Porgy and Bess

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Next week will see the release of the cast album of the Tony-nominated Broadway production of Porgy and Bess.  As WNYC’s Sara Fishko tells us, the controversy over the style and scale of the musical is in keeping with the long history of the piece.  Here is the next Fishko Files…




Arguably the most famous song from Porgy and Bess is Summertime. Listen to the Fishko Files piece on Summertime here.


Regarding all of the different versions of Summertime, Tim Page, professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism and the Thorton School of Music at the University of Southern California, spoke with us about the different iterations Porgy and Bess has taken on throughout the years.

Tim Page

"In our lifetimes Porgy and Bess was this famous work that nobody really knew except for the sections which were sung and played by lots of different people. Whether or not one thinks it really works as a complete opera is certainly open to question. But I think all our lives we’ve been hearing new takes on Porgy and Bess… The only thing that would really bother me would be if the possibility of hearing the complete work disappeared."


Here's John McWhorter of The New Republic on the role of music in the opera and the current Broadway production.


John McWhorter

"There is a divide there. And the people who put this together are theater people. And God bless theater people – I’m a theater person – but this one came with the music in it. And the problem is if you’re going to address this as theater, well what it’s really about is there’s a beggar and he falls in love with a good time girl. And people have some drug problems and she can’t quite pull herself away from Crown. And they’re on an island. And she goes away. That’s it. It’s kind of a thin story, even the people who put this together seem to have a problem with that. That Porgy and Bess doesn’t seem fully realized and that’s because they’re fully realized in music that is much larger than the archetypal characters that they are."


One of the biggest and most operatic productions of Porgy and Bess was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 1985, almost exactly 50 years after the first production opened at New York’s Alvin Theatre. The issues of Porgy and Bess’ genre-bending style came up once again. From the New York Time’s critic Donal Henahan review

“Wednesday night's uncut performance took a grand opera approach to a work that until recent years has been treated as a Broadway musical, and generally mistreated, at that. Sometimes the Met's approach worked wonderfully, but at other times it exposed unnecessarily the opera's musical and dramatic weaknesses.”


A few versions of Porgy and Bess over the years…



For more from the speakers in this edition of Fishko Files…

  • Hilton Als is a writer and theater critic. He wrote this review of Porgy and Bess for The New Yorker.
  • John McWhorter is a journalist, writer and cultural critic. His The New Republic review is available here.


WNYC Production Credits...

Executive Producer: Sara Fishko
Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer
Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister and Paul Schneider
Managing Editor, WNYC News: Karen Frillmann