September 30, 1935: World Premiere of Porgy and Bess
Boston was once Broadway’s top tryout town, and playwrights and producers were known to doctor their shows based on the Boston reception. George Gershwin did a bit of doctoring himself to Porgy and Bess, which opened on September 30, 1935 for a one-week tryout at the Colonial Theatre. It would open at the Alvin Theatre in New York on October 10.
Gershwin was at least sure of the cast and crew. He chose baritone Todd Duncan to play Porgy, and soprano Anne Wiggins Brown, a 20-year-old Julliard student, for Bess. Cab Calloway was offered the part of Sportin’ Life, but he turned it down and song-and-dance man John W. Bubbles claimed it. Rouben Mamoulian, who in 1927 had directed the stage version of Porgy, the novel on which Porgy and Bess was based, would direct the cast of 70 in Boston, and Alexander Smallens, who had served as music director for opera companies in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, would conduct the orchestra of 50. So ready or not…
The Boston Post sent two writers to cover the opening, drama critic Elliot Norton and music critic Warren Story Smith. Norton was caught up in the grandeur and utterly enthusiastic. He proclaimed Porgy and Bess “a sincere, able and in many ways brilliant theatre experiment,” and “little short of a theatrical miracle.” “It is a huge venture,” he wrote, “in the physical sense as well as the musical and theatrical…Director Rouben Mamoulian deserves tremendous credit. His task was vast. His achievement is almost staggering.”
Of Gershwin’s score, Norton wrote: “He has written much beautiful music; some of it so melodic and inspired that it will positively be included in the best seller lists. That best sellers could come from any opera is a miracle.”
Norton concluded: “Considering the opera as a whole—and considering it strictly from the point of view of popular entertainment—it is a little uneven. When it hits the clouds—and it does time and time again—it is definitely exciting and even thrilling…He has written an animated, vivid opera, that is as distinct of its kind and as unique as Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Warren Story Smith’s shorter review took a more measured view. He focused on the music, and praised the singing as excellent. But overall: “Even if his score almost never rises above the level of incidental music, this music is well contrived. It displays a craftsmanship which we would not have expected of the Gershwin of a few years ago, and if it never adds materially to the atmosphere created by play and production, neither does it seriously interfere with or dissipate it. That this music scales tragic heights may hardly be said. It is not yet within Mr. Gershwin’s power to write significantly.”
All these years later, given all the jazz musicians who have used Porgy and Bess as a songbook for invention, it is interesting to look again at the critical response to first night. Norton saw the music’s popular potential, while Smith saw its operatic shortcomings. For Norton, it was musical theatre while for Smith it was opera. Thus even the first Porgy and Bess debate began in Boston: is it musical theatre, or is it opera? Should it have opened at the Boston Opera House rather than the Colonial Theatre?
Neither critic, of course, could foresee Porgy and Bess becoming a landmark in American music, or the source of controversies over race and class that are re-examined with every restaging. Norton and Smith couldn’t have known any of this, but they did know Porgy and Bess was too long. Gershwin cut about 45 minutes from the opera before it opened on Broadway.
In 1940 Alexander Smallens directed Duncan, Brown, and the Decca Symphony Orchestra in a studio version of Porgy and Bess. From that recording, here is the overture, and Anne Brown singing “Summertime.”