Blue Monday: A Compositional Crossroads
While it was never particularly successful, George Gershwin’s 1922 one-act “jazz-opera” Blue Monday played an important role in bridging the gap between his popular style and classical compositions. This post—the first of a three-part series devoted to Blue Monday—delves into the creation and short life of the work and explores its place in Gershwin’s compositional development.
At the peak of his career, George Gershwin was a versatile and successful composer of movie scores, popular songs, musicals, and concert pieces. But the fifteen-year-old boy who dropped out of school to be a song-plugger didn’t become an opera composer overnight. While the path from Blue Monday to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is long and complicated, many biographers point to Blue Monday as a significant step along the way—the beginning of Gershwin’s experimentation with the popular-influenced classical style that would become central to his compositional identity and legacy.
Blue Monday was a short musical act written for the George White Scandals of 1922—an annual Broadway revue show that ran from 1919 to 1939. A popular form of entertainment at the time, Broadway revues were newly composed variety shows featuring scantily clad dancers, large song numbers, blackface sketches evoking minstrel shows, and comedy sequences that often parodied current events or public figures (think SNL for flappers). Gershwin caught George White’s eye in 1920 with the wild success of his song “Swanee,” and the producer brought him on board as primary composer for the next five years (Peyser 63). Many of the lyrics for Gershwin’s Scandals works were written by Buddy DeSylva, and Blue Monday was no exception. One of the ideas this composer-lyricist team workshopped for the George White Scandals of 1922 was “an opera for colored people,” but producer George White didn’t agree to include it until just three weeks before the first test performance on August 21 in New Haven, Connecticut (Pollack 269–70, Jablonski and Stewart 65). With such short notice, Gershwin and DeSylva scrambled to make their vision a reality, completing Blue Monday in just five days.
The result of this frenzied collaboration was a twenty-minute “jazz-opera” performed by the main Scandals cast wearing blackface makeup. Set in Mike’s “colored saloon” on Harlem’s 135th Street, Blue Monday begins with a narrated introduction advising the audience to expect “Love! Hate! Passion! Jealousy.” Joe, a gambler, wants to use his winnings to visit his mother, but doesn’t tell his girlfriend Vi, worrying she would accuse him of traveling to have an affair. Meanwhile, a saloon singer makes advances on Vi. When she refuses him, he tells her that Joe has just received a message from a woman. She rushes to demand the telegram, and when Joe withholds it she shoots him. The telegram turns out to be from Joe’s sister, informing him of their mother’s passing. Realizing her mistake, Vi collapses, begging Joe’s forgiveness, which he grants with his dying breath.
This plot of love and vengeance may sound stereotypically operatic. Indeed, parodying and/or adapting operas for the revue stage was a common practice in the early twentieth century. In this case, Gershwin and DeSylva turned to Ruggero Leoncavallo’s hugely popular verismo opera Pagliacci (1892) as a blueprint for Blue Monday (Shirley 9). Gershwin drew from his classical composition lessons, in addition to the popular idioms in which he had been successful, to create the score for DeSylva’s dramatic libretto. With an ear toward innovation, Gershwin combined aria-like solos, jazz recitative, and underscored dialogue to present a story that crossed genres and blended traditions. Gershwin moved seamlessly between these elements, drawing from jazz in syncopated dance tunes, the African American spiritual tradition in Joe’s final aria, and the classical idiom in Vi’s arias. In fact, Gershwin turned to his own Lullaby for string quartet (1919)—often considered his first classical composition—for most of Vi’s melodic material.
Gershwin and DeSylva’s retelling of Pagliacci lasted about twenty minutes—long for a variety show number—and its tragic plot made it further ill-suited for a comedic revue. Despite these limitations, reception of Blue Monday after the tryout of the 1922 Scandals in New Haven was generally positive. One reviewer went so far as to say that the production team had “done one thing which will, or ought to, go down in history; they have given us the first real American opera,” foreshadowing similar accolades the Gershwins would later receive for Porgy and Bess (Pollack 272).
Bolstered by this praise, Blue Monday remained the second-act opener for the New York premiere on August 28, 1922 at the Globe Theater. But New York critics proved a tougher audience. A reviewer for Variety referenced “a long blackface scene. . . that had some merit in idea but dragged interminably” (“Legitimate: Broadway Reviews”). Charles Darnton of the New York World wrote a particularly scathing review, calling Blue Monday “the most dismal, stupid, and incredible blackface sketch that has probably ever been perpetrated” (Jablonski 20). On the other hand, Howard Pollack notes that reviews in the New York Evening Post and New York Evening Telegram praised Blue Monday as the best part of the show, and Gordon Whyte for The Billboard was particularly struck by the piece: “George Gershwin … fairly outdid himself in a little grand opera set to a ‘blues’ subject. It was like a bit of a Puccini opera, and the promise he shows in it makes one hope someday he will set his hopes a little higher than musical shows.” Even with some positive reviews, George White decided that Blue Monday was too long and depressing for audiences, and cut it from the program after opening night at the Globe.
While the piece was nixed before it could reach wider audiences, it still managed to leave a lasting impression on conductor Paul Whiteman, which would prove life-changing for young George Gershwin. Whiteman’s jazz orchestra was the featured guest-act on the 1922 Scandals and, in many ways, the main attraction. Paul Whiteman had made a big name for himself presenting the jazz idiom to White audiences. He was so taken by Gershwin’s effort to do the same in Blue Monday that he commissioned a piano concerto from Gershwin for his 1924 “Experiment in Modern Music.” Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s contribution to this concert, was an immediate success that launched his prospects as a more serious “classical” composer. Whiteman also went on to revive Blue Monday—retitled 135th Street—as an opera in concert in 1925. This revival was the first of several attempts to re-orchestrate the work, but it did not do any better than the original production.
Despite its failure on the stage, Blue Monday marks an important stepping stone in George Gershwin’s career. His background as a popular songwriter is evident in its catchy melodies, but the show’s scope and content point toward more classical ambitions. Even though it has not held up in comparison to his later, larger-scale compositions, it is clear why scholars have singled out this “jazz-opera” as the first step on a journey that would culminate with the folk opera Porgy and Bess. Blue Monday embodies the crossroads in Gershwin’s career as his identity shifted from a star Tin Pan Alley songwriter to an ambitious and innovative American composer.
Jablonski, Edward. Gershwin Remembered. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992.
Kilenyi, Edward. “George Gershwin…As I Knew Him.” The Etude Magazine 68, no. 10 (October 1950): 11–12, 64.
“Legitimate: Broadway Reviews – White’s Scandals.” Variety, September 1, 1922: 17.
Neimoyer, Susan. “George Gershwin and Edward Kilenyi, Sr.: A Reevaluation of Gershwin’s Early Musical Education.” The Musical Quarterly 94, no. 1 (2011): 9–62.
Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Shirley, Wayne D. “Notes on George Gershwin’s First Opera.” I.S.A.M Newsletter XI, no. 2 (May 1982): 8–10.
Whyte, Gordon. “Musical Comedy: New Plays.” The Billboard, September 9, 1922: 34.