The making of an American classic

Monday Book Reviews

February 04, 1991|By Neil A. Grauer

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PORGY AND BESS: The Story of an American Classic. By Hollis Alpert. Knopf. 354 pages. $35.

NEVER underestimate the power of the press.

In March 1924, a 91-word story in the Charleston, S.C., News and Courier caught the eye of DuBose Heyward, a genteelly impoverished Southern aristocrat and poet who wanted to give up his modest insurance business to concentrate on literary pursuits. The story described a minor contretemps with police involving Sammy Smalls, a crippled black beggar who got around Charleston in a tiny cart pulled by a goat. Impressed by Smalls' pluck, Heyward clipped the article, put it in his pocket and began contemplating how to run the poignancy of the story into a work of fiction.

In this splendidly written and illustrated book, Hollis Alpert, a former Saturday Review movie critic and editor-in-chief of American Film, does a remarkable job capturing the magic of the creative process and describing the extraordinary transformation of Heyward's original novel, "Porgy," into a play and then the opera "Porgy and Bess," the collaboration between Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin that subsequently "conquered an entire world."

Although hosannas have greeted performances of "Porgy and Bess" ever since its debut in 1935, controversy and debate persist over whether it celebrates or denigrates black people and whether it is, as Alpert puts it, "a musical show, musical play, folk opera, light opera or just plain opera."

In 1953, James Hicks, writing in Baltimore's Afro-American, denounced a New York revial of "Porgy and Bess" as the "most insulting, the most libelous, the most degrading act that could possibly be perpetrated against the Negro people." On the other hand, H. Hayes Strider, then head of the music department at Morgan State, immediately hailed the new production (directed by Robert Breen and featuring erstwhile Baltimorean Cab Calloway) as superb: "It is life itself!" Duke Ellington, a detractor of the work when it premiered, changed his mind by 1953 and praised it as "the superbest" and Gershwin (who had died tragically of a brain tumor in 1937 at only 38) as "the greatest."

Nevertheless, Sidney Poitier initially refused to star in Samuel Goldwyn's 1958 film version of "Porgy and Bess," calling it "not material complimentary to black people." It took the urgings of such a distinguished black as Ralph Bunche to change Poitier's mind. The film turned out to be ill-fated anyhow, in part because neither Poitier nor his co-star, Dorothy Dandridge, could sing, and Goldwyn really acknowledged that they simply were lip-syncing songs sung by others. (The tricks behind Milli Vanilli were not new, only dishonest.)

While musicologists and critics still quibble over whether Gershwin really "intended" to create an "opera" and whether he succeeded, "Porgy and Bess" was eagerly welcomed to that operatic mecca, La Scala, during a remarkable four-year tour of the world in the early 1950s. Since then, it has been "canonized," Alpert writes, by being brought into the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera in 1985, and "knighted" the following year by being performed at England's Glyndebourne Festival.

With crisp, engaging prose, Alpert brilliantly recounts the fascinating story of how the creative process behind "Porgy and Bess" gelled, and how the work has been remolded -- and restored -- over the years. A bountiful supply of photographs, laced throughout the book, illuminates the text wonderfully.

It also will gratify Baltimoreans and Washingtonians to be reminded that the first Porgy was Todd Duncan, the magnificent baritone and music teacher at Howard University, and the first Bess was Anne Wiggins Brown, the daughter of a Baltimore physician and a graduate of Juilliard. Both were selected for the roles by Gershwin himself.

Alpert does a grand job placing every episode in the 55-year story of "Porgy and Bess" in historical context and of finding lively and telling anecdotes with which to brighten his narrative. For example, he recounts that in 1943, the play was performed by an all-white cast in Copenhagen's Danish Royal Opera, much the displeasure of the occupying Nazi authorities, who threatened to bomb the theater. The show closed, Alpert writes, but when the Nazis subsequently broadcast reports on Danish radio of the Germans' supposed battlefield triumphs, "the Danish underground would cut in with a record of 'It Ain't Necessarily So.' "

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore journalist and author.

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