Review: Porgy and Bess at the National Theatre

Seeing a performance of the Gershwin brothers Porgy and Bess has always been on my bucket list. Most people who think they know nothing about the opera probably know a few songs from it anyhow. It’s hard not to know its opening song “Summertime”. Porgy and Bess traditionally has been staged as an opera, and a somewhat bloated one at that. That doesn’t work so well by 21st century standards, which was why it was condensed to a musical of approximately two and a half hours (with intermission) instead. Since I may never get around to seeing the full opera, this Broadway cast version was breezing through Washington D.C., and tickets were surprisingly easy to get, last night we took the Broadway musical (Diane Paulus) version in instead at the National Theatre.

I obviously can’t compare it to the opera. If you haven’t seen either the opera or the musical, you likely won’t be disappointed by this touring musical version. What it lacks in length, it makes up for in rich acting and wonderful singing. I found the first thirty minutes or so magical, the sort of experience you hope to have seeing a musical but which most musicals don’t deliver. Perhaps this is because some eighty years later, Porgy and Bess, whether performed as an opera or a musical, is really different.

So many operas are about rich or famous people, lives that are hard for us to relate to. Porgy and Bess is a workingman’s opera. In its time it was genuinely revolutionary, both in its mature themes and its Afro-American centrism. It is curious but perhaps not surprising that it took white guys (George and Ira Gershwin) to make it okay for us whites to explore the African American experience in the deep south. In the 1930s, Jim Crow laws still tightly segregated blacks and whites, and that is the world of Catfish Row near Charleston, South Carolina that Porgy, Bess, Clara, Jake, Serena and others live their lives.

Yes, this is a racy, race-tinged, sexy and quite controversial musical. Aside from two murders, white officers roughing up blacks, and drug abuse there is also poking fun at established religion (“Ain’t necessarily so”), rape and shacking up outside of marriage. Four years before Rhett Butler shocked America by uttering the word “damn” on screen in Gone with the Wind, all these elements were playing on Broadway in this opera. It thus should have been an opera it was okay to hate, but you can’t hate it as it is so true to life and has so many infectious tunes that keep your attention.

So little of Broadway allows African Americans, or really any ethnicity outside of European Americans, to shine. That’s not the case here with this near all African American cast. There is so much African American talent on stage at one time that it is delightfully overwhelming. It makes you want to see more shows like this. The cast is excellent and feels wholly authentic. Catfish Row is a long way from Park Place, but it is at least populated by real instead of surreal people.

There is new mother Clara and her husband Jake. There is Serena, who quickly loses her husband to Crown, who kills her husband with a cotton hook after a dispute at a craps table. There is poor Bess, pulled between three men: the rich dope pusher Sporting Life, the dominant murderer Crown and the crippled Porgy. And of course there is Porgy, a fundamentally decent man who has never known a woman but in a moment of vulnerability manages to woo and seemingly win Bess. It’s a delight to have a musical/opera full of real people, wending their way through a lot of chaos, hurt feelings and bad experiences.

This staging feels just right. You won’t be itching to leave because it is too long and you won’t feel cheated either. In fact, you will find it hard not to feel you are on stage yourself, with such a terrific and animated cast. All this plus Gershwin tunes and amazing voices. It makes for a compelling show, and received a standing ovation. The only mystery was why there were unsold seats in the back wings of the orchestra section on a Friday night. This was a show that deserved to be sold out. Those who gave other holiday activities preference should rue their decision.

Sadly its last performance here in Washington is Sunday. Given that Friday night was not sold out there may be unsold tickets for tonight and Sunday’s performances, so snag them if you can. You won’t be disappointed, but do expect to be thrilled and have one of the better nights of theater you are likely to enjoy.

The Best Work of American Classical Music

There is so much wonderful classical music out there that it is hard to pick favorites. Nonetheless there seems to exist a rough consensus among the classical music aficionados that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor is the best classical music that has ever been written. It has certainly withstood the test of time. Some might argue that Handel’s Messiah should have the honor. Arguably Messiah is perhaps the best work of classical music known to the masses. And it is a lot more hummable than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Ode to Joy from the fourth movement is familiar to lots of people.) About once a year or so I slip the Ninth into my CD player. Although brilliant, played anymore than that it gets hard to appreciate its brilliance. My only wish is that someday Ode to Joy would be sung in English, so we unwashed Americans could better appreciate it. But I guess that would be sacrilege to classical music purists.

