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70 Years of Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess'

On this day in 1935, Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's opera about black life in the South Carolina town of Charleston at the turn of the century, made its Broadway debut.

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, based on DuBose Hayward's successful novel of the same title, tells the story of poor, crippled Porgy and beautiful Bess, who runs away from the fast life to find sanctuary with Porgy and the residents of Catfish Row.

From the very beginning, it was considered another American classic by the composer of "Rhapsody in Blue" -- even if critics couldn't quite figure out how to evaluate it. Was it opera, or was it simply an ambitious Broadway musical?

"It crossed the barriers," says theater historian Robert Kimball. "It wasn't a musical work per se, and it wasn't a drama per se -- it elicited response from both music and drama critics. But the work has sort of always been outside category."

Borrowing minor chords from his Jewish heritage, call-and-response from black churches he'd visited and dashes of jazz, Gershwin's new music was completely original and very American. It was a commercial failure in its first run on Broadway -- but despite that rocky start, Porgy and Bess went on to become one of the most-performed works in theater history.

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Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.