From the Archives: “This Jolson Matter”
As word spread about a new Porgy production with George Gershwin, popular American entertainer Al Jolson inquired about the pending “musical.” Four letters between DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin detail the matter. Letters used with kind permission of the South Carolina Historical Society.
By Frances Sobolak
After George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward secured the operatic rights for Porgy in May of 1932, one of their next labors was to determine who would star in an operatic production. Though the theater production written by DuBose and his wife Dorothy featured an all-black cast, the same wasn’t an initial guarantee for an operatic version. In the late 19th and early 20th century, black characters were often stereotyped and performed in blackface by white actors wearing black makeup. These white entertainers would have easily filled up the available casting spots in George and Dubose’s production—but the two men had yet to decide how they wanted their opera to be presented. George made his opinion on the matter very clear from the start: he wanted what we would consider today an all-black cast in his operatic production. DuBose, it seems, was not as concrete in his opinion, so when celebrated American blackface performer Al Jolson contacted DuBose’s agents about a possible Porgy musical, George and DuBose had some sorting out to do.
Al Jolson was no stranger to DuBose and George. He and George had worked together back in 1919 when Jolson heard George perform his hit song “Swanee” at a party and suggested the song be added to Jolson’s performance repertoire (Jablonski and Stewart). Jolson even had contact with DuBose previously, when he played the character of Porgy in a radio adaptation of the play. In the fall of 1932, Jolson contacted DuBose’s agents, undoubtedly aware of DuBose and George’s operatic plans, and offered himself, starring in blackface, as the star of a musical adaptation of Porgy. Jolson came to the table prepared, with big name Broadway composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein on board to write the musical. It was clear Jolson was not thinking of anything on the operatic scale—rather, he wanted his own musical production with a handful of catchy Broadway songs incorporated into the already existing theater production. DuBose, though already heavily attached to a Gershwin opera, needed to at least consider the possibility of working with Jolson—the entertainer’s fame would have indeed seemed attractive to a southern writer at the onset of the 1930s.
On September 3, 1932, shortly after Jolson’s inquiry, DuBose wrote a letter to George relaying Jolson’s interest in a musical production. Though DuBose wrote that he “cannot see brother Jolson as Porgy” in an operatic adaptation, he admitted that a collaboration with Jolson would likely mean a successful, well-publicized, and quickly-put-together musical that would solve some financial concerns for DuBose. Though he writes that he does not mean for Jolson’s pitch to corner George into a contract, he does wish for George to provide a reasonable timetable of when an opera could be completed, and have a definite agreement drawn up soon. DuBose didn’t explicitly suggest in his letter the possibility of merging Jolson and George’s separate projects, but the possibility of killing two birds with one stone hung in the air. Might George show interest in composing a musical instead of a opera?
When George replied on September 9, he expressed similar hesitancy towards Jolson’s interest in Porgy. He wrote, “I really don’t know how he [Jolson] would be in it,” referring to an operatic adaptation of Porgy, which George envisioned as something “much more serious than Jolson could ever do.” Vocal ability aside, George continued to insist on an all-black cast for the opera, and Jolson’s blackface simply wouldn’t do. Aware of DuBose’s expressed financial concerns though, George made a point to mention in his reply that he understood if DuBose would want to continue with a Jolson musical without George’s participation. In fact, George thought it would be possible for DuBose to do both a Jolson musical and an all-black opera—in George’s opinion, the former version’s popularity would not hurt the latter’s success. Nevertheless, George wrote that an operatic version would still be his pleasure to compose, fondly calling it a “labor of love.”
Shortly after, DuBose traveled to New York to talk with George about the opera face-to-face, and about a month later, on October 14, 1932, George wrote to DuBose again. A Miss Wood from the Century Play Company had called George wanting to discuss the apparently unresolved Jolson matter. George’s letter suggested that the two men had discussed Jolson’s possible involvement during DuBose’s visit to New York. He reiterated that he had no objections to a Jolson musical if doing so would ease some financial concerns of DuBose’s, but incorporating Jolson into a production the size and scale that George was construing for his opera would just not be possible.
DuBose wrote back three days later that further unfortunate updates on his financial situation prompted him to contact the Century Play Company and inquire more into Jolson’s interest. Though he again wrote that he had no interest in a Jolson musical, he must keep in mind the lengthy production timeline that George’s opera would require before making a profit. His letter ended on what seems to be a terminal note; DuBose made clear his eagerness to work with George on an opera in the future when his financial circumstances would be better, and his desire for their work to disregard any commercial angle that a Jolson production would almost certainly require. He thanked George for his attitude toward Jolson’s inquiries, and concluded with “it makes me all the more eager to work with you some day.”
Shortly after this letter, DuBose sold the rights to Al Jolson, and for a brief period a blackface Jolson musical seemed to be in progress before George Gershwin had even written down a note. The production never emerged though, because the writers of the musical, Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, split up, leaving Jolson with no one to compose the musical for him (Hutchisson, 142). DuBose had to wait until 1934 before George had time to begin composing the opera, and another year before Porgy and Bess premiered, with an all-black cast, at the Boston Colonial Theater. Al Jolson, it would turn out, had to buy a ticket.
- Crawford, Richard. “It Ain’t Necessarily Soul: Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ as a Symbol.” Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical, Vol. 8, pages 17–38. University of Texas Press, 1972.
- Furia, Philip. Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Hutchisson, James M. DuBose Heyward: A Charleston Gentleman and the World of Porgy and Bess. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2000.
- Jablonski, Edward, and Lawrence Delbert Stewart. The Gershwin Years: George and Ira. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1958.
- Noonan, Ellen. The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
- Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
Frances Sobolak is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan pursuing a Linguistics major and Music minor. She joined the Gershwin Initiative team in the fall of her sophomore year through the university’s undergraduate research opportunity program.