Porgy and Bess - Book and Discs

Let’s face it – George Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess must occupy some of the theater shelf of any serious lover of either music or theater.

In fact, so many books, CDs and DVDs offer quality material, that a Porgy and Bess section could be a separate cabinet – and a large one. There really isn’t any one “best” recording of P&B, nor is there one “best” book on the subject, but I’ve got some suggestions for those who want the basics.

First off, of the many books on the subject, one new release serves the purpose of a readable introduction, combined with enough depth and apparent accuracy to be a real source of information and perspective. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, A 75th Anniversary Celebration by Robin Thompson may look a bit like a coffee table book since its large (8 1/2″ x 11″) pages present big type and lots of white space with nearly 200 black and white and color illustrations.

It is not, however, a show off book. It is not filled with fluff. Instead, its text is a well structured recitation of the multiple stories that add up to how the great American Folk Opera came to be, and then covers the history of its productions from the 1935 premiere to just before the current Broadway revival.

Thompson sketches the lives of George Gershwin, his lyricist brother Ira, and DuBose Heyward, the South Carolina aristocrat who wrote the novel and co-wrote the play and then wrote the libretto and most of the lyrics for the opera. He details the rehearsal process for the original production and introduces the reader to director Ruben Mamoulian, producers Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langer of the Theatre Guild, and the original stars, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. He gives a fair treatment to the fact that it was a financial failure as a Broadway show, but that its 124 consecutive performances was an unprecedented accomplishment for an opera. It then details the revivals and major productions in the U.S. and around the world which track the transition from a financial flop into an acknowledged masterpiece.

So, now you know a bit about the work and you want to watch it. What’s out there? The Samuel Goldwyn movie version with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis, Jr. is not available on DVD because the Gershwin estate has refused permission. Those who want a quality video of Porgy and Bess can thank EMI Classics for releasing the telecast version directed by Trevor Nunn. The combination of superb singing, deep resonant sound and visual semi-realism works for me, although the sound often seems separate from the visual.

That production is also available in an audio CD, but it is only one of many choices you might enjoy. There is a recording of the early 1950s production which toured to 70 cities on five continents, including groundbreaking performances in Russia and in East Germany. This is the production that made a star of Leontyne Price and also featured Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life.

RCA released the complete opera in its Houston Grand Opera production. Thomas Z. Shepard, the record’s producer, used sound effects and wide spread stereo to create the illusion of a full production which works well even today.  My favorite operatic rendition, however, is Lorin Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in the opera as it existed before Gershwin found he had to cut much of it because it ran so long.

The latest addition to my Porgy and Bess shelf is the PS Classics two-disc recording of the current Broadway revival staring Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and three Tony Award nominees: Norm Lewis as a thrillingly human Porgy, David Alan Grier as a seductive dandy Sportin’ Life and Phillip Boykin as a thoroughly despicable but vibrantly virile Crown.

The recording beautifully captures the strengths of the production, but also documents some of its weaknesses.

In its effort to convert the three-act “American Folk Opera” into a more traditional two-act Broadway musical, cuts were made and liberties were taken. In the theater it is an often thrilling experience and the changes which caused controversy prior to its opening are less intrusive and less destructive than had been predicted.

One aspect that mars the production in the theater is by its very nature an aspect that also mars the recording. The orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, two practitioners of that refined art of aural color whose skill and taste have impressed in earlier projects, fail to match the musical strengths of the vocals they support.

They had to work under horrendous constraints, however. The original orchestrations of George Gershwin were for a pit orchestra of over 40 which is more than any modern Broadway show could afford. The current revival could only afford 22, which is still a huge orchestra for a show today.

For those used to the massive sounds of Gershwin’s glorious originals, these new orchestrations simply sound skimpy. What is more, Brohn and Jahnke made decisions about the arrangements which do some violence to the original work of Gershwin. While Gershwin’s orchestra consistently lent a sense of majesty, always granting a feeling of dignity to the world of southern blacks that he was portraying, the new orchestrations seem at times to descend to a Disney-ish view of southern “coloreds” of the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah school.

The recording attempts to minimize the difference in the size of the orchestra by augmenting the players in the studio with four more violins, but that still leaves the new forces short nine strings, two reeds and five brass players when compared to Gershwin’s originals. 

There are also distracting artificial sounding accents used from time to time (and, then, not consistently). While Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward struggled to find a way to present the Gullah dialect spoken by the people on the outer banks near Charleston, South Carolina, without either confusing the audience or seeming to be demeaning, modern ears may well stumble over “A Woman Is A Sometime Thang.”

Still, this new recording has many moments to be treasured. Nearly every minute that Norm Lewis’ Porgy is speaking or singing is a revelation, for he brings a humanity to the role that builds in intensity as the cripple gains a new level of self respect from the love of Bess. His exclamation “Bess, you got a man now – You got Porgy” after he kills Crown touches the heart, while his final determination to follow her to the ends of the earth is overwhelming. Particularly notable is his “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” a thrilling release of joy by a man who never expected to experience the love of a woman.

The title of the current revival and the title of the new book is The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which is a shame. Many operas and musical theater pieces are known by the name of the composer. (After all, we speak of Mozart’s The Magic Flute without mentioning Schikander.) So I don’t know that I’d object to calling each of these Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. But placing the apostrophe after the “s” in “Gershwins’” includes Ira while explicitly excluding Heyward, whose contribution to the entire project was clearly greater than Ira Gershwin’s. It was his story, his novel, his play, his libretto and most of the songs … including “Summertime” and “My Man’s Gone Now” had his lyrics. He should not be excluded thus!

DVD Directed by Trevor Nunn – EMI Classics ASIN: B00005LIN0
1940s Recording with original cast members – Broadway MCA ASIN: B000002OJM
1952 Live Recording in Berlin – Guild ASIN: B0017RRDRS
Houston Grand Opera – RCA Red Seal – ASIN: B000003EMO
Cleveland Orchestra 3 Disc Set – Decca ASIN: B000SSPKZ4
2012 Broadway Cast – PS Classics – ASIN: B007FEHA34 
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess – Amadeus Publishing – 978-1-57467-191-9 - List Price $29.99

July 31, 2012