MUSIC: What’s Bess’ For Porgy?

A quick thought on the announcement that there will be a “re-imagined” version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from the producers of Hair, with the music re-arranged and done as a musical rather than an opera. The very fact that people are talking about doing Porgy “as a musical” is good news of a sort, because it means that the show has finally been accepted as an opera. For many years after Gershwin’s death, there were constant arguments over whether it was an opera at all. In fact, the most commonly-seen versions of Porgy did more or less what the current production plans to do: they eliminated most of the recitatives and other linking musical material, replacing them with dialogue and leaving only the separate musical numbers. This was done in the 1942 Broadway revival of Porgy, which finally established it as a popular success, and in the now hard-to-find 1959 film version. It wasn’t until the mid-’70s, when some productions and recordings started using the full uncut published score (which wasn’t performed in Gershwin’s lifetime; he made many cuts before the original opening, but died before he could establish a definitive final version), that the idea of Porgy as a full-fledged opera started to become accepted.

Porgy definitely is an opera, both in the types of voices it’s written for — every important part except one requires a real operatic voice, no “Broadway” voices allowed — and in the composing techniques. Gershwin was trying for the ultimate fusion of the three main strands in U.S. musical life: there was pop music (which was closely tied to Broadway shows at the time), jazz, and classical (dominated by European music and European performers). Gershwin had worked all his life to blur the lines between those three types of music, and Porgy was where he applied everything he had learned: a jazz/pop opera written using European classical techniques. The musical language is more complex than in a musical, and it’s truly through-composed: there are Wagnerian leitmotifs for characters and things (the “happy dust” that the local drug dealer sells has its own theme) and heavy influence of the atonal German opera Wozzeck, which Gershwin loved.

However, the stand-alone musical numbers are unmistakably — and unapologetically — in Gershwin’s usual style, pop songs with a touch of jazz. So there’s always been a temptation to cut the operatic stuff, the leitmotifs and recitatives, and transpose the songs for non-operatic voices (something that was not done in the 1942 production, but back then “legit” voices were more accepted on Broadway). My problem with this is that there really aren’t enough stand-alone songs in the show to make this work. A few songs, like “Summertime,” stand on their own — but even they gain context and impact from the recitatives that surrounds them; “Summertime” is followed by a long recitative that leads into a reprise of “Summertime” (in counterpoint with a sung crap game), and the reprise just doesn’t work as well without the recitative to ground it. And some of the best songs in the show aren’t really songs at all, just short little passages of song that cannot be separated from their context. The most moving moment for Porgy in the first act is a minute-long passage that starts on the words “They pass by singin’, they pass by cryin'” — it’s not long enough to be a separate number, and Gershwin doesn’t treat it that way, just a part of the longer musical scene. It’s been performed on its own by jazz singers, but in the theatre, you have to have all the singing before it and after it or it doesn’t work.

The “They Pass By Singin'” occurs at 6:00 in this clip, which is from a TV production based on Trevor Nunn’s famous UK production (with the singers lip-synching to a studio recording they made). Nunn tried to do a “musical theatre” version of Porgy too, but it didn’t work; this new one may have better luck.