Happy 'Porgy and Bess' Day!

Hello everyone, and Happy Porgy and Bess Day! Wait, you didn’t get the memo? Actually, we only got it here late Thursday afternoon, but it’s now official: Mayor Menino has named today — Friday, September 30, 2011 — as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess Day” in the City of Boston. That’s right, folks, it’s not just the Gershwin musical our mayor is celebrating, but the American Repertory Theater’s production of it, ergo the official “Gershwin’s” tag on what was otherwise known for generations as just Porgy and Bess.

To ring in this specially proclaimed day of honor, quite a crowd of luminaries will be at the Colonial Theatre at 4 p.m. In addition to the mayor, there will be Emerson College’s new president, M. Lee Pelton, as well as A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus, and the stars of the show — namely Norm Lewis (Porgy), Audra McDonald (Bess), and David Alan Grier (who plays Sporting Life). Pretty nice lineup, and all worthy considering the good buzz the show has received, most recently from Hilton Als in The New Yorker. Take that, Stephen Sondheim!

Still, unspoken in all of this is that the production has actually been staged across the river at the A.R.T.’s home in Loeb Drama Center, which, last I checked, is in the city of Cambridge. Methinks Mayor Menino is giddily stealing some thunder. Then there’s the little uncomfortable fact that the Colonial is dark, closed, kaput, unused. Broadway Across America, the consortium that brings you such touring productions as Jersey Boys, ended its lease that it had with the theater’s owner in August. And said hardballing owner? None other than Emerson College. Somehow I doubt President Pelton will shed some light on that development today. The most recent report I’ve seen is that they’re taking this opportunity to update the sprinkler system.

But lo and behold, there’s actually one damn good reason to hold this event at the Colonial Theatre, and it trumps all cynicism: The original Porgy and Bess — yes, the very version that the Gershwins and writer DuBose Heyward themselves wrung their hands over, and that the rest of us have known until now — well, it had its world premiere right here at the Colonial Theatre in the City of Boston. On September 30, 1935, this groundbreaking musical opened to a 15-minute ovation from an audience that included the presidents of MIT, Wellesley, and Harvard. Despite the acclaim, the original length was four hours, so George Gershwin and his directors walked around Boston Common until the wee hours debating how to cut it down to a manageable length. Days later, it opened on Broadway, and the Boston-born baby was on its way to world fame.

So yeah, Menino’s proclamation is easy publicity, but hey, the city can actually claim it. And in fact, as Diane Paulus told me a couple months ago, our town’s connection to the classic is why it’s even being revived here in the first place: “Porgy and Bess started in Boston,” she said, “We’re bringing it back to Boston and reclaiming its history with this city, and that’s no accident. Returning this masterpiece to Boston is the next chapter in this history.”

Now this next chapter is coming to a close when The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess ends its run on Sunday, October 2. As it once again makes its way to Broadway from Boston, more than 75 years later, I guess the one response left is: Amen to that.