“Blue Monday” Program Notes by William Berger
In 1922, the 23-year-old George Gershwin was already creating a name for himself in the New York music world of Tin Pan Alley. Songsmiths of this milieu were expected to churn out quantities of ditties for any occasion, and especially for the “revue” style of Broadway shows. Before the advent of radio, these “juke-box” style Broadway shows were the best known method of making popular hits. Gershwin already had a national hit birthed through this system with the 1919 song “Swanee”, a sensation when Al Jolson sang it (somewhat incongruously, since dramatic cohesion was not a priority in these shows) in his show Sinbad.
Gershwin’s frequent lyricist Buddy DeSylva (later one of the co-founders of Columbia Records) pitched a tempting idea to Gershwin: a one-act miniature opera to be included in the most elaborate Revue of the time, George White’s Scandals. It would be a riff on one of the most successful operas of recent times, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, in which a jealous clown murders his adulterous wife during a comic performance. But a truly intriguing prospect of the proposal was the setting of the drama: a Harlem nightclub, with unsavory characters found in such a place (but performed by whites in blackface, a convention of the time). Gershwin leapt at the idea of moving beyond Tin Pan Alley’s 3-minute hit song format. But how were they to get such a project on Broadway and into George White’s next production, The Scandals of 1922?
The music director of Scandals was Paul Whiteman, who liked jazz and saw its box office potential. Whiteman also appreciated novelty, convinced that New York audiences valued it above any other asset (including quality). Whiteman often emphasized his work’s novelty, even exaggerating it. He later put together a jazz concert at New York’s august Carnegie Hall, which was creative and dynamic but was not the first time jazz had been heard there, as Whiteman was saying. And in 1925, he would conduct the world premiere of Gershwin’s jazz-inflected piano concerto, Rhapsody in Blue, advertizing it as yet another wholly new amalgamation of the classical and jazz worlds. Jazz had already made it to Broadway, most notably in the 1921 show Shuffle Along with music by Eubie Blake and performed by a black cast (including, at various points, Florence Mills and Josephine Baker). Shuffle Along was a huge hit, and Whiteman thought a modified form of that success could have a place in the very mainstream Scandals.
Producer George White was less enthusiastic, only giving his consent two or three weeks before the out-of-town tryouts began in New Haven. Gershwin set to work in a fever, completing the score in five days and developing a nervous condition he later called “composer’s stomach” during this time. The New Haven audience was enthusiastic about the piece, entitled Blue Monday. Gershwin recalled one critic saying that the show would be imitated – in a hundred years.
Truly, it was a lot for the audience to digest at first. The story concerned a woman jealously (and wrongfully, as it turns out) murdering her lover in an Uptown nightclub, amid an ambience of sex, drugs, illegal booze, and of course, jazz. Live piano on stage alternated with orchestral crescendos worthy of the opera house (if performed by a smaller orchestra). Similarly, the vocals ranged from street-smart chatter to soaring operatic exclamations. After a few tryout performances in New Haven, the show moved to Broadway – and Blue Monday only lasted a single performance. Specifically, the tragic ending seemed out of place with the foot-tapping, high-kicking ambiance of the rest of the Scandals. A few revivals were attempted in various venues over the years (often under the revised title 135th Street), but Gershwin soon left it alone, moving on to other projects. Only in recent years has interest in Blue Monday rekindled.
The disparity between Blue Monday’s enthusiastic reception in New Haven and its flop on Broadway says much about the role of context in appreciating – or even comprehending – this piece. Blue Monday’s contrast with other Broadway offerings was more glaring in Times Square. Shuffle Along had proven that it was possible to connect Harlem to Broadway, but Blue Monday added additional complications. It was ostentatiously claiming to be authentically jazz, vaudeville, and opera, of all things – and “grand” opera at that (as a character in a sort of prologue to the piece spells out). This blend of scruffy, glamorous, and commercial was too great a burden to bear.
The first opera of the grittily realistic “verismo” style, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (a “big brother” to the similarly verismo Pagliacci, two years younger) had dared something similar. It claimed the exalted emotions of grand opera’s noble personages for crude peasants, and made it exciting enough to resonate even today. Submitting the same lofty claim for the rough trade of a Harlem nightclub to the fun-seeking audience of Broadway didn’t stand a chance in 1922.
After an initial storm of condescension from critics, Blue Monday became known, if at all, only for its role in Gershwin’s development. The obvious progeny of Blue Monday is the great (and truly “grand”) opera Porgy and Bess, which opened on Broadway with similar contextual challenges 13 years later but came to be acknowledged as a masterpiece. The African-American cast of characters and the musical score including a superb mélange of influences (including jazz, blues, classical, and – not least – traditional music of the Eastern European Jewish world) are striking common factors of both works.
The kinship between Blue Monday and Gershwin’s most famous composition, Rhapsody in Blue, is only slightly less obvious, even beyond the Paul Whiteman connection and the evocative color choice shared by both titles. Indeed, the closing chords of Blue Monday sound very much like the end of Rhapsody in Blue, but it’s the boldly self-conscious smash-up of classical and jazz styles that stays with the audience in both cases. Blue Monday also reverberates beyond Gershwin’s own works. The much-vaunted originality apparent in the structures of the Broadway musicals Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943), which brought the integration of dance, drama, and music to new heights, owes something to Gershwin’s youthful experiment. But seeing a work solely in terms of its influence on later (and supposedly superior) works is its own form of condescension, one to which music critics and commentators, with their focus on hierarchies of artistic quality, are especially prone. Very few people attend a live performance to see how a piece engendered better pieces. What matters is whether or not the piece itself speaks to us, and Blue Monday does.
One of the goals of verismo operas such as Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, and even Puccini’s La Bohéme (which has also crossed borders between opera and Broadway in various ways) was a viable blend of orchestral presence, recitative (speech-based singing of dialogue), and hummable song. Blue Monday accomplishes this admirably. In fact, in its seamless melodic sweep from beginning to end, Blue Monday is equal and even superior to several operas that have stayed on the boards. But not even these accolades explain the true appeal of Blue Monday, which is its humanity – that unique gift Gershwin had for enunciating universal experiences. The ennui of Sam’s “aria” “Blue Monday Blues” and the murky allure of Vi’s “Has anyone seen my Joe?” frame ideas common to all. Furthermore, it was Gershwin’s was uniquely able to express these feelings as if from the inside of a character, beyond voyeurism or any form of emotional imperialism. Thus his later song “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1926) becomes a convincing portrayal of an individual offering devotion in exchange for protection, rather than a male fantasy of a weak woman whining for a strong He-Man. In Blue Monday, a work about black people written by a Jewish man performed in blackface for a white audience, finding the humanity common to all people is not an insignificant accomplishment.
William Berger is an author, lecturer, radio commentator, and Creative Content Producer for the Metropolitan Opera.