Porgy and Bess On Broadway
Is the “Porgy and Bess” currently on Broadway worth seeing? Consider these other questions:
Is “Porgy and Bess” racist?
Is it an opera or a musical?
How important is that goat cart to you?
That “Porgy and Bess” is not just any show is glimpsed from its treatment in The New York Times, which has called this production “tepid,” explicitly or implicitly, in at least five reviews by three staff critics and a columnist. Would any other show characterized as lacking force or enthusiasm get so much attention?
Surely some of this is because of Stephen Sondheim, who wrote an eviscerating letter in response not to the show itself (which he hadn’t seen) but to comments made in a published interview by this production’s director Diane Paulus (best-known as the director of the hit revival of “Hair”), star Audra McDonald, and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who revised the 77-year-old libretto by DuBose Heyward, about the melodramatic goings-on in Catfish Row, a fictional black community in Charleston, South Carolina. Sondheim seems to hold a unique position in the theater world these days; if Jerry Herman had written such a letter, would it have had the same effect?
But it is not Sondheim alone that has turned this production of “Porgy and Bess” (officially called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”) into a must-see show of the season, despite its disappointments.
“Porgy and Bess,” is a work many people think they know, but what they know is the music, the glorious songs composed by George Gershwin, a breathtaking — revolutionary — fusion of Blues, gospel, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, classical. “Summertime” may be the most recorded song in history, with tens of thousands of versions, from Billie Holiday to The Zombies. Compared to the songs themselves, the show for which Gershwin wrote “Summertime” –– and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” and “My Man’s Gone Now” – is performed irregularly. The last revival of the musical in New York was at Radio City Music Hall for five weeks three decades ago.
One reason surely why this is so – which Sondheim omits completely from
his letter, and indeed is mentioned only a handful of times in the hundreds of comments his letter generated – is the uncomfortable question of racial stereotyping.
“Porgy and Bess” has had a complicated life, according to a fascinating account by James Standifer. George and Ira Gershwin wrote the songs to a story by DuBose Heyward that was originally a novel and then adapted with his wife Dorothy Heyward into a play, “Porgy,” which opened on Broadway in 1927.
Heyward was a white native of South Carolina and had what was considered an enlightened attitude at the time: “I saw the primitive Negro as the inheritor of a source of delight that I would give much to possess.” George Gershwin himself wrote: “I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race.”
The Gershwins’ insistence that the cast be comprised of black performers (rather than the standard practice of hiring white performers in blackface) meant that what they created could not be performed at the Metropolitan Opera, which had commissioned George Gershwin in the first place to compose an American opera on a subject of his choosing, but which barred African-Americans from performing on its stage.
Todd Duncan, the original Porgy in the 1935 Broadway debut of “Porgy and Bess,” later wrote: “I knew it would cause controversy among my people because of its representation of black life and music.” The original script contained frequent use of the “n” word, the most common epithet for black people. “Members did not like this,” said Etta Moten, who replaced Anne Brown as Bess, “but were afraid to object, that being the tenor of the times.” (Eventually, Ira Gershwin eliminated the epithet.)
Two decades later, William Warfield, who played Porgy in a European tour, said “the black community wasn’t listening to anything about plenty of nothing being good enough for me. Blacks began talking about being black and proud.” Harry Belafonte declined the role of Porgy in the 1959 Otto Preminger film, viewing it as demeaning. A decade after, Harold Cruse, co-founder of the Black Arts Theater in Harlem and later a black studies professor, said “Porgy and Bess belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African American should want to see it, or be seen in it.”
Attitudes obviously are evolving, but this is the necessary context to understand the effort by the Gershwin estate to ask the current creative team to revise the piece. Much scorn and ridicule has been expressed for the change in title to “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” seen as a denigration of the Heywards. From where I sit, it is the Gershwin songs that make “Porgy and Bess” eternally thrilling; the Heyward story and dialogue are at best dated. (DuBose Heyward did write the lyrics for some of the most memorable of the songs.)
The changes to the script, in my view, are largely improvements, and will in any case go unnoticed by all but the most diligent aficionados; the overall plot remains the same: Porgy is in love with Bess, a loose woman and a drug addict who wants to live a decent life, but bounces from the brute Crown to the crippled Porgy, back to Crown, then Porgy, then the sinuous and insinuating drug dealer Sportin’ Life. (It is not clear whether the Sondheim letter scared the new production off more drastic changes.) The heavy Gullah dialect has been translated for a general audience. In the original, we first see Porgy about to join a game of craps, saying “I got a pocket full of the Buckra money.” This has been changed to “I got a pocket full of the white folks’ money.”
The residents of Catfish Row still call the white policemen “boss.” The policemen no longer call the residents “uncle.” Lori-Parks has deftly rearranged or interpolated lines of dialogue to avoid what most offended audiences in the past: Now it is clearer that Porgy is singing of his happiness with Beth in “I Got Plenty O’ ‘Nuttin” (retitled “I Got Plenty of Nothing”) rather than exulting that he is poor and oppressed.
Some of the characters have been eliminated, among them a white patrician named Archdale meant to be sympathetic, who posts bond for another (eliminated) character because “his folks used to belong to my family.” The emphasis now seems to be on creating a sense of a self-contained black community with whom the audience can identify, rather than presenting exotic “others.”
This may help explain why Porgy no longer rides around in a goat cart; he uses a cane and a leg brace. For some reason, this seems to irk a lot of people, and inspired the funniest line in Sondheim’s diatribe: “So now he can demand, ‘Bring my cane!’ Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.”
One need not be a purist, though, to be disappointed by some of the changes in the traditional presentation of the music; one need only have seen “Porgy and Bess” in the opera house, or heard classic recordings of it. I was not troubled by the replacement of recitatives with spoken dialogue; this “Porgy and Bess” is on Broadway, after all. Those who object to a Broadway musical treatment of this work might be conveniently forgetting that “Porgy and Bess” was reportedly not really taken seriously as an opera in the United States until the 1976 production at the Houston Opera, and wasn’t even performed at the Metropolitan Opera until 1985.
But it is hard to deny the letdown that results from a paltry 22-member orchestra and the unnecessary meddling of musical adapter Diedre Murray. This carries over to the singing. In the work song “It Take a Long Pull to Get There,” to pick a clear example, the grunted “huh” at the end of each line lacked the oomph of the full-force operatic approach.
What redeems the music are the stand-outs in the cast. Nikki Renée Daniels is a lovely Clara, the character who initially sings “Summertime,” in this production joined by her husband Jake, played by Joshua Henry, last on Broadway in “The Scottsboro Boys.” Phillip Boykin, making his Broadway debut as the murderous Crown, has a convincingly brute presence and a mountainous voice. Norm Lewis, an established Broadway star, makes for a stirring Porgy, his voice appropriate for the Richard Rodgers if not