On October 10, 1935, George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess premieres on Broadway.
Porgy and Bess began its journey to the Broadway stage in 1926, when George Gershwin wrote a letter late one night to the author of a book he was reading proposing that the two of them collaborate on an operatic adaptation. The American writer DuBose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy, immediately agreed to Gershwin’s proposal, but commercial commitments in New York prevented Gershwin from actually beginning work on the project for another seven years. In the meantime, singer Al Jolson attempted to mount a musical version of Porgy starring himself in blackface, but that effort foundered in 1932, leaving the way open for the Gershwin-Heyward collaboration that would feature an all-African American cast of classically trained singers—revolutionary casting in 1930s America.
Over the course of more than two years beginning in the spring of 1933, DuBose Heyward and the two Gershwins—George’s brother, Ira, joined on as co-lyricist in 1934—collaborated mostly by mail, with only occasional face-to-face meetings. In this fashion, they nevertheless managed to create some of the greatest songs in American musical-theater history, including “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
The critics of the day were decidedly mixed in their reception of Porgy and Bess, however. While Olin Downes of The New York Times found “much to commend it from the musical standpoint,” composer/critic Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald-Tribune, was less kind, calling Gershwin’s incorporation of blues and jazz influences into a “serious” operatic score to be “falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed…crooked folklore and half-way opera.”
Many of the songs had been cut from show between its trial run in Boston and its Broadway debut, however—a fact that may well have hurt Porgy and Bess with critics. In fact, the full George Gershwin score of Porgy and Bess would not be performed again until a triumphant 1976 revival by the Houston Grand Opera helped establish its current place in the standard operatic repertoire.
George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward died in 1937 and 1940, respectively, not knowing that the poorly-received Porgy and Bess, which premiered on this day in 1935 and closed some four months later, would later gain recognition as one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.