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ClassicsOnline Home » GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (Winters, Williams, Long) (1951)
The debate as to whether Porgy and Bess is a
musical comedy or an opera has been raging ever since
George Gershwin’s masterpiece made its Broadway
début in 1935. At that first performance it was called, in
fact, ‘a folk opera’, and the newspapers sent both their
drama and music critics to review it. Interestingly
enough, the initial round of notices treated it more
favourably as theatre than as opera. Since that time, the
pendulum has swung back and forth, with various
stagings, both populist and grand, vying for the public’s
The present recording, made in 1951, is a canny
compromise that brings together the best of both
worlds, which is perhaps one of the reasons it has
endured so well over the years. Goddard Lieberson of
Columbia Records was the driving force behind the
project and on this occasion, as on so many others,
musical theatre fans owe him at a debt of gratitude.
Lieberson not only loved musicals, he understood how
to make them come to life in a recording, even if his
changes and transpositions could come dangerously
close to ghost-writing on occasion. He felt the need for
a first-rate, full-length recording of Gershwin’s massive
work, even though what emerges here is not, strictly
speaking the ‘complete’ version of the show that it was
initially advertised as. There are judicious trims and
edits throughout, which considerably reduce the
running time, but the important thing is that the piece, as
an entity, is presented with its artistic integrity intact.
The libretto of Porgy and Bess was written by
DuBose Heyward, based on his acclaimed 1925 novel,
Porgy, and the play that his wife Dorothy subsequently
fashioned from it in 1927. Heyward was inspired by the
true-life story of one Sammy Smalls, a crippled beggar
with a goat-cart who lived in the black tenement area of
Charleston, South Carolina known as ‘Cabbage Row’.
A series of events led Smalls to commit a crime of
passion, attempting to shoot a woman he felt had
betrayed him. Something about the individual and the
setting inspired Heyward and before too long he had
changed the locale to ‘Catfish Row’, and reinvented
Smalls as Porgy.
The enormous success of the 1927 stage version of
Porgy led a variety of people to contemplate turning it
into a musical, including Al Jolson, who wanted to play
the title-rôle in blackface, but Heyward wisely resisted
all offers until he met George Gershwin, then at the
peak of his composing career. Gershwin convinced
Heyward of his desire to write ‘an American opera’ and
promised to remain faithful to the original milieu.
George’s brother, Ira, joined in to help write the
lyrics, but it took the collaborators years to finish their
piece. When it finally opened at the Alvin Theatre on
10th October, 1935, the critical response, as noted, was
mixed, and it only ran for 124 performances, impressive
for an opera, but a failure by musical comedy standards.
A series of revivals in the 1940s made the work
more of a popular success, but Lieberson and Ira
Gershwin felt that the show’s musical elements were
being put in second place. Consequently this led to the
decision to create a recording that would not be
specifically attached to any production of the show. It
allowed Lieberson to put together a team that he felt
could serve Porgy and Bess to its best advantage.
His first choice was Lehman Engel as conductor.
The extroverted Engel was eventually to become one of
Broadway’s most popular orchestra leaders of musical
comedy, with shows like L’il Abner, Jamaica and Do
Re Mi to his credit, but he actually began his
professional career as a composer of incidental music
for Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre and Maurice
Evans’s Hamlet. Perhaps most significantly, he had
conducted Harold Rome’s 1946 topical revue, Call Me
Mister, and from that cast he tapped Lawrence Winters
to play Porgy.
Winters was born in Kings Creek, South Carolina,
in 1915 and studied at Howard University with Todd
Duncan, the original Porgy. After making his New York
début in Call Me Mister, he moved on to the New York
City Opera, where he was a member of the company at
the time of this recording. Afterwards, he spent most of
his operatic career in Germany, returned to Broadway in
1960 where he received a Tony nomination for his
performance in The Long Dream, and finally died in
Camilla Williams, Bess in the recording, was also
singing at the New York City Opera. She was born in
Danville, Virginia, in 1925 and was singing with the
Philadelphia Orchestra by the age of nineteen. She
made her operatic début in New York as the lead in
Madama Butterfly when she was only 21. A long and
distinguished life on the concert and opera stages of the
world followed until her retirement in 1971. She then
went on to teach until 1997 in Indiana, where she still
The rôle of Sporting Life is sung by Baltimore-born
Avon Long, who was born in 1910, worked extensively
in vaudeville and finally made his Broadway début in
the 1936 musical, Black Rhythm. He appeared in the
1942 revival of Porgy and Bess and later went on to
collaborate in numerous other musicals, the last being
the 1976 revue, Bubbling Brown Sugar. He also won a
Tony for his work in the 1973 musical, Don’t Play Us
Cheap! He died in 1984.
This combination of varied voices and talents
allowed Lieberson and Engel to create a reading of
Gershwin’s score which combined the energy of
musical comedy with the vocal richness of opera. As
such, it has never really been equalled.
As a bonus this release also features selections from
a 1950 RCA-Victor recording called ‘Highlights from
Porgy and Bess’. This work was intended to showcase
the talents of two stars of the Metropolitan Opera who
were enjoying great personal popularity at the time,
Risë Stevens and Robert Merrill.
Stevens was born in New York in 1913, with her
education taking place both at Juilliard and in Vienna.
Her début was in Prague in 1936 and she remained there
until 1938. She first appeared at the Met that year as
Mignon and from then until her retirement in 1961
remained the organization’s leading mezzo-soprano.
She also made several popular film appearances in The
Chocolate Soldier and Going My Way. In her later years
she worked as an arts administrator and vocal coach.
She still lives in New York.
Merrill was also born in New York in 1917, the son
of famous concert singer Lillian Miller Merrill. He
made his Met début in La traviata in 1945 and sang
there for thirty years, finally retiring in 1975. He also
starred on screen in Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick and
on stage in Fiddler On the Roof. He last appeared as the
host of the TV programme Great Moments in Opera in
Robert Russell Bennett, who conducted these
selections, is known primarily as one of the great
orchestrators in the history of the musical theatre. Born
in 1894, he arranged over three hundred shows in a
career that lasted until shortly before his death in 1981.
His closest collaborator was Richard Rodgers and
Bennett orchestrated seven of the musicals Rodgers
wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II as well as the awardwinning
score for Victory At Sea.
These Highlights are of particular interest in
allowing us to hear two operatic stars of over fifty years
ago (with the keys adjusted to suit their ranges)
attempting to make one of the earliest ‘cross-over’
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GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (Winters, Williams, Long)...