Often called the ‘first American folk-opera’, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess opened in its original form in 1935. The piece was not recognised as a success in the author’s lifetime, and it is only in recent years with the development of larger opera companies that the show has been successfully and commercially performed. Two ‘musical’ versions of the show have been produced in London and in New York, with the 2012 production being the longest running production of the show. The piece has not been without its controversy and troubles, with claims of racism in its portrayal of the characters of Catfish Row, along with the heavily written dialect.

porgy and bess

George Gershwin

DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin

DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin

DuBose Heyward’s Novel Porgy

the Theatre Guild

Rouben Mamoulian

Porgy and Bess Original Broadway

Porgy and Bess - Original Broadway

Alvin Theatre - Opened 10 Oct 1935, closed 1 Jan 1970, 124 performances

Cast: Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, Warren Coleman, John W. Bubbles, Abbie Mitchell, Ruby Elzy, Georgette Harvey, Edward Matthews, Helen Dowdy & J. Rosamond Johnson.

Porgy and Bess First Broadway Revival

Porgy and Bess - First Broadway Revival

Majestic Theatre - Opened 1 Jan 1942, closed 2 Sep 1942

Porgy and Bess London Trevor Nunn

Porgy and Bess - London Revival

Savoy Theatre - Opened 6 Nov 2006, closed 1 Jan 1970

Porgy and Bess 2nd Broadway Revival

Porgy and Bess - Paulus Broadway Revival

Richard Rodgers - Opened 12 Jan 2012, closed 30 Sep 2012, 322 performances

Cast: Audra Macdonald, Norm Lewis 

What was your favourite production? Add your thoughts in the comments box


After a short introduction the curtain rises on the inhabitants of Catfish Row. Jasbo Brown plays the piano for the community whilst Clara, a young mother, sings a lullaby to her newly born baby. The men prepare to play a game of craps, and Clara’s husband Jake attempts to educate his son about Women and their role in life. A disabled beggar, Porgy enters and tries to join the game of craps. Crown, a strong and intimidating man buys some ‘Happy Dust’ from Sportin’ Life, and is joined by his woman Bess who the other women hate. Robbins and Crown fight, ending in a brawl in which Crown kills Robbins with a cotton hook. As he runs from the police, he tells Bess to hide and that he will return later when the police leave. Bess tries to find shelter, but the only person to come to her aid is Porgy.

At Robbins’ wake, the community gather to collect money for a burial. Bess arrives with Porgy but everyone rejects her donation, until she explains that she lives with Porgy now. Peter is accused of the murder, but he tells the police it was Crown’s work, as they convince the detective to bury the body. Bess sings a gospel and is welcomed into the community.

A month later and everyone notices that Porgy has become a lot more cheerful since Bess arrived in his life. The men prepare to go out to fish despite news of storms. Sportin’ Life tries to sell his ‘Happy Dust’ and attempts to get Bess to run away with him to New York. The residents of Catfish Row are preparing to go on a church picnic to Kittiwah Island, but Porgy can’t go because of his disability. Left alone, they declare their love for one another.

At the picnic, Sportin’ Life presents his somewhat cynical views on the bible to keep people entertained. Crown appears and accosts Bess, reminding her that Porgy is only temporary and tries to kiss her. When she refuses, he drags her into the woods and rapes her.

Back at Catfish Row, Bess is suffering from a bad fever. Porgy can tell that she has been with Crown and she admits that she is scared of the hold that he has over her. Porgy tells her she should just leave him, but she refuses to do so. The hurricane bell begins to ring and Clara watches the water, scared of what could happen to Jake. Everyone gathers in the storm shelter and sings prayers to God to keep them all safe. Crown arrives at the shelter to taunt Porgy, as Jake’s boat floats past them upside down. Clara rushes out to try and find him. Crown leaves as the storm begins to rise.

Act three begins as the residents mourn the death of Jake and Clara. Bess sings the lullaby to Clara’s baby, as Crown enters and once again tries to claim her as his woman. He fights with Porgy, and is killed. Porgy admits to the killing and is dragged off. Sportin’ Life tries to convince Bess to leave with him to New York and gets her hooked once again on Happy Dust.

Porgy wins money whilst in jail by playing craps and is released awaiting trial. He is excited to return to Catfish Row and has bought a new dress for Bess. As he arrives he realises quickly that something is wrong, and is told that Bess has left for a new life in New York with Sportin’ Life. He grabs his cart and is determined to travel to find her – praying to God for guidance.


Act I

  • Introduction and Jasbo Brown Blues
  • Summertime
  • Oh, nobody knows when de Lord is gonna call
  • A Woman Is a Sometime Thing
  • Here come de-honey man ; Porgy’s Entrance
  • Here comes Big Boy! (Entrance of Crown and Bess)
  • Oh, little stars, little stars
  • Wake up an’ hit it out
  • Gone, Gone, Gone
  • Overflow
  • Well, well, well, a saucer-burying setup
  • My Man’s Gone Now
  • How de saucer stan’ now, my sister?
  • Leavin’ for the Promise’ Lan’
Act II 
  • It Takes a Long Pull to Get There
  • Mus’ be you mens forgot about de picnic
  • I Got Plenty o’Nuttin’  
  • Lissen there, what I tells you
  • I Hates yo’ Struttin’ Style
  • Mornin’, Lawyer
  • Dey’s a Buckra comin
  • The Buzzard Song
  • Lo, Bess, goin’ to the picnic?
  • Bess, You Is My Woman
  • Oh, I Can’t Sit Down
  • What’s de matter wid you, sister?
  • I Ain’t Got No Shame
  • It Ain’t Necessarily So
  • Dance; Shame on all you sinners
  • Crown!
  • What You Want wid Bess?
  • Lemme go, hear dat boat
  • Honey, dat’s all de breakfast I got time for
  • Tak yo’ hands off me, I say
  • Oh, Doctor Jesus
  • Strawberry Woman: Honey Man; Crab Man
  • Now de time, oh, Gawd
  • I Loves You, Porgy
  • Why you been out on that wharf so long, Clara?
Act III 
  • Oh, Doctor Jesus (Hurricane Scene)  
  • Summertime (Reprise)
  • What make you so still, Bess; Oh, dere’s somebody knockin’
  • You is a nice parcel of Christians
  • A Red-Headed Woman
  • Jake’s boat in de river
  • Clara, Clara
  • You low-lived skunk
  • Summertime (Reprise)
  • Wait for us at the corner, Al
  • What is your name?
  • Oh, Gawd! They goin’ make him look on Crown’s face
  • There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York  
  • Catfish Row Interlude
  • Good mornin’, sistuh! Good mornin’, brudder
  • It’s Porgy comin’ home
  • Oh, Bess, Oh, Where’s My Bess
  • Bess is gone
  • Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way

UK: Music Scope UK

USA: Tams-Witmark