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Porgy And Bess

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symbolizes the end of the black musical tradition that
flourished in the early part of this century. The play showed the height of
white appropriation of what had previously been a black cultural form. All
the creative talent backstage was white. This development had been
occurring slowly, throughout the 1920's, but black artists had often worked
in a variety of creative capacities.
"Porgy and Bess" became a "black musical" in its most minimal sense,
only as a definition of the color of the cast members. Neither the plot nor
the music was of black origin.
Musical comedies seemed to be out of fashion in the 20's due to the
dismal revivals of "Shuffle Along" and "Blackbirds". Black dramas with
music, and particularly spirituals, remained in fashion. "The Green
Pastures" is the best known example of this trend. As dramas about black
life took on greater importance in the 1930's, they often borrowed from the
musical comedy traditions of the 1920's. Serious drama, about black life in
the rural south or in northern cities, managed to blend music into its
structure. In the 20's many of the dramas that had to do with black life,
music became a necessity. In the 30's this trend prevailed, musical
elements of Afro-American culture were showcased primarily in dramas
rather than in musicals.
In Hall Johnson's "Run, Little Chillun!", a folk drama about the
conflict between the Christian and African religious heritage in black life,
critics praised the marvelous choral music. While Johnson called his work a
drama, Time suggested that he had written an opera, something rarely
achieved or even considered by black artists working on Broadway.
Although the thought of an opera with a black cast and created by
black talent was a rarity, it was not unprecedented. Bob Cole had spoken
about an opera based on Uncle Tom's Cabi, but the work remained uncompleted
at his death. Scott Joplin had written an opera, "A guest of Honor", while
living in St. Louis in 1903. The opera had several performances in Missouri,
but did go beyond the state's borders.
Joplin's second opera, "Treemonisha", composed between 1905 and 1907,
seemed more promising, Joplin died never seeing the play develop more then
several auditions.
The first black performed opera on Broadway was Virgil Thomson and
Gertrude Stein's "Four Saints in Three Acts" which opened on Feb.20th, 1934.
The production ran for 48 performances.
The 1935 production of Porgy differed from earlier black musicals in
several ways. Porgy and Bess had virtually no blacks involved in either its
production or the creation of the muscial. The show was also a prestige
item, produced by the theater guild; earlier musicals were often mounted on
a shoestring budget. This version was billed as an "opera", or "folk opera".
At one point it seemed the Metropolitan Opera would present the show. It
seems that Porgy and Bess had no direct creative links with its black
musical predecessors. Nevertheless, without their presence the show might
never have existed. The origin of the show was the Heywards hit play,
"Porgy" (1927) it was clear that the origins of the project returned back
to an earlier date.
George Gershwin had been interested in the rhythms of black music
throughout the prewar years, and he attended many gatherings of black
musicians, poets, and authors during the Harlem renaissance. He first
attempted to create a jazz opera about black life in the early 1920's.
Entitled "Blue Monday Blues", prepared by Gershwin and lyricist Buddy
Desylva. Unlike "Shuffle Along" this play had white performers in blackface,
which was the norm on Broadway at the time. The play was yanked after
opening night after terrible reviews. Charles Darnton of the Evening World
found the Gershwins piece "the most dismal, stupid, and incredible
blackface sketch that has ever been perpetrated." Critics ignored
Gershwin's operatic endeavors but the play and its revival "135th St."
showed that Gershwin had been interested in the creation of a black-themed
opera some thirteen years before Porgy and Bess.
In the mid 20's, Gershwin expressed interest in a new novel about
black life called Porgy, written by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward in 1924.
When Gershwin suggested to Heyward that they write a musical version,
Heyward objected, since he and his wife were embarking on their own
dramatization of the work for the Theater Guild. Porgy premiered on
Broadway in October, 1927 and experienced one of the longest runs of any
play with a black cast during the 1920's. This story of a legless cripple,
Porgy, and his love for the faithless Bess on Catfish Row in Charleston,
South Carolina received generally favorable reviews. Not all black critics
were happy, however. The predominance of superstition, gambling, and
spirituals seemed to come from stereotypes that were common in white plays
about black life that had appeared on Broadway since the 1920's. Porgy did
excel, however, in its acting talent. Director Rouben Mamoulian, a young
Russian-American immigrant who had trained at the Moscow Art Theater,
reviewed the black plays and musicals of the 20's in his search for
performers. Frank Williams was cast as Porgy and Evelyn Ellis as Bess.
Maria was ...

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