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Anatomy of a Showtune: 'Summertime' from PORGY AND BESS

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Go inside the long and record-setting life of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's iconic aria.

Anatomy of a Showtune: 'Summertime' from PORGY AND BESS

Since the 1935 world premiere production of the classic folk opera, Porgy and Bess, much of the score of George Gershwin's first opera has become musical canon.

Leaping off of the operatic stage and into the mainstream, songs like 'My Man's Gone Now', 'It Ain't Necessarily So', and 'I Got Plenty o' Nothin'' have established themselves as standards of the great American songbook. Though the reach of Gershwin's classic tunes has proved vast, no other song from the opera has quite matched the monumental success of the show's opening aria, "Summertime."

In the 85 years since its debut, this soulful lullaby has taken on a unique and unprecedented life of its own. In its long life, the song has proven its staying power and versatility, conforming to countless musical styles and settings and ultimately becoming the most covered song of all-time.

The story of how and why the song reached this pinnacle begins in 1925 when DuBose Heyward, released his novel Porgy, which ultimately gave way to a 1927 play of the same name by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy. Deeply inspired by the story, Broadway composer George Gershwin went to work on an adaptation. This time, however, the show would not be created for the musical stage- for the first time ever, Gershwin had set his sights on the opera.

To bring his Porgy to life, Gershwin enlisted novelist and playwright, DuBose Heyward and his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. In order to craft the world of the show, the Gershwins and DuBose spent several weeks in Charleston, South Carolina to study the lives and vernacular of the African American community there. Gershwin specifically drew inspiration from the coastal James Island Gullah community, citing their preservation of authentic African musical traditions as a jumping off point for the sound of the score.

Though the work itself is an opera and contains the traditional forms of arias and recitatives throughout, Gershwin drew inspiration from numerous musical styles, employing his roots in New York jazz, along with Black folk music, blues, street cries, spirituals, and hymns to enrich the musical world and community of Porgy and Bess.

"Summertime" specifically points to the diverse array of musical styles contained in the opera, utilizing the melancholy minor keys of jazz music, but written to be performed by a classically trained opera singer.

Musicologist K. J. McElrath wrote of the song, "Gershwin was remarkably successful in his intent to have this sound like a folk song. This is reinforced by his extensive use of the pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A) in the context of the A minor tonality and a slow-moving harmonic progression that suggests a "blues". Because of these factors, this tune has been a favorite of jazz performers for decades and can be done in a variety of tempos and styles."

Though Gershwin said that he did not draw inspiration for the song from any pre-existing spirituals, many scholars have pointed to similar melodies Gershwin may have adapted the song from, most notably the spiritual, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child", which was featured at the end of the source play. After the opera's debut, many were quick to pick up on the similarities between the two. The songs sounded so similar that jazz legend Mahalia Jackson eventually went on to record them as a medley.

Others have pointed to some Ukranian musical traditions as inspiration for the song. The Ukrainian Yiddish lullaby "Pipi-pipipe" has been the subject of speculation as Summertime's inspiration as well as another the Ukrainian lullaby "Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon" ("A Dream Passes by the Windows").

Despite lingering questions behind Gershwin's melody, DuBose Heyward took inspiration for the song's lyrics from southern folk spiritual-lullaby "All My Trials", which had also been used in his play Porgy.

Stephen Sondheim, a well-known super fan of the opera, has praised Heyward's choice of words to the opening line of the song in setting the tone for the rest of the song and score.

"That 'and' is worth a great deal of attention. I would write "Summertime when" but that 'and' sets up a tone, a whole poetic tone, not to mention a whole kind of diction that is going to be used in the play; an informal, uneducated diction and a stream of consciousness, as in many of the songs like 'My Man's Gone Now'."

He continues, "It's the exact right word, and that word is worth its weight in gold. "Summertime when the livin' is easy" is a boring line compared to "Summertime and". The choices of "ands" [and] "buts" become almost traumatic as you are writing a lyric - or should, anyway - because each one weighs so much."

Gershwin began composing the song in December 1933 and had the completed melody set to Heyward's poem by February 1934. It took Gershwin and Heyward the next 20 months to deliver the full, orchestrated score.

The first ever recorded performance of Summertime was sung by American soprano Abbie Mitchell (who originated the role of Clara on Broadway) on July 19, 1935, with George Gershwin playing the piano and conducting the orchestra.

Though the show began its life as Porgy, everything changed when Gershwin received a letter from opera student Ann Brown, then 20 years old and the first African-American vocalist admitted to Julliard. In the letter, Brown expressed interest in the project and requested an audience with the composer to sing for him. Gershwin's secretary received the letter and set up the meeting. Gershwin was so impressed by Brown he expanded the role of Bess, then a secondary character, and cast her.