Pondering great classical music, I was wondering if there is a work of American classical music that critics could agree is our best work. I suspect if pressed many scholars would pick a work by Aaron Copland, most likely his Appalachian Spring. There is no question that Aaron Copland writes quintessential American music. After you have heard a number of Copland pieces you can almost always hear something else he has written by him and say, “Yep, that’s Copland”. While there are many American classical music composers out there, only a few have any name recognition whatsoever. Some others that come immediately to mind for me include Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Alan Hovhaness. Your short list of American composers is likely different than mine.

But the best work of American classical music? That’s a tough question to answer. While I personally am drawn to the music of Aaron Copland I am often scorned for my choice. I like Appalachian Spring so much I had it played at my wedding. But while it was likely the best thing that Copland ever wrote, Copland was not an inventive composer. In fact he routinely stole snippets of American music. The main theme to Appalachian Spring, for example, is the well-known Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to be simple.” Copland excelled at finding excellent bits of the authentic American sound and weaving them together into larger orchestral works that amplified and extended these sounds.

A “best” work though has to stand the test of time. That’s a bit of a problem for American classical music since, by European standards at least, we are still a new country. Most countries though have one composer that stands out. When you hear his music (and it’s almost always a he) you say you understand that country. For example, Jean Sibelius gives us the sound and spirit of primal Finland. Who though could carry this mantle for American classical music and also create works of music that are uniquely their own?

The answer came to me last night as I heard music drift upstairs from the TV room. My daughter Rosie was deep into TV. I don’t know what she was watching but the music was unmistakable. It was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Suddenly it clicked into place. This single work is quintessentially American, wholly unique and as wonderful and amazing in its own way as Sibelius’s Finlandia is to the Finnish and Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Greensleeves is to the English. And Rhapsody in Blue is perhaps the most performed work of American orchestral music in American and in the rest of the world. And of course it is really, really good.

I remember fondly my first exposure to Gershwin. While I have an appreciation for jazz, it is not a genre that I have done more than sample. Sometime in the late 70s when I was finally on my own I wandered into a record store (this being in pre CD days) and found a two record collection of his best-known music. Of course it was just his works for piano and orchestra. You had to read the liner notes to realize he had a whole other career working with his brother Ira to create show tunes and popular music. He seemed an unlikely person to call a classical composer. Most people of his time saw him as a jazz composer. Perhaps Rhapsody is both jazz and classical music. But at 22 I remember thinking, “This is amazing music.” It is still true today.

George Gershwin is an odd selection for best American classical composer. Much of his music would be considered trite stuff. Fluffy musicals like Of Thee I Sing seems like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: fun to go to but empty of content or meaning. Steeped in the jazz era, and the Ragtime music that preceded it, Gershwin drew inspiration from many authentic forms of American music, including Negro spirituals. So like Aaron Copland he heard authentic American music and integrated them into his own music. Unlike Aaron Copland however they were largely inspiration for the creation of new music. In Rhapsody in Blue it all came together. The work itself is rather short. The pace moves from sedate to frantic and journeys in places in between. But there is no confusing it with stuffy classical music from Europe. It is a work that is fully of the energy of the American experience. It often feels almost giddy. And now the music is almost ubiquitous. I find it woven into television commercials for airlines.

Gershwin’s list of pure classical music is rather thin. Concerto in F and An American in Paris are his best known other works. Both are wonderful. But it is Rhapsody in Blue that endures and captures our soul. So for me, it is America’s Finlandia. I see it as not just our most recognizable piece of American music, but also as our best work of classical music.

What do you think is the best work of American classical music?

Update: 9/19/13 – It should be noted that while Gershwin is the author, he wrote Rhapsody in Blue for piano. Ferdinand Grofe actually arranged it for orchestra, so he deserves some credit for this work of art. Arguably, some of Grofe’s work could be considered as best works of American classical music. His Grand Canyon Suite comes to mind.