Porgy and Bess symbolizes the end of the black musical tradition that flourished in the early part of this century. The play showed the height of white appropriation of what had previously been a black cultural form. All the creative talent backstage was white. This development had been occurring slowly, throughout the 1920ís, but black artists had often worked in a variety of creative capacities.
"Porgy and Bess" became a "black musical" in its most minimal sense, only as a definition of the color of the cast members. Neither the plot nor the music was of black origin.
Musical comedies seemed to be out of fashion in the 20ís due to the dismal revivals of "Shuffle Along" and "Blackbirds". Black dramas with music, and particularly spirituals, remained in fashion. "The Green Pastures" is the best known example of this trend. As dramas about black life took on greater importance in the 1930ís, they often borrowed from the musical comedy traditions of the 1920ís. Serious drama, about black life in the rural south or in northern cities, managed to blend music into its structure. In the 20ís many of the dramas that had to do with black life, music became a necessity. In the 30ís this trend prevailed, musical elements of Afro-American culture were showcased primarily in dramas rather than in musicals.
In Hall Johnsonís "Run, Little Chillun!", a folk drama about the conflict between the Christian and African religious heritage in black life, critics praised the marvelous choral music. While Johnson called his work a drama, Time suggested that he had written an opera, something rarely achieved or even considered by black artists working on Broadway.
Although the thought of an opera with a black cast and created by black talent was a rarity, it was not unprecedented. Bob Cole had spoken about an opera based on Uncle Tomís Cabi, but the work remained uncompleted at his death. Scott Joplin had written an opera, "A guest of Honor", while living in St. Louis in 1903. The opera had several performances in Missouri, but did go beyond the stateís borders.
Joplinís second opera, "Treemonisha", composed between 1905 and 1907, seemed more promising, Joplin died never seeing the play develop more then several auditions.
The first black performed opera on Broadway was Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Steinís "Four Saints in Three Acts" which opened on Feb.20th, 1934. The production ran for 48 performances.
The 1935 production of Porgy differed from earlier black musicals in several ways. Porgy and Bess had virtually no blacks involved in either its production or the creation of the muscial. The show was also a prestige item, produced by the theater guild; earlier musicals were often mounted on a shoestring budget. This version was billed as an "opera", or "folk opera". At one point it seemed the Metropolitan Opera would present the show. It seems that Porgy and Bess had no direct creative links with its black musical predecessors. Nevertheless, without their presence the show might never have existed. The origin of the show was the Heywards hit play, "Porgy" (1927) it was clear that the origins of the project returned back to an earlier date.
George Gershwin had been interested in the rhythms of black music throughout the prewar years, and he attended many gatherings of black musicians, poets, and authors during the Harlem renaissance. He first attempted to create a jazz opera about black life in the early 1920ís. Entitled "Blue Monday Blues", prepared by Gershwin and lyricist Buddy Desylva. Unlike "Shuffle Along" this play had white performers in blackface, which was the norm on Broadway at the time. The play was yanked after opening night after terrible reviews. Charles Darnton of the Evening World found the Gershwins piece "the most dismal, stupid, and incredible blackface sketch that has ever been perpetrated." Critics ignored Gershwinís operatic endeavors but the play and its revival "135th St." showed that Gershwin had been interested in the creation of a black-themed opera some thirteen years before Porgy and Bess.
In the mid 20ís, Gershwin expressed interest in a new novel about black life called Porgy, written by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward in 1924. When Gershwin suggested to Heyward that they write a musical version, Heyward objected, since he and his wife were embarking