Porgy and Bess updated

Andy Oram
28 February 2000

Have you heard about the new worldwide tour of the classic American opera, Porgy and Bess? It’s been completely updated: the plot has changed a lot, and the words of many arias and choruses were rewritten. Here’s a summary for those familiar with the original version.

The scene: Catfish row, a vibrant African-American fishing community teaming with small traders.

At the outset, a crap game is taking place where Robbins has just won the right to hand out concessions to traders. Reflecting on their precarious fate, they sing “A License is a Sometime Thing”:

Yo’ providah’ is the first to name you,
An’ he’ll take it all away on a whim;
He’ll dump ya from his file
An’ weasel out o’ trial.
A license is a sometime thing,
A license is a sometime thing.

Enter the hero Porgy, a poor beggar who scrapes together a bare living by carrying messages between inhabitants of Catfish Row. Far from worrying about concessions, he introduces his main concern in his signature piece: traffic congestion.

Night time, day time,
He got to trabble
Dat crowded road.
Night time, day time,
He got to trabble
Dat crowded road.

But when Porgy hears that Robbins is raising rents on concessions and imposing intolerable policies on vendors, he worries that they’ll cut down on using his message service. He confides his fears to Crown, a busybody with a forceful personality who gets others to follow his lead by blunt assertions of authority. Crown in turn prates openly of planning to kill Robbins, and tries to gather a small gang together in Catfish Row to carry it out. But he’s surprised to find that they prefer to accept the authority of Bess, a fickle, scatterbrained, and devious woman.

Enter Sportin’ Life, dressed in finery that he picked up in the big city, and scattering cigar ashes liberally as he boasts:

The law say, you can’t own a word.
The law say, you can’t own a word.
We’ll spin round some dollahs
And mystify scholahs.
We’ll turn that law somethin’ absurd.

The vendors, think they is immune.
The vendors, think they is immune.
We’ll let no one shame us
Since our marks are famous.
We’ll make ’em start singin’ our tune.

I’m bringin’ dis action to show,
It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
Ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
Ain’t necessarily so.

Sportin’ Life feeds Bess happy dust and persuades her she’s going to bring in big bucks if she does everything he asks to help his business. She becomes totally won over, despite Porgy’s importunities, but then tragedy strikes. That morning, the fishers put out their boats, singing,

It take a backhaul to get there, Huh!
It take a backhaul to get there, Huh!
It take a backhaul to get there, but_____
I’ll anchor in the promise’ LAN.

Jake, a quiet but diligent fisherman who has sailed out of Catfish Row all his life, drowns suddenly at sea and leaves behind a baby. Bess declares that she will adopt the baby and make him leader of Catfish Row when he grows up. Robbins, Crown, and Sportin’ Life, realizing that this is their chance to gain total control over their community, shower gifts on the baby and declare themselves his benefactor. Bess forgets the whole thing and runs off to the big city, followed by Porgy, who vainly believes he can bring her back and re-establish justice in Catfish Row. As Porgy departs, the whole cast sings:

Oh Lawd, they got their way.
They got their way
With a slovenly plan.
We’ll rue
Those policies.
They claim to solve
What no one can!

Well, that’s about all I’m allowed to print here. You see, there’s a tiny intellectual problem. Thanks partly to lobbying by the Gershwins’ estate, copyright has been extended another 20 years so that Porgy and Bess is not yet in the public domain. But since a lot of people liked a recent article where I treated a certain policy debate as a Marx Brothers movie, I thought it would be interesting to go another step.

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