In the period between rehearsals and previews, Gershwin invited Brown to lunch. At that meeting, he told her, "I want you to know, Miss Brown, that henceforth and forever after, George Gershwin's opera will be known as Porgy and Bess."

Porgy and Bess had its world premiere at Boston's Colonial Theatre on September 30, 1935 and debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935.

The song is utilized several times throughout the opera. It opens act one, sung by Clara to her baby as a lullaby. She then reprises the melody as counterpoint to the act two craps game scene. It is sung again in act three, this time by Bess, singing to Clara's now-orphaned baby following the storm that devastates Catfish Row.

The long recording history of "Summertime" began just days after the opera's Broadway opening when two white opera singers Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, of the Metropolitan Opera recorded a handful highlights from the show. Less than a year later, in September 1936, Billie Holiday's recording of the song was the first to hit the US pop charts, reaching no. 12.

The show's original stars, Todd Duncan and Ann Brown, were not given the opportunity to immortalize their work in the same fashion until 1940, when they recorded their own highlights, "Summertime" among them.

From there, the veritable floodgates opened for recordings of the song. Over the years, it has amassed tens of thousands of covers and recordings, spanning an astounding number of musical genres and nearly every conceivable instrument.

The Summertime Connection is a website whose sole purpose is to collect recordings of the aria in an effort to keep track of its incredible life all over the globe. At last count (August 2020) the website claims to have accounted for at least 98,400 public performances, of which 82,723 have been recorded. The Summertime Connection currently boasts 70,820 full recordings in its collection.

The song remains the Most Recorded Song in History according to the Guinness Book of World records, beating out The Beatles' 'Yesterday' and even Christmas standards that are routinely recorded each year.

Despite the ubiquity of recordings of the song, there are a handful that have etched their place in history as stand out covers. Former national tour Bess, opera singer, Leontyne Price, recorded what is considered one of, if not the, definitive operatic version of the song as part of a performance at the White House in 1978.

Other highly notable versions include a duet between Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis' jazz instrumental, blues versions recorded by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company and Al Green, a folk cover by Willie Nelson, a reggae rendition by B.B. Seaton, a stripped-down cover by British Invasion band The Zombies, and a bluegrass version from Doc Watson. The song has also been adapted into other tunes such as 'Doin' Time' from the ska band, Sublime, which incorporates elements of Gershwin's original.

In 1959, the song made its way to the big screen in the film adaptation of Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. Though Dandridge performed the song onscreen, Adele Addison did vocal dubbing for Bess. Diahann Carroll's Clara was also dubbed for the film. Though Dandridge and Carroll were both singers, their voices were deemed not operatic enough for the film.

There have been at least eight revivals of the musical on Broadway and in Broadway adjacent venues (Radio City Music Hall, City Center) since its debut, most recently Diane Paulus' 2012 re-imagining of the opera, starring Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald. This staging caused some controversy for Porgy and Bess superfan, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a scathing open letter to The New York Times deriding changes made to the show, specifically the omission of DuBose Heyward's credit from the show's altered title, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

In addition to its life on Broadway, the opera has been performed countless times around the world. It returned to the New York stage most recently in a September 2019 production from The Metropolitan Opera. Singers Angel Blue, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Golda Schulz, Janai Brugger, and Brandie Sutton, who performed Bess and Clara throughout the run, are the latest to add their name to the long list of incredible opera singers who have brought this indelible tune to life.

Despite Porgy and Bess' place as a groundbreaking work for classically trained Black singers, it would be impossible to discuss the show's long life without acknowledging its long-debated history of racial controversy. Since its debut, the opera has faced criticisms of racism and outdated stereotypical depictions of Black Americans, as well as what critics view as a whitewashed version of Black people as created by three Caucasian artists. Some of the vernacular within its lyrics has been criticized as a form of minstrelsy, hearkening back to offensive blackface stereotypes and the 'Negro dialect' used to mock Black Americans.

With a life as controversial as it is long, it is a testament to the power of the compositions contained therein that Porgy and Bess has flourished for as long as it has. Though there is no telling what the future holds for the show as we continue our rigorous and long overdue examination of cultural representation in our media, its opening aria appears to have no such shelf life.

In the past 85 years, "Summertime" has become an institution unto itself; an affecting and lasting tribute to the lazy days of summer, when the livin' is easy and contentment abounds. With a legacy longer than any song in history, "Summertime" has proven its worth as a song for every season.


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From This Author Alexa Criscitiello