NOTES FROM THE PLAYWRIGHT
Only 20 years after George Gershwin’s visit to South Carolina in 1934, I arrived on Folly Island myself. I was only two and a half years old. The Pavilion and Pier were still there and a small amusement park had been erected next to the Pavilion. I actually remember the merry-go-round, which family lore says I called the “billy-goat-round.” I also remember being awakened in the middle of a rainy night and being rushed to our car to evacuate Folly because of the approach of Hurricane Hazel. That seems to me quite a memory for a two and a half year-old, and I may only be remembering what I was told later, but in my mind those images are still quite vivid.
The memories of the key players also played a great part in the shaping of Gershwin at Folly. The remembrances of that special summer were recorded by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward in their letters and unpublished memoirs held at the SC Historical Society. Both mentioned Gershwin’s fear of the sharks and alligators on the island. Recollections of the late Post and Courier reporter, Frank Gilbreth, Jr., whose column as Ashley Cooper was a legend itself, provided key information from two interviews he conducted with Gershwin that summer. These interviews provided valuable insights into the atmosphere and goings on at Folly that summer. And then of course we have several letters George himself wrote to friends and family during his stay on Folly Island. New research for this new production came from a letter Gershwin wrote to ask Heyward to arrange a visit to a Negro Cafe (which led to the new Indigo Club scene.) There Gershwin meets the black piano player, Jasbo Brown, a character who appears both in a poem by Heyward and later in the opening measures of Porgy and Bess himself. Also, the addition of Paul Mueller, Gershwin’s black valet, who was with him on Folly added many new perspectives to the story. But in the end, Gershwin at Folly is not a history lesson, it’s a celebration of Gershwin’s discovery and delight with the people and culture of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Since many memories of that enchanted summer are sketchy, I have drawn on the known elements. Gershwin did visit Macedonia Church to listen to spirituals and did judge the 1934 Miss Folly Contest, for instance while also adding elements and characters to the show from my own imagination. What we do know without question, however, is that Gershwin’s visit with DuBose Heyward that summer led to the creation of what is perhaps the most important opera of the 20th Century —not bad for a summer vacation. Who could ask for anything more?
Special Thanks From the Playwright
Creating an original musical comedy, a new Gershwin musical at that, could not be done without a lot of help along the way. I am indebted to scores of people for their support in bringing this all new and revised production of Gershwin at Folly to life.
First, the descendants of George and Ira Gershwin, who had faith early on in this project, and cleared the way for us to use George and Ira’s amazing music and lyrics. I would especially like to thank Todd Gershwin for taking a special interest in this project.
Mr. Albert Cardinali and the DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Trust for making DuBose Heyward’s lyrics available for this show.
Dr. James Hutchisson, Professor of English at the Citadel and the biographer of DuBose Heyward, who provided many valuable insights and suggestions.
For research, the staff of the SC Historical Society, the Library of Congress and the Charleston County Library (one of my favorite places in all of Charleston), who all provided generous and helpful support to piece this story together.
The late Frank Gilbreth, known to most Charlestonians for his Ashley Cooper column, whose reporting for the News and Courier in the Summer of 1934 provided an interesting window into Gershwin’s stay at Folly.
Hollis Alpert’s remarkably researched The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess and the PBS documentary Porgy and Bess, An American Voice also provided valuable information and background.
A number of fine biographies provided key information, the most recent and perhaps most comprehensive is Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin, His Life and Work.
Special thanks to all the casts, choreographers, directors and production staff from all three productions who have shared valuable insights along the way.
Thanks to the original orchestrator, Christopher Donison and to Sam Henderson, Charleston Stage’s Resident Music Director who revised and updated these arrangements for this production.
And last but not least, to my wife Jenny, daughter Marianna, and son Nicholas who endured many bouts of writer’s block and other craziness from their playwright husband and dad.