John Springer/John Springer Collection/CORBIS
Sidney Poitier plays Porgy in the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess.
On this day in 1935, Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's opera about black life in the South Carolina town of Charleston at the turn of the century, made its Broadway debut.
Cab Calloway (center) as Sportin' Life in the 1953 revival of Porgy and Bess.
Cab Calloway (center) as Sportin' Life in the 1953 revival of Porgy and Bess. Bettmann/CORBIS
Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, based on DuBose Hayward's successful novel of the same title, tells the story of poor, crippled Porgy and beautiful Bess, who runs away from the fast life to find sanctuary with Porgy and the residents of Catfish Row.
From the very beginning, it was considered another American classic by the composer of "Rhapsody in Blue" — even if critics couldn't quite figure out how to evaluate it. Was it opera, or was it simply an ambitious Broadway musical?
"It crossed the barriers," says theater historian Robert Kimball. "It wasn't a musical work per se, and it wasn't a drama per se — it elicited response from both music and drama critics. But the work has sort of always been outside category."
Borrowing minor chords from his Jewish heritage, call-and-response from black churches he'd visited and dashes of jazz, Gershwin's new music was completely original and very American. It was a commercial failure in its first run on Broadway — but despite that rocky start, Porgy and Bess went on to become one of the most-performed works in theater history.