“Porgy and Bess”: A Juicy Memory

Stephen Sondheim incited a controversy yesterday when he sent a letter to the New York Times, in which he took issue with some of the changes planned to “Porgy and Bess” for the pre-Broadway production at ART in Cambridge, Mass. The kerfuffle prompted me to ask frequent LemonWade contributor Tom Steele for his own personal “Porgy and Bess” memory: “For many ridiculous and complicated reasons, many involving race, the Metropolitan Opera did not produce any performances of ‘Porgy and Bess’ until the late-20th century. I happened to attend the opening night in 1985 with a friend I’ll call Maevis. We were seated in the center of the Grand Tier (first balcony), which is pretty optimal for large-orchestra operas. Seated three rows ahead of us was a group of black gay men, who had an enormous copy of the score that spread out to cover three of their laps. Throughout the first act, they grumbled and mumbled and were, of course, shushed, but let’s just say that they were much more “animated” than your average Met audience members, and considerably displeased by Grace Bumbry’s performance as Bess, a role she was about 20 years too old to be convincing in.

In Porgy and Bess’s final scene together, when she is leaving him to visit Kittewah Island with Catfish Row revelers, she sings the achingly beautiful phrase ending with a third-above-the-tonic on the “bye” in “good bye.” Just before Bumbry began singing the word “good,” one of the rankled fellows in front of us shouted, “You better hold that note, bitch!”

She did.

I don’t think anyone who was there has forgotten.

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