This image of the Neil Simon Theatre (formally the Alvin Theatre) is viewable in Times Square on the Membit app. The Warner Strand Theatre was a few blocks from the Warners’ Theatre where the Jazz Singer debuted. Membit is a new augmented reality app that gives you a way to share the past with the present and a way to share the present with the future. It’s so new it isn’t even in the App Store yet, it’s in beta. If you would like to try it out before everyone else, click here.
On October 10, 1935 Porgy and Bess made its New York City debut at the Alvin Theatre.
Originally a book and then a play called Porgy written by DuBose Heyward, George Gershwin decided to make the story his first American folk opera. He took on Heyward as librettist with contributions by his brother Ira and they began collaborating in 1934. The story revolved around life in a Charleston slum where a down-trodden beggar named Porgy tried to free Bess from the grip of her violent lover Crown. The Gershwin Brothers spent a good deal of time with Heyward in Charleston studying the culture and music of the region.
The opera was intentionally written by Gershwin to infuse original spirituals and folk music into an operatic structure. He told the New York Times, “I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music-and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.”
Reception was mixed for the daring folk opera especially because of its racially charged storyline coupled with its revolutionary composition combining opera with folk music. Of the first Broadway production famous theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in the Times that Gershwin’s operatic form was too “cumbersome” to be enjoyable:
“Promoting ‘Porgy’ to opera involves considerable incidental drudgery for theatergoers who agree with Mark Twain that ‘classical music is better than it sounds.’ But Mr. Gershwin has found a personal voice that was inarticulate in the original play.”
Whereas Olin Downes was delighted:
“The style is at one moment of opera and another operetta or sheer Broadway entertainment. It goes without saying that many of the songs in the score of ‘Porgy and Bess’ will reap a quick popularity. Many of them are excellent, as we have a right to expect of Mr. Gershwin.”
Porgy and Bess would go on to be adapted in to a film in 1959 and have a full-score operatic revival in 1976. Stage adaptations resurfaced in 2006 in London, 2011 on Broadway and 2014 again in London.
The Alvin Theatre opened in 1927 and George and Ira Gershwin’s Funny Face was its first show starring Fred and Adele Astaire. Located at 250 West 52nd Street the theater’s name was the brainchild of real estate developer Alexander Pincus who used an amalgam of producers Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley. Famous stars who appeared on its stage include Ethel Merman, Lucille Ball, Liza Minelli and Elaine Stritch to name a few. In 1977 the Nederlander Organization acquired the Alvin and renamed it the Neil Simon Theatre in 1983 to correspond with the premiere of his play Brighton Beach Memoirs. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a city landmark in 1985.
Next, discover 17 of NYC’s stunning historical theaters.