30 Days of Sheet Music: Day 27, “Bess, You Is My Woman”

Porgy and Bes

Today (really yesterday, sorry I’m a day off, busy delivering a web site and on holiday), a turn to turn the greatest American piece of musical theater, ‘Porgy and Bess,’ by my lights an opera, but pretty contested ground. I grew up listening to and playing songs from it, and had a life-changing experience in my teens listening to the Houston Grand Opera present it on tour at the  Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

Clamma Dale as Bess led a superb cast, and a fine recording was made, something that might have put to rest the Broadway musical vs. opera controversy, and also addressed the concerns that the score had various problems in the music, resulting from Gershwin’s inexperience in the form, that had to be solved. Simon Rattle also did a performance that was recorded for video and CD in the 1990s. It has also been in the Met repertoire for 30 years.

Most recently that Sol Hurok of Brattle Square, Diane Paulus, director of American Repertoire Theater at Harvard, has taken it on and with “The Gershwins'” consent, have redone it to address not only the alleged musical deficiencies, but also dramatic and cultural/racial issues. These are legitimate concerns–you see them for yourself in this cover–and there were some good things about what the managed to do. But on the whole, at least in its Cambridge incarnation, before Broadway, fixes, and a mess of Tonys, it was a theatrical mess, despite a lot of glorious singing and two particularly memorable performances from Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis.

Nice thing though: lots of new audiences got a taste of it, and like my battered sheet music and well-thumbed full score, it will survive.

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