May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Porgy and Bess . Until well into the twentieth century, this country suffered from a cultural inferiority complex, and it 1 was European forms that were regarded as “real” art. Even a genius like George Gershwin, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for the splendidly original (and totally American) Of Thee I Sing , was affected by it. In 1935 he teamed up with his brother, Ira, and DuBose Heyward to adapt Heyward’s novel Porgy for the Broadway musical stage. And while Porgy and Bess is regarded as an American cultural icon, I think it just doesn’t work. Staged as a musical (as it was for its original Broadway run), it is ponderous and a bit, well, boring. It was a financial failure. Staged as an opera (it has been performed at the Met), it simply doesn’t fill the stage as grand opera must. As far as I’m concerned, except for the immortal “Summertime” (with lyrics by Heyward, by the way, not Ira Gershwin), is there anything in Porgy and Bess to compare with, say, “Someone to Watch Over Me” or “Love Walked In"” Had Gershwin not died two years later at the tragically young age of thirty-nine, I have no doubt he would have written more than his share of Broadway’s masterpieces. But Porgy and Bess just isn’t one of them.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . This was a big hit when it opened in 1949 (the same year as South Pacific ) and made Carol Channing a star of the first magnitude. It was made into a movie with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell but has since been nearly forgot- ten. It has never had a Broadway or even off-Broadway revival. That’s a shame. Let’s be clear, however, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes does not plumb the depths of the human soul. It is intended only to amuse, and that it does, in spades. Its marvelous music by JuIe Styne with lyrics by Leo Robin is Broadway musical comedy at its best. Its 1920s ocean-liner-and-Paris setting gives set, lighting, and costume designers no end of room for creativity. Its witty book by Anita Loos and Joe Fields is sidesplitting. To be sure, its plot is hardly politically correct these days, involving as it does a gorgeous young blonde who is, frankly, in the profession of being kept—and handsomely. And because her character is at once both naive and calculating, innocent and worldly, it needs a genuine star with great comic timing to pull it off. But politically incorrect or not, how can you not like a musical that has in it the lyrics “He’s your guy / When stocks are high. / But beware when they start to descend. / It’s then that those louses / Go back to their spouses. / Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!”