In 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed that the month of May in the United States would officially be known as Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM) – a month to celebrate the significant and varied contributions of Jewish Americans to American culture. The proclamation of JAHM was the long-awaited success of the Jewish Museum of Florida and South Florida Jewish community leaders who, aided by members of Congress, advocated for the proclamation. 2018’s JAHM theme is “Jewish Contributions to American Music,” and diving into this particular contribution, one barely knows where to begin! From Irving Berlin to Barbra Streisand, from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, the list of beloved Jewish American singers, songwriters, composers, musicians, and conductors in practically endless. SCRC houses many records on music and the performing arts in the 20th century, and we are fortunate enough to hold records on one of the most famous Jewish American music duos of all time – George and Ira Gershwin.
Born in New York City in 1896 and 1898 respectively, Ira and George Gershwin were a dynamic duo when it came to making music. George composed and was an extremely talented pianist. Ira was a witty and gifted lyricist, and often composed lyrics to his brother’s tunes. From 1924 on they were a powerhouse duo on the American Musical Theatre scene. Some of their most famous songs to hit the radio and be featured in films were I Got Rhythm, S’Wonderful, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Someone to Watch Over Me, and Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off. On his own, George Gershwin composed some of the most recognizable pieces of music in American history, including Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. However, the brothers’ magnum opus would manifest in the creation of their landmark, as George called it, “folk opera:” Porgy and Bess.
Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a disabled African American street-beggar living in Catfish Row, a slum of Charleston, South Carolina. Throughout the Opera, Porgy encounters Bess, an African American woman suffering under and wishing to be released from the clutches of her lover Crown and her drug dealer, Sportin’ Life. The two eventually begin living together and fall in love, with many consequences ensuing. Adapted from the play Porgy by Dorothy Heyward, which was itself adapted from the novel of the same name by DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess was a joint effort by George (music), Ira (lyrics) and a libretto written by Heyward, the original author. The three began working on the opera in 1933, and finished it by 1934. The opera contains such beloved songs as Summertime and I Got Plenty of Nothing, which are now apart of the American Operatic Canon. From the beginning, the opera was met with controversy regarding its treatment of African American racial stereotypes, and overall was a commercial failure and met with little critical success. It wasn’t until 1942 when a Broadway revival brought it back to the American public’s attention did the opera begin to receive success, and cemented it as a cultural touchstone. Eventually in 1952 a large European tour was undertaken by Robert Breen and Blevins Davis of the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA.) SCRC houses many posters from this tour in the Porgy and Bess posters collection, which eventually returned and toured North America. Please enjoy a selection of these posters from the European tour below.
Porgy and Bess continues to be performed to the day, and was successfully revived in 2012 on Broadway. The production starred Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, and Phillip Boykin as Crown. Songs from Porgy and Bess, as well as many other Gershwin Brothers’ tunes have been sung and covered by some of the most legendary musical performers, not just in the United States, but internationally. Their musical legacy on American culture and the world at large is the definition of indelible.
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