Porgy and Bess: That old black magic

As a new staging opens, Michael Coveney puts the case for 'Porgy and Bess' as a work of musical genius

Like Franz Schubert, another composer of melodic genius and awesome facility, George Gershwin died with a lifetime of achievement behind him and another one round the corner. He was killed by a brain tumour, aged just 38, in the summer of 1937, barely two years after he and his lyric-writing brother Ira, together with the librettist DuBose Heyward, created the legend of Porgy and Bess in New York.

Porgy was the first original black opera, with the first all-black American cast on Broadway. Never intended for the opera house, even though it has a full Wagnerian running time (like "the eternity" of Hamlet) of about four hours, it has only been seen once before in London, when Trevor Nunn's superb Glyndebourne production 20 years ago (with Willard White and Cynthia Haymon in the leading roles) played a limited run at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

So the new production at the Savoy Theatre - The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess as a title indicates the Gershwin estate's approval of Nunn's streamlining the piece down to a length of two-and-a-half hours - is something of a landmark in a case history littered with them.

The first "serious" modern musical had been Show Boat in 1927, adapted by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein from Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of life on the Mississippi, and covering topics of gambling, miscegenation, "life upon the wicked stage" and the grinding, deleterious existence of black stevedores.

So when DuBose Heyward's 1925 novel Porgy became a successful stage play in the same year as Show Boat, it seemed an obvious musical-theatre project, with its low-life setting in the tenement houses of Catfish Row, a poor neighbourhood of black Gullahs (derived, originally, from Angola) in Charleston, South Carolina, and its central characters of a crippled beggar Porgy, his seductive but unreliable lover Bess, the brutish Crown (whom Porgy kills when he tries to reclaim Bess) and the drug-dealing Sportin' Life, spreading his "happy dust" around town.

Porgy the character was based on a real-life beggar and cart-bound goat man called Sammy Smalls who, in 1924, Heyward noted, had been held for the June term of Court of Sessions in Charleston on an aggravated assault charge. The local newspaper reported that he was alleged to have "attempted to shoot Maggie Barnes at number four Romney Street. His shots went wide of the mark. Smalls was up on a similar charge some months ago and was given a suspended sentence. Smalls had attempted to escape in his wagon and was run down and captured by the police patrol."

Gershwin had been planning to write an opera in "the American idiom" from about 1924 and wrote to Heyward about Porgy in the year of its publication, ceding to Heyward's request, when he met him, that the novel should be turned into a play before an opera. Heyward himself came from the Southern white aristocracy, but he knew this community inside out, and had studied the peculiar patois spoken by the Gullahs, which has a distinct Jamaican flavour. Catfish Row, originally "Cabbage Row" because of the vegetable stalls there, came alive on a Saturday night and was a social flash-point of crime and partying. The Gullah Negro also prided himself on what he called "shouting," described by Heyward as "a complicated rhythmic pattern beaten out by feet and hands as an accompaniment to the spirituals".

Work commitments piled up in the late 1920s, and it is interesting that two of the Gershwin brothers' musicals in the early 1930s - Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake - are political satires with a much more "light operatic" feel than their earlier musicals. In the first, there are many complex musical sequences in a send-up of politics as a popularity contest, encouraging one critic to suggest that this was America's first Brechtian musical; while the second develops the technique of replacing individual songs with musical scenes whose harmonies and musical structures anticipate Porgy and Bess.

By the time push came to shove on the opera, Al Jolson seemed likely to play Porgy in "black face", with Jerome Kern and Hammerstein providing the score, but Heyward pressed Gershwin to write a folk opera, not a musical comedy, and he duly signed a contract with the Theatre Guild, the producing agency, on 26 October 1933, five days after the Broadway opening of Let 'Em Eat Cake.

Held up by other commitments, Gershwin finally started work at the end of February 1935, mostly setting the scenes to music as Heyward sent them to him from Charleston; usually, he wrote music first, or at least at the same time as the lyrics. His brother Ira joined in as Heyward realised that his own lyric-writing ability was limited.

