Fish are jumpin', and the cotton is high.
Oh your daddy's rich, and your ma is good lookin',
So hush, little baby, don't you cry.
Conceived as an American Folk Opera, Porgy and Bess is Gershwin's take on the life of African-American fishermen scraping out an existence on Catfish Row, a fictitious locale based on Cabbage Row in Charleston, South Carolina.
Bess is addicted to "Happy dust" (cocaine) and strung along by her dealer/boyfriend Crown. After Crown kills another man over a craps game, he escapes to a nearby island, leaving Bess. Porgy, a peddler well-liked in the community, takes her in. The story unfolds with Porgy and Bess' blossoming relationship and what happens to them in Catfish Row.
Opened to great controversy in 1935, but the music and themes are classic, and is now regarded as
one of the great American opera; no other American opera comes anywhere near the popularity and critical acclaim (both domestic and abroad). Part of the acclaim is that it is the show that integrated theater audiences thanks to its original cast. The leads would not go on if the audience in Washington D.C. was not fully integrated.
Adapted into a 1959 film directed by Otto Preminger and starring Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, and Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin' Life. Poorly received by critics and commercially unsuccessful, the film was so disliked by the Gershwin estate that for decades after its initial run they made a point of destroying any prints they could find; it only aired on network TV once and has never gotten a home video release.
Porgy and Bess provides examples of:
- All Musicals Are Adaptations: The opera was adapted from DuBose Heyward's book Porgy. Heyward worked closely with George and Ira Greshwin on the production and contributed to the book and lyrics.
- Ambiguous Ending: The story ends as Porgy departs Catfish Row to travel to New York and seek Bess, leaving it unknown if he'll be able to find her and, if he does, get her to leave Sportin' Life.
- Babies Make Everything Better: Hinted at after Porgy and Bess adopt Clara's baby.
- Beta Couple: Clara and Jake are stable and deeply in love, in contrast to Porgy and Bess who, while in love, have many problems. However, their lives end in tragedy just the same.
- Blackface: Usually averted, despite premiering at a time when the blackface tradition was still current.
- Gershwin actually had the opportunity to have the opera debut at the Met (a composer's wet dream), but refused, as the cast would have been in blackface.
- For its European debut The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen had a production of white actors in blackface, in 1942 during the Nazi occupation, which irritated the Nazis to no end. It lasted 22 performances, before it was shut down due to German pressure.
- Chekhov's Gun: The cotton hook, which is used as a children's toy in the first scene, is later used as a murder weapon.
- Circling Vultures: A buzzard flying over Catfish Row is seen as a bad omen."Boss, dat bird mean trouble. Once de buzzard fold his wing an' light over yo' house, all yo' happiness done dead."
- The Corrupter: Sportin' Life, who is something of a devil analogue. As a drug dealer, it's his whole job to turn people into addicts.
- Colorblind Casting: A notable aversion for Opera, where color-blind casting is the norm. However in this case, casting anyone other than black singers in the lead roles would require Blackface, which would be in spectacularly bad taste.
- Cover Version: "Summertime" has been claimed to be the most covered song of all time— as a jazz standard, not the operatic version.
- Culturally Sensitive Adaptation: The opera used to have at least twenty instances of the N-word, but they aren't present in new versions due to a rewrite effort from Ira Gershwin in the 1950s.
- Drugs Are Bad: Any character who gets addicted to "Happy Dust" is going to have their life take a turn for the worse. Sportin' Life, a drug dealer / pimp, is portrayed as The Corrupter.
- Evil Sounds Deep: Averted. Both Porgy and Crown have deep voices, while the arguably worst villain, Sportin' Life, is a tenor.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: The hurricane bell.
- The Final Temptation: Sportin' Life gives this to Bess after Porgy is arrested with "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon From New York." He succeeds.
- Grief Song: "Gone, Gone, Gone," "My Man's Gone Now," and "Clara, Clara"
- "I Am" Song: "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" showcases Porgy's freewheeling worldview.
- Leitmotif: Several characters have these; Porgy's motif accompanies his first entrance and is the last music of the opera. The "happy dust" also has its own motif that is played whenever it appears.
- Mama Wolf: When Maria finds Sportin' Life trying to hook young boys around her shop on cocaine, he asks her if they can't be friends. She responds by singing an entire song ("I hates yo' struttin' style") threatening to gut him with her paring knife if he ever comes near the boys again.
- Minor Character, Major Song: Somewhat so. While Clara is important enough to the plot, the fact that her aria, and not Bess', is the show's signature song "Summertime," as well as being one of the most recorded and covered songs in music history, makes it this.
- Monochrome Casting: All the main characters are black. Unfortunately some aspects of their portrayal are sometimes seen as rather stereotypical by today's standards, but it was considered Fair for Its Day.
- Name and Name: Porgy and Bess, named after the two central characters.
- N-Word Privileges: The N-word is used many times in the original score and early productions, and except for one use by a white character to be insulting, it is used by African American characters to refer to each other. Though this was accurate to the historical setting of the piece, the creative team was all-white, which made the use of the word even more controversial than it would otherwise have been. In The '50s, Ira Gershwin replaced all mentions of the word after complaints from audiences and performers.
- No Song for the Wicked: The few white characters are all authority figures feared and distrusted by the Catfish Row residents (though one of them is a Reasonable Authority Figure who helps to get Peter out of jail), and to show that they're outsiders, none of them sing, and the orchestra even stops playing while they speak.
- Patter Song: Maria's "I Hates Your Struttin' Style" is spoken rhythmically over musical accompaniment, and is often referred to as an early example of Gratuitous Rap.
- Pet the Dog: Crown interrupts trying to kill Porgy and Bess to venture out into a hurricane and try to rescue Clara, most of the characters believing until his reappearance that it was at the expense of his own life.
- Pimp Duds: Not the precise outfit, given the time period, but Sportin' Life's flashy wardrobe is in a similar spirit.
- Questionable Consent: On Kittiwah Island, Crown attempts to rape Bess, and in so doing ends up seducing her instead.
- Reformed, but Rejected: Bess faces this mildly from the whole community, who at least tries to help her prove herself. She especially gets this from Serena, however - who has an understandable reason, given that Bess is partially responsible for her husband's death.
- Religion Rant Song: "It Ain't Necessarily So."
- Rescue Romance: After Robbins' murder, Crown abandons Bess and the police are sure to come soon. She goes from door to door, begging someone to take her in, with everyone refusing. Porgy admits her, and by the start of the next scene they have been living together for a month and falling in love.
- Saintly Church: Christianity gets a generally positive portrayal, with several characters turning to prayer when the situation is bleak. However, there are also noticeable traces of other folk religions, and many of the characters take a more mistrustful view of the church.
- Token White: A handful of white characters have walk-on, non-singing roles as government officials and police. While they don't have much stage time, their tense relationship with the Black residents of Catfish Row underscores the harsh realities of life under Jim Crow laws and segregation.
- Unusual Euphemism: Several characters are addicted to a drug (probably cocaine) called "Happy Dust."
- Villain Song: "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" for Sportin' Life, and "A Red-Headed Woman" for Crown as well as Crown's half of "What You Want Wid Bess?"
- "The Villain Sucks" Song: Maria's "I Hates Your Struttin' Style" about Sportin' Life. It quickly turns from a "villain sucks" song to a "you [the villain] suck and if you don't leave my presence I'll make you leave" song.