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The Persistence of a Flop: Revivals and Re-imaginings of Blue Monday

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 second in a three-part series devoted to Blue Monday—chronicles various efforts to revive and record the piece since its brief stint on Broadway, and examines the ways these productions dealt with the racially and culturally offensive aspects of the show.

Content Warning: This post contains a quotation of an offensive racial slur.

George Gershwin composed his one-act “jazz-opera” Blue Monday for the George White Scandals of 1922, but it was cut from the show after opening night because the tragic plot wasn’t a good fit for a musical revue. Originally performed in blackface by members of the Scandals cast, Blue Monday has been presented in many contexts since then, from Carnegie Hall to Hollywood, TV, radio, and beyond. For each of these settings, orchestrators adapted Gershwin’s short score to fit the aesthetic and scope of the production. The libretto was changed from production to production too, often with little to no indication in the surviving materials as to who was making the changes or why they were being made. While some of these adjustments were arbitrary, most of them removed racial slurs and other racialized language that became increasingly socially unacceptable over time. Yet, whether deliberate or casual, musical or lexical, no transformation seemed to make Blue Monday more palatable to audiences or to ensure its lasting success. The persistence of this difficult-to-classify work in spite of these obstacles can be traced back to its role in the narrative of Gershwin’s career as the work that transitioned him from a tune-smith to a classical composer.

Blue Monday was only a vague concept for a blackface “opera” in the minds of George Gershwin and lyricist Buddy DeSylva until just three weeks before the trial run of the George White Scandals of 1922. With the producer’s last-minute approval of their proposal, Gershwin and DeSylva scrambled to make their vision a reality. Gershwin quickly completed a score and passed it on to his mentor, Will Vodery (1885–1951), to orchestrate. Vodery was a prominent Black composer, arranger, and conductor to whom Gershwin first turned for advice in 1917 when leaving the Remick publishing house. Vodery continued to mentor Gershwin in the following decade, securing him a job at the Fox City Theater and providing compositional guidance for his Concerto in F. Tragically, Vodery’s role in the history of American music is now largely overlooked due to his race, and despite the quality and quantity of his musical output, Blue Monday is among the few full scores of his that have been preserved and studied.

In his orchestration of Blue Monday (to which he added the subtitle “Opera Ala [sic] Afro-American”), Vodery followed Gershwin’s manuscript closely, translating his musical ideas into an orchestral context. Working with a typical revue orchestra instrumentation—winds, percussion, strings, and harp—Vodery created reinforced soundscapes, often doubling vocal lines in the orchestra (Tucker 155). Unlike later versions, the Vodery orchestration did not include piano or saxophone parts. This, combined with Vodery’s preference for woodwind and string sonorities over brass, resulted in a more classical sound than the “jazzier” flare of later orchestrations (Tucker 158). His arrangement helped to elevate Blue Monday from a simple vaudeville number to something more recognizably operatic. Though Vodery’s contribution was kept from the program, Billboard reviewer Gordon Whyte noted:

Whoever scored the orchestration is a master. It is by far the most pretentious [sic] orchestration this reviewer has ever heard in a musical comedy. At times it is symphonic in structure, and the instrumentation is never muddled and always cleverly thought out. My hat is off to whoever did it.

Although several secondary sources misidentify Paul Whiteman as conducting Blue Monday’s premiere, Vodery’s orchestration was played by the Scandals pit orchestra under the baton of Max Steiner (Crawford 730). Whiteman’s Jazz Orchestra was indeed part of the Scandals of 1922, however, and the famous band leader was captivated by Blue Monday from the start. Whiteman, a classically trained violinist and former Navy Band director, made a name for himself introducing big-city White audiences to jazz. Upon hearing Gershwin’s genre-bending Blue Monday, he immediately recognized the young composer as a kindred spirit and commissioned a piece to be featured at his 1924 “Experiment in Modern Music.” That piece was none other than Rhapsody in Blue, the work that catapulted Gershwin to fame as a serious composer.

Hoping to recapture the success of Rhapsody in Blue, Whiteman decided to revive Blue Monday in 1925 for a concert performance at Carnegie Hall. Even though Whiteman’s revival was presented in concert with minimal staging, the singers still appeared in blackface, including the one Black performer on stage. Unfortunately, the original libretto had been misplaced following Blue Monday’s premiere, so Buddy DeSylva reconstructed it from memory for this production, likely with the help of Jack McGowan, who sang the role of the villain in both productions. From fragments of the original libretto found in Gershwin’s sketch score and Vodery’s holograph, it is clear some minor changes were made for this new version. These adjustments were strictly logistical, though, confined to character names and the role of the narrator. Despite the formal context of this performance—a concert performance in a high-profile hall—no attempt was made to alter racially offensive language or acknowledge harmful stereotypes.

Whiteman turned to his in-house orchestrator, Ferde Grofé (who had orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue the previous year), to adapt the score for the unique instrumentation of the Whiteman Orchestra (a mix of strings, saxophones, brass, and rhythm section). Though he was sometimes criticized for his bombastic orchestrations, Grofé knew better than anyone how to tailor music to the group. In his hand-written score, he re-titled the work 135th Street: It Happened on Blue Monday, and—as was his custom—labeled individual lines with players’ names rather than their instruments. Unfortunately, Whiteman had selected too grand a venue for Grofé’s arrangement; in boomy Carnegie Hall, the brass- and saxophone-heavy group overpowered the singers.

If a Broadway revue wasn’t the right setting for Blue Monday, Carnegie Hall was a swing too far in the opposite direction. Reviewers were quick to criticize the balance and limited staging of Whiteman’s production, while willingly overlooking the racially offensive and exploitative content of the show itself. Olin Downes of the New York Times commented on

…the great disadvantage of a concert platform for what should have been seen on stage. A few chairs and table, with an apology of a bar, gave no suggestion of the scene described in the libretto. Furthermore, the orchestra was too near the singers; even Mr. Whiteman’s control could not keep the instrumental tones as far down as needed for the best good of the vocal parts.

Downes did praise Gershwin’s writing and Grofé’s orchestration, but went on to strongly criticize the effectiveness of DeSylva’s libretto. An article in Variety offered a similar sentiment, complaining that the weak libretto and limited staging “detracted from the Gershwin score… Furthermore the Carnegie was too spacious; it needed to be an intimate hall.” Despite Whiteman’s hopes, 135th Street did no better in 1925 than Blue Monday had three years earlier.

Blue Monday didn’t resurface again until after Gershwin’s death, in the 1945 George Gershwin biopic, Rhapsody in Blue. While it is unclear who arranged and scored the abridged version of Blue Monday that appears in the film, the end credits attribute musical adaptation to Max Steiner, who had conducted the 1922 premier of Blue Monday and gone on to be a well-known Hollywood composer. The film conflates the 1922 and 1925 performances, incorrectly depicting Paul Whiteman (played by himself) and his Orchestra accompanying the Scandals performance. The use of White actors in blackface in the film may have been an attempt to accurately reflect the original Scandals performance, but depictions of blackface and minstrelsy were not uncommon in Hollywood in this era. Furthermore, the film’s portrayal of the work strikes a racist tone. In addition to actors in blackface moving in the exaggerated and disjointed manner associated with minstrelsy, the camera pans to show White audience members watching uninterestedly while a Black couple in the balcony (due to segregated seating practices) is visibly moved to tears.

On March 29, 1953 the popular TV culture program Omnibus aired a production of Blue Monday, featuring an all-Black cast for the first time. This production used an orchestration by film composer and arranger George Bassman, who first orchestrated music by Gershwin for the 1937 film A Damsel in Distress. Bassman’s version of Blue Monday, scored for full studio orchestra—a larger ensemble than previous versions—is cinematic and schmaltzy. With its throbbing strings and wailing woodwinds, it aims for more consistent textures from section to section than earlier orchestrations. The Omnibus production tweaked the libretto in multiple ways to make it less offensive. In addition to changing the name of the saloon pianist from “Cokey-lou” (a reference to drug use) to “Sweet-Pea,” this version removed some of the racialized language in earlier versions of the libretto: “Colored saloon” becomes “corner saloon,” “white man’s opera” is changed to “any other opera,” “lazy nigger” is replaced with “lazy rascal.” In places where the same slur was central to the rhyme scheme, the entire previous phrase—“his cares are always bigger”—is echoed instead. These types of changes are consistent with similar adjustments Ira Gershwin made to the libretto of Porgy and Bess during the same period following objections from Black performers (for more on issues of race and representation in Porgy and Bess, see forthcoming posts on this subject by our managing editor, Dr. Andrew S. Kohler and Gershwin Blog co-leader, Kai West).

The following year, in July of 1954, the WNBC radio show Best of All Time aired the radio premiere of Blue Monday in an episode focused on George Gershwin. The radio version used the altered libretto created for the Omnibus production, paired with an unidentified orchestration conducted by Skitch Henderson. In prefacing the work, the announcer recast the failure of Blue Monday in racial terms: “Originally, Blue Monday was written for inclusion in a musical show, but it was removed… for a reason that now may seem curious. The operetta is about colored people who are poor, the music derives from blues and jazz, and the story is tragic. The combination of these factors seemed to producers in the early twenties to spell certain failure.” Despite the apparent sensitivity of the introduction, the production employed only White singers. While this practice was common in the 1920s and 30s, by the mid-50s, radio work had opened up to Black voice actors, DJs, and singers. Perhaps the ostensibly forward-thinking preface was simply an attempt to comply with the 1951 NBC radio guidelines that required “all groups represented on the radio be treated with dignity and respect” (Brown and Stentiford).

Blue Monday fell out of public awareness for several decades until 1993, when the orchestration and vocal score that George Bassman first prepared for the Omnibus production were published for public use. Conductor Marin Alsop premiered this edition in a 1993 recording with the Columbia Ensemble and a mix of White and Black vocal soloists. Unlike the radio premier, which had acknowledged the role of race to some extent in Blue Monday, Alsop’s recording glosses over the issue entirely. The libretto for this production went further than the Omnibus production, taking out the only remaining racialized language (“colored tragedy” becomes “lover’s tragedy”) and even replacing any direct references to Harlem with “Uptown.” The liner notes describe Blue Monday as a stumbling, early attempt at operatic style by a young composer destined for greatness. There is no mention of the fact that the “jazz-opera” was about Black people, let alone that it was often performed by White actors in blackface.

The release of Bassman’s edition and Alsop’s recording may have briefly rekindled interest in Blue Monday, because several other professional orchestras produced recordings shortly thereafter. A 1995 recording from the Ermitage label features a live, fully staged performance of Blue Monday with an all-Black cast and a new orchestration by Edmund Hyera and Greg Smith. The libretto for this production keeps some of the racialized language that was removed in 1953, while omitting racial slurs and other derogatory language. In 1997, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops revived Vodery’s orchestration for a series of concerts culminating in a studio recording. Of all of the revivals of Blue Monday, this production most sensitively navigated the work’s problematic history. The project was informed by resources held in the Library of Congress and was overseen in part by noted Gershwin scholar Edward Jablonski. The performance mostly uses DeSylva’s original libretto for the sake of historical accuracy, but continues the tradition of omitting the racial epithet. Jablonski’s liner notes take care to note the minstrel-esque context of Blue Monday’s premiere; he even mentions the early consideration (later firmly rejected by the creators) of a blackface version of Porgy and Bess in his discussion of the opera.

Bassman’s published full score and piano-vocal score, and a solo piano suite created by Alicia Zissou in 1993, have allowed Blue Monday to be performed by small theater companies and summer festivals over the past two decades. But even with these editions and recordings available, Blue Monday is by no means a widely recognized work. It is much more familiar to scholars than performers. The title shows up in scholarly writings to depict the beginnings of Gershwin’s career as a notable classical composer and as a precursor to the Gershwins’ and the Heywards’ 1935 “American folk opera” Porgy and Bess. This narrative, first put forth in reviews and interviews during the composer’s lifetime, accounts for Blue Monday’s presence in the 1945 biopic, and has persisted in much of the scholarly work surrounding Gershwin’s career since.

Blue Monday has evolved considerably since it was created in 1922: from Blue Monday Blues in Gershwin’s holograph, to Blue Monday (Opera Ala [sic] Afro-American) in Vodery’s score, to 135th Street: It Happened on Blue Monday in Grofé’s reorchestration. No two copies of the libretto from different productions are identical, either; racially-charged language was tweaked and character names fluctuated, but no changes were sufficient to give it a lasting presence in Gershwin’s oeuvre. While it may be unfortunate that Blue Monday has never gained traction—despite repeated attempts to revitalize it—it is also particularly alarming that a blackface scene from the 1920s was still being recorded, without contextualization, by American and European orchestras seventy years later. Rarely have scholars or performers confronted the racist plot and performances practices surrounding this piece. So it lives on in the lore of Gershwin’s rise to success, often conveniently and artificially separated from the offensive and problematic content at its core.

Further Reading

Brown, Nikki L.M and Barry M. Stentiford. The Jim Crow Encyclopedia, Vol. 1: 662–666. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Crawford, Richard. “Where did Porgy and Bess come from?” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 43, no. 4. (Spring 2006): 697-734.

Downes, Olin. “Music: Paul Whiteman’s Novelties.” The New York Times, January 2, 1926: 10. 

“George Gershwin’s ‘Blue Monday’ (radio premiere, 1954).” Dec 4, 2016. Video clip.

Gershwin, George. Blue Monday: Opera á la Afro-American. Cincinnati Pops. Conducted by Erich Kunzel. Telarc CD 80434. 1997, compact disc.

———. Blue Monday (135th Street Blues). Concordia. Conducted by Marin Alsop. CDC 7 54821 2 7. 1993, compact disc.

———. Blue Monday (135th Street Blues). Orchestre della Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana. Conducted by Marc Andreae. ERM 167S-2. 1995, compact disc.

Jablonski, Edward. Gershwin Remembered. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992.

Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Tucker, Mark. “In Search of Will Vodery.” Black Music Research Journal 16, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 123–182.

Whyte, Gordon. “Musical Comedy: New Plays.” The Billboard, Sep 9, 1922, 34. 

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