Ira marvelled at George's inventiveness and craftsmanship in working this way - how he could take two simple quatrains of Heyward and emerge with the wistful lullaby of "Summertime", the first music we hear and the first he wrote for the show. "Out of the libretto's dialogue," Ira wrote, "he took Bess's straight, unrhymed speech that starts, 'What you want wid Bess? She's getting' old now,' and it becomes a rhythmic aria; then he superimposes Crown's lines, 'What I wants wid other woman? I gots a woman,' and now is heard at once a moving and exultant duet. Not a syllable of DuBose's poignant 'My Man's Gone Now' is changed as the composer sets it to waltz time, adds the widow's heart-rending wail between stanzas, and climaxes the tragic lament with an ascending glissando, resulting in one of the most memorable moments in the American musical theatre."

The orchestrations were complete by September 1935, the show cast (without Jolson) and the director, the great Rouben Mamoulian, who had staged Porgy the play, hired. The opera still had the play's title and, as a way of avoiding confusion, Heyward came up with the solution: there had been Pelleas and Melisande, Samson and Delilah, Tristan and Isolde; why not Porgy and Bess?

Gershwin himself was delighted with the work, which he considered his greatest to date. After the first full rehearsal, he telephoned Mamoulian: "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 I think the music is so marvellous I really don't believe I wrote it."

The opening at the Alvin Theatre on 10 October 1935 was greeted with * * rapture by everyone except the critics and some of Gershwin's chief admirers, notably the composers Oscar Levant and Duke Ellington. "A right step in the wrong direction," was Levant's phrase, squirming in his seat at what he felt were too many "Broadway endings" to the songs; well, he had just finished a period of study in Los Angeles with Arnold Schoenberg. He also famously dubbed the show "a glorious paean to American Jewish music". Ellington was disappointed that Gershwin had gone back to primitive black music as his source rather than the developing new black jazz of the day.

Initially, Porgy and Bess was a commercial failure, running for only 124 performances. But the exposure of the great songs soon ensured its popularity, and four Broadway revivals - the first in 1942, the most recent at Radio City Music Hall in 1983 - were huge hits. In 1985, shortly after Nunn's Glyndebourne success, the piece entered the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera House. The 1959 film version - starring a somewhat anodyne, too likeable Sidney Poitier, the luminous Dorothy Dandridge and the effervescent Sammy Davis Jr as Sportin' Life - is not really the best way of experiencing the masterpiece.

Whether or not Nunn's new version will do the trick remains to be seen. Many versions, even the first, have been cut - as in truncated - from the original, and Gershwin always understood this as part of keeping his work alive. "I hoped to develop something in American music," he said, "that would appeal to the many rather than to the cultured few." Taking him at his word, Nunn has tried for many years to get the estate to agree to his populist vision of the piece as a musical rather than an opera, thus turning the original intentions on their head.

"This is a historic moment," says Nunn's musical supervisor Gareth Valentine, who has gone through the score with a fresh-air canister, orchestrating new dance sequences (there are no dances in the original), paring the band down from 55 instruments to 20 (with synthesisers), and lowering the keys for the women, whose lyrics, Valentine reckons, are often set too high for comprehension.

Would Gershwin mind this? "I doubt it," says Valentine. "He never stopped tinkering and fixing. The published score was only ever the cut version. He wrote many of the longer interludes merely to cover the lumbering scene-changes of those days, and now we don't need them. There is nothing we have lost that I feel is in any way not expendable."

Nunn, rather as he did with Peter Pan at the Royal Shakespeare Company, has gone back to all available sources: the original novel, the play and the libretto. Something quite new might emerge from this, as it might in Clarke Peters's performance as Porgy. Peters is an actor and musical-theatre artist, not an opera singer. He paid a visit to South Carolina to research the source character, the polio-stricken goat man whom nobody liked: "Sammy smelled to high heaven. He was mean and unpleasant. He did indeed live with a goat on a rope and that's why what happens - falling in love with Bess, losing her, killing her lover - is such a journey. It creates a great arc for a tragic performance, or should do. "There was something about old Sammy that DuBose, who was also crippled, profoundly responded to, so that when he writes a line for Porgy like, 'God gives a cripple an understanding that a strong man doesn't have,' it comes from the heart."

I ask Peters if he thinks the shortened version compromises the operatic whole. "That remains to be seen. We've lost some interludes and a couple of songs that are superfluous to the story. Even though I only have four songs, there's an awful lot in between. It's the most demanding thing I've ever had to do. And I'm asked to do a lot of it in the upper baritone range, where I've rarely sung, so I've been seeing a voice coach.

"You never stop learning or studying on a role like this. There is, of course, only one Willard White. But what I can do that Willard can't do is eight shows a week." And there you have it. The idea is that Porgy the opera comes home to its audience as a brand new musical.

And in an autumn theatre season packed with musicals, Porgy and Bess should take its rightful place at the centre of the activity. The most innovative new musical in recent weeks has been Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori at the National Theatre, which, when it opened in New York three years ago, shared, said the critic Frank Rich, "some of the torrential quality of Porgy and Bess." There are many connections between the two titles, not least the sense of a new musical adventure, the Deep South setting and the celebration of hard labour in a mean world consumed by racial and social tensions.

You can also reasonably ask: what happened to the black American musical theatre between the two shows? There was a retreat from artistic seriousness to mere artistic cleverness, with the invention of a new kind of black musical revue via the black versions of white musicals such as Carmen Jones (based on Bizet in 1943), an all-black Hello Dolly in 1968 starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, and The Wiz in 1975, an all-black Wizard of Oz. Then there was the Fats Waller revue (Ain't Misbehavin', in 1978), the Duke Ellington revue (Sophisticated Ladies, in 1981) and - the apogee of the genre, but at least with new songs - Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls, a story of black girls emerging from the ghetto, loosely based on the story of The Supremes.

More than a decade ago, Broadway offered Jelly's Last Jam, a roller-coaster ride through the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, a truly sensational potted history of the black American experience told through rap, tap, breakdance, kitchen pans and the human whirlwind of a dancer called Savion Glover. It was one of the greatest nights I have ever experienced in a theatre, but it wasn't Porgy and Bess. As it happens, the director of that show was George C Wolfe, also responsible for Caroline, or Change, which is currently reminding us what the black American theatre owes the Gershwins.

And not just the black American theatre, but all American theatre. Stephen Sondheim says Porgy and Bess is "the only musical that will last - that will still seem great - one hundred years from now". Whether or not it belongs on the opera stage or in the West End or on Broadway is a matter of continuing debate, and a testament to its revolutionary composition. But the barriers are down in all the arts now.

Only one current West End musical show begins to rival Porgy or Caroline for skill and achievement, and that's the revival of Evita by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Evita was first mooted as an opera in the early days of the ENO under Lord Harewood, and indeed Lloyd Webber is regularly sneered at for daring to follow Gershwin's example in invoking the term "opera" for what he does, which is an always interesting attempt to blend underscoring, recitative, solo numbers and ensemble choruses in exactly the manner pioneered by Gershwin in Porgy and Bess.

The debate never flags. Terminology can be meaningless, but also strangely revealing. The avant-garde director Peter Sellers was once asked if what Sondheim wrote in Sweeney Todd was an opera. "Stephen Sondheim does not write operas," he grandly declared; "Mozart writes operas." And so multiply our cultural foibles and snobbisms. I once suggested to a serious classical music critic that Evita, like Porgy, would one day take its place in the opera houses of the world. "Over my dead body," she replied. And so it will undoubtedly prove.

Gershwin's career aimed to mix up all kinds of music, from the concert hall to the theatre, from the church to the opera house, and his Russian Jewish antecedence was a key creative ingredient in his coinciding with the first and greatest boom in American popular song. His career was inspired, brilliant, pragmatic and far too short. But Porgy and Bess is the legacy he wanted, and one which still sets the standard in musical theatre.

'Porgy and Bess', previewing now, opens at the Savoy Theatre, London WC2 on 9 November (08701 648 787)

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