20s-mid 40s. A fisherman. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Mingo – A denizen of Catfish Row. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Robbins – Mid 20s-mid 30s. A denizen. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Peter – The honeyman. A mature man, mid 40s-up. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Frazier – 30-50s. A Black “lawyer”, dishonest, vile. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Annie – Cast for voice, type, acting.

Lily – Peter’s wife. 40-60. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Strawberry Woman – A mature woman. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Jim – A cotton picker. 20-40. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Undertaker – 30-60. Cast for voice, type, acting.

Crab Man – Cast for voice, type, acting.

Ensemble – All must sing well, trained voices, good clear upper registers.

SETS:

Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, is a real place. Here’s some photos. Of what is has looked like in times gone by


Acts I and III are played on Catfish Row. Act II, on Kittiwah Island, then Catfish Row, and then a small room (Serena’s room). So you’ll want Catfish Row to feel alive, lived-in, and real. It should not feel new. It is deteriorated, a home for poverty and drugs. It is a tenement, small rooms where little works or isn’t broken.

Kittiwah (or Kiawah) Island off South Carolina is also a real place.

It should feel open, natural, free compared to Catfish Row, a marked contrast and an escape. That will make the next scene, in Serena small room, even more claustrophobic.

Catfish Row should sit at the back of the stage. The island can be set in front of that set, perhaps about midway upstage, and could be a drop showing the ocean, a few plants, a beach. Then, isolate an area with light for Serena’s room, place a few pieces of furniture, and have it set in a corner of Catfish Row, perhaps there the entire show, but revealed when a single wall slips aside or rises in the rafters. This room should feel small, fragile, of almost no defense against the storm outside.

In this way, you’ve just two sets to create, and one is minor, essentially a backdrop. That makes it simple in terms of planning – your money and time will go into designing and executing Catfish Row. But that set needs to feel fairly real.

COSTUMES:

How did people dress around 1910-1920 in South Carolina?


 

As you can see, a lot of the clothing is going to be dark tones, blacks and browns, with perhaps some white shirts or dresses. The costuming should not be very hard to create. Much of it will be found in closets, and thrift stores. There really isn’t much in the way of specialty costuming.

But Bess should stand out somehow, just a bit of an unpolished gem in this mud hole. You should provide her a touch of unique color in her costume, and as she is a bit vain, it can change, and even be a little ornate.

Build Crown up to be physically imposing. Sportin’ Lie should have clothes that let him dance a bit. And all your principle actors must be able to breathe well, as they have so much singing to do.

PROPS:

A cotton-picker’s tool. The drugs that Sportin’ Life sells. Liquor, dice, objects of vice common to the men of Catfish Row. Money for Porgy. Each character on the Row uses props, like the honeyman, who may have a small cart, jars. All the picnic paraphernalia. Some of these props will be a bit specialized.

LIGHTING:

The piece is pretty grim for the most part. The few brighter moments., comic numbers as it were, should pop a bit. You are likely to use lighting to restrict attention as much as create moods. You may have a number of cues. The show is likely to be played on a large stage, and that will call for a lot of instruments.

The island should feel different than Catfish Row, more open,. Free, airy. And there’s a hurricane you’ll need to light, perhaps a special effect in the lighting with swirling shadows.

MAKE-UP:

Keep it simple and unobtrusive.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director/Conductor, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Porgy, Bess, Sportin’ Life

MY THOUGHTS:
This show is as beloved as it’s possible for a show can be that almost no one has seen in some 40 years. It is rarely exhumed in any form today. So when it is produced, especially professionally, it’s a red-letter day in Musical Theater land. (The same could be said for many older shows, unfortunately.)

This past year, the Gershwin estate, a bit power mad given that the boys who wrote the show are long, long, long gone, insisted that from now on the show be known as The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. I sort of feel bad for Dubose Heyward, who created the story and over half the lyrics, and think this is, well, lunacy. I doubt either George or Ira would approve, frankly. So I’m just going to keep calling it Porgy & Bess. If they’d like me to stop promoting their show, I’ll be happy to hear from them, and will at that time remove it from this site.

George Gershwin, certainly one of the most important American composers, took 20 months to compose the music for Porgy & Bess, and it was essentially his last project. I believe his intent for the show should be respected, but I also believe the show will likely go extinct if it doesn’t get productions. So I do understand why talented, smart people would be looking for a way to create what in essence will be The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess Light. And the full show will always be there, orchestrated and complete as George created it, for anyone with the good sense and wherewithal to resurrect it. All this is true. And I guess some Porgy & Bess is better than none. But is that really the choice?