Controversy of one kind or another has dogged “Porgy and Bess” since its Broadway premiere in 1935.
Just the fact that George Gershwin’s first real stab at grand opera debuted on Broadway rather than the Metropolitan Opera, which had initially commissioned the work, encapsulates two of the work’s main fault lines: the debate over whether it’s a musical or an opera or something in between, and the matter of its African American cast, which necessitated a run at a commercial theater, since the Met had no black singers (and wouldn’t until 1955).
The race question is not simply a matter of personnel, of course: The depiction of poor Southern black life in the opera, based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel “Porgy,” has been seen over the decades as demeaning to black actors and singers.
Director Diane Paulus, whom the Gershwin estate enlisted in 2011 to create a new musical-theater version of the opera, surely anticipated that her adaptation would rekindle some of these old battles.
She even insisted that the cast of her new rendition — titled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and heading for a tour stop at the Ahmanson Theatre April 22 through June 1 — be fully versed in the work’s long and complicated history, from its original mixed reception to the unbeloved 1959 film version, which Sidney Poitier regretted starring in.
What she and her creative team — which included playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog,” “In the Blood”) and composer-arranger Diedre Murray — didn’t anticipate was the attack of the superfan. And not just any old music geek but composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who considers the Gershwin opera the pinnacle of American musical drama. He reacted to a New York Times feature on the work’s development at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where Paulus is artistic director, with a long, withering letter to the Times.
Where Paulus and her star, Audra McDonald, had spoken about wanting to flesh out the libretto’s “cardboard cutout characters,” and in particular that of the drug-addicted Bess, Sondheim pounced.
“Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance,” Sondheim wrote. "…These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater.” And to McDonald’s contention that the new version was revivifying the romance of the title characters, Sondheim snorted: “Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in ‘Porgy and Bess’ that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?”
“We hadn’t even made the production when that letter came out,” says Paulus in New York, where she’s in rehearsals for the musical “Finding Neverland,” and where a number of A.R.T.-launched shows, including “Once,” “All the Way” and her own “Pippin,” are running on Broadway. “That experience bonded the company. We just put our heads down and tried to make a production with as much integrity and truth as we could.”
After the A.R.T., the production went on to a successful and mostly acclaimed run on Broadway in 2012, and has been on a national tour since last December. In place of original leads Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, the tour features Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley, two members of the Broadway company who understudied the parts and “went on many, many times” in the roles, according to Paulus. Meanwhile, Sondheim, by his own admission, still hasn’t seen it. For Parks, a resident playwright at New York’s Public Theater, the contretemps was healthy, up to a point.
“He was standing up for what he thought was right, you know? He started a conversation about it,” says Parks. “Mr. Sondheim is allowed his opinion, but that letter dropped some poison in the water.” She feels that some in the theater and critical community “used what he said as the whetting stone: ‘Ah, yes, let’s use his words to sharpen our knives.’ Bad form!”
What’s more, Parks points out, “We were invited by the estate. A lot of people would ask me, ‘So you woke up one morning and decided to fix “Porgy and Bess”?’ Please. I’ve got a 2-year-old, and I have my own work to do, thank you very much. I ain’t waking up thinking about ‘Porgy and Bess.’ The notion that I wanna stick it to the man? If I was sticking it to the man, I don’t need to do it through someone else’s work.”
She feels similarly about Heyward’s libretto, which he wrote with his wife, Dorothy Heyward: If their portrait of black denizens of Catfish Row — based on Charleston, S.C.'s real-life Cabbage Row — had been motivated by malice, they would have written a different play.
Instead, Parks largely agrees with her erstwhile mentor, the novelist-playwright James Baldwin, who though critical of the opera wrote that “it owes its vitality to the fact that DuBose Heyward loved the people he was writing about.”
Parks’ objections to the Heywards’ libretto were more prosaic. Unfamiliar with the opera apart from its hit tunes, her first sit-down with the music and the text revealed a disconnect.
“Not to diss, but I was thinking, ‘Wow, the music is flying and the story is ... walking,’” says Parks. “It’s like an eagle and a chicken. I wanted to give the chicken some better wings, so it’s not just a hippity-hoppity yardbird, but to get it to realize more of the promise of the music.”
While she says she tried to “refocus” scenes with Bess, and beefed up the part of the matriarchal cook Maria, she says the “proudest accomplishment” of her adaptation is “dramaturgical adjustment — it’s architectural. It’s not to get it in line with some P.C. black woman power agenda. No, how about some really kick-ass dramaturgy here? That’s what gets me excited as a craftsperson.”
Marc George Gershwin, the composer’s nephew and a trustee of the estate, says it had been on the estate’s wish list to create a musical-theater version of the three-hour-plus opera that wasn’t simply a cut-and-paste job.
“I didn’t want to just take the opera, chop it down to two hours and put it onstage,” says Gershwin. While some previous versions, including a West End production by Trevor Nunn in 2006, have turned the opera’s recitative into dialogue, Paulus says she wanted her version to be more fluid.
“So much of the gorgeous music in the score is in the recitative, and there are themes and motifs threaded through the whole piece,” says Paulus. “I was much more interested in making a version that was a more complicated interweaving of singing and speaking, not just, ‘Here are the songs, and in between the songs are the scenes.’ ”
One tweak Parks is proud of, and which does address the original’s perceived stereotypes, is some new dialogue leading into “I Got Plenty of Nothing.” She initially heard the song in a tradition of poor-but-happy-Negro tunes, but her new intro makes it clear that “nothing” is a euphemism for sex. “Look at that smile. What you been up to?” says one character. Replies Porgy: “Nothing.”
“I’ve had so many people come up to me and just say, ‘I couldn’t listen to that song before,’ or singers would say, ‘I would cringe if asked to sing that song, but now, because you’ve framed it this way, I can sing about that.’
“It’s just a simple thing — it’s basic dramaturgy,” Parks says. “I didn’t have a political agenda, but it does intersect with what some might call politics, when one stands up and says, ‘I want my people to be seen as people.’ That’s a political act, I suppose. But to me, I just want the best book possible to match the music.”