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Between the lines of the brief debate that ensued from Sondheim’s temper tantrum, one side seemed to be arguing that the 1935 opera book written by a well-meaning white Southerner was racially insensitive by contemporary standards, and the other side that tampering with a classic text for such reasons was kowtowing to the most humdrum sort of political correctness. Nobody came out of this debate unscarred. Sondheim, of all people, should have known better than to weigh in on a show that neither he nor anyone else had seen yet. But Parks, in particular, relinquished whatever higher ground she and her colleagues had gained from Sondheim’s breach when she started giving interviews in which she seemed to be pulling rank over Gershwin and Heyward as well as Sondheim by virtue of being a black woman with presumably greater insight into the show’s characters. She even went as far as to chastise Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”—dialect and all, dandy Depression-era lyrics in the noble Tin Pan Alley tradition of songs like “The Best Things in Life Are Free”—for “leaning towards racist, darkie shit.”
All of this was treading old ground. Objections to the images of blackness projected by Porgy and Bess reached a crescendo not long after the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, with a 1959 film adaptation starring a reluctant but contractually obligated Sidney Poitier. (Ironically, a few years earlier, many conservative white politicians had questioned the U.S. State Department’s wisdom in sending the opera on an extended world tour, including performances in the Soviet Union.) In The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, a cornerstone text in early Black Studies programs, published in 1967, Harold Cruse called for a boycott of Porgy and Bess, not just by black audiences, but by black performers.
Through the decades, consternation over Porgy and Bess has inevitably reflected its own era’s black class anxieties as well as white misconceptions about black life—for black audiences desiring characters like themselves to identify with, the question hasn’t always been one of representation so much as the much trickier one of surrogacy. In its own day, even those critical of the opera’s racial modus operandi credited it with at least giving a flock of talented, conservatory-trained opera singers a foot in the door. But Porgy and Bess achieved far more than that.
In the thick of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporaneous with Alain Locke’s The New Negro, the opera pointed to a nascent black genteel tradition embodied by its performers—even if some in the black press and elsewhere were unable to make the reverse leap of separating these members of W.E.B. Du Bois’ talented tenth from the semi-literate working people and lowlifes they were portraying on stage (who weren’t “ready yet,” in that day’s parlance). Much about Porgy and Bess was musically new for both Broadway and the opera house in 1935, beginning with Gershwin’s use of blues cadences in lieu of the ragtime syncopations still favored by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, and his forays into harmonic territory to that point explored only by European composers like Alban Berg (the pentatonic, almost Asian-sounding “My Man’s Gone Now,” for example, anticipated much jazz experimentation of the 1960s by three full decades).
But Gershwin’s determination to mount Porgy and Bess as a grand opera rather than as a conventional Broadway musical represented more than just a celebrity songwriter’s desire to extend his realm, I think. Opera allowed for the expression of fine feelings by black characters previously limited to eye-popping, buffoonish display and the rawest of human emotions. And to give an idea of what the alternative might have been, Al Jolson was also vying for musical rights to the Heywards’ Porgy, intending to play the lead role himself, probably in blackface.
Curiously, once the current production of Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, even though the reviews were mixed (including in the Times, which gave it team coverage not seen since the entire editorial staff lined up to blow kisses at Rent’s adorable young boho poseurs in 1996), it was as if the race card had disappeared from the deck. I don’t think this relative scarcity of debate about the show’s racial implications means we’ve finally become a “postracial” society any more than the election of a black president did.
It might just mean that black audiences are smart enough to know this isn’t 1935 anymore, or that all of us, but black theatergoers in particular, are now OK with a lot of things we didn’t use to be. Besides, as Margo Jefferson has pointed out, Porgy and Bess has itself changed with the times—a gradual process that began with Ira Gershwin excising all instances of the word “nigger” from the libretto for a 1951 Columbia Masterworks recording. Nearly all of the outdated dialect is gone from the current production, and good riddance; it would create unwanted distance from characters landlocked in 1935.
There was still plenty of debate surrounding The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, only it centered on the arcane and ultimately pointless question of whether Porgy and Bess can be genuinely Porgy and Bess unless performed as an opera lasting over three hours. To go Jefferson one better, there is literally no one Porgy and Bess—no single“original” text, but three, chronologically and in order of diminishing order of length: Gershwin’s published score; the 1935 opera; and the 1942 non-operatic Broadway revival. Our sense that a scaled-down Porgy and Bess done as a musical rather than as an opera violates Gershwin’s intentions dates only to the influential Houston Opera production of the mid-1970s, which (along with a recording conducted by Lorin Maazel from around the same time) advertised itself as “complete” by dint of restoring the 45 or so minutes of music that Gershwin himself discarded following the opera’s Boston tryouts.