I've become obsessed lately with "Porgy & Bess," the Gershwin/Heyward opera first performed in 1935, then reshaped, revised and recut for subsequent generations, lately arriving as a passionless, if hotly controversial, Broadway musical. This new Broadway version reminded me that I'd never seen the 1959 movie adaptation with Dorothy Dandridge.
Surprisingly, the movie isn't available on DVD (or even a mangy VHS). Why? Because even though it's been selected for preservation by the U.S. National Registry, the Gershwin estate doesn't much like it, and so it's likely to remain unavailable
Even though the movie is stagy to a fault - one can only imagine how much better it might have been if the boorish Otto Preminger hadn't replaced director Rouben Mamoulian - it does bring together a stellar cast, most of whom were reluctant to participate at all given the burgeoning civil rights movement.
The movie's story, which included drug dealing, poverty and prostitution, was regarded as racist, or at the very least, something that wouldn't exactly help the cause. Yet despite racially-charged content and the movie's clod-hopping direction, the cast deliver terrific performances.
And that includes not just Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier (Dandridge and Poitier had their singing dubbed by Adele Anderson and Robert McFerrrin) (yes, he was the father of Bobby McFerrin), but Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Maya Angelou, Geoffrey Holder and, of course, Sammy Davis, Jr., who nearly obliterates the movie's period setting by dancing and singing as if he were in a hot-cha! jazz-hands! Fosse musical (but he's allowed).
Better still is how plastic and bendable the score has become over the years, subject to endless rethinks and re-interpretations. My favorite these days is the one above by The Oscar Peterson Trio, which stays close to the score's melodies, but otherwise lightly gambols into its own springy jazz territory, especially during the inimitable "It Ain't Necessarily So," with a piano riff that's pure smooth-jazz delight.
In fact, it seems as if "Porgy & Bess" has become catnip to the best jazz vocalists and musicians . Everyone from Joe Henderson to Lena Horne to Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway (on the "Porgy & Bess/Girl Crazy" twofer below) have put their mark on the Gershwin/Heyward opera.
Most of the LPs here are Cheerful Exclusives!, including a certain LP by a certain hot-cha! jazz-hands! performer who redeems his hammy movie turn with several surprisingly sensitive renditions from the score. And, yes, it helps a great deal that he's accompanied by Carmen McRae, whose version of "Summertime" ranks right up there with Lena's and Ella's and Adele's and Helen's and...the list seems infinite, doesn't it? It's an embarrassment of musical riches!
Which begs the question, if a woman is a sometime thing, what's a man?
If you ain't got no shame, leave a comment, why dont'cha?