12 Things You Should Know About PORGY AND BESS

PORGY AND BESS, the American masterpiece, opened on Broadway on this date in 1935. To honor this amazing work, here are…

12 Things You Should Know About PORGY AND BESS

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, 2012

1. PORGY AND BESS is an American folk opera by composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. The opera was based on Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, which DuBose and his wife, playwright Dorothy Heyward, adapted into a play of the same name.

2. Librettist DuBose Heyward had no formal literary training; he wrote the novel Porgy while working as an insurance agent.

The Original Broadway Cast, 1935

3. PORGY AND BESS made its world premiere at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935, featuring a cast of classically-trained African-American singers. The production opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935, starring Todd Duncan and Anne Wiggins Brown.

New York Harlem Theatre Production (Naples, Italy 2011)

4. DuBose Heyward set his novel in fictional Catfish Row, inspired by the James Island Gullah community in North Carolina, and most of the characters speak in the Gullah dialect. While composing the score, George Gershwin moved to Charleston, North Carolina, to draw inspiration from the Gullah community.

Todd Duncan and Ann Wiggins Brown (Broadway, 1935)

5. During the show’s first national tour, in 1936, the PORGY AND BESS cast protested the segregation policy at the National Theatre in Washington. The theater intended to offer a special “blacks only” performance, but Todd Duncan, speaking for the cast, said he would never perform in a theater that barred him from purchasing a ticket because of his race. The management gave in, and the National Theatre housed an integrated audience for the first time.

David Alan Grier and Company (Broadway, 2012)

6. PORGY AND BESS has, to date, been produced on Broadway seven times: in 1935, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1953, 1976, 1983, and 2012. Most were limited runs; the 1953 and 2012 productions had the longest runs, at 305 and 321 performances, respectively.

George Gershwin, DuBuse Heyward, and Ira Gershwin

7. In a 1935 New York Times article, George Gershwin defended PORGY AND BESS as a folk opera, writing, “Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people naturally would sing folk music. When I first began work in the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music – and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.”

8. The opera’s brilliant score features several songs that have become American classics, including “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

9. “Summertime” is one of the most popular songs in the history of recorded music, with more than 33,000 covers by groups and solo performers.

10. The very first version of the opera ran four hours, with two intermissions. The running time was reduced to three hours for the Broadway debut, and the 2012 Broadway revival ran 2 hours and 30 minutes. (The film adaptation, which was substantially edited from the stage version, runs 2:18.)

Audra McDonald and Company (Broadway, 2012)

11. PORGY AND BESS won its first Tony Award in 1977, when the Houston Grand Opera production, which transferred to the Uris Theatre, won Most Innovative Production of a Revival. The 2012 revival won two Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for Audra McDonald.

New York Harlem Theatre Cast (Naples, Italy 2011)

12. Eighty-two years after its debut, PORGY AND BESS remains a vital American work of art. Presented by theatres and opera companies worldwide, the opera continues to thrill audiences with its passion, humanity, humor, and glorious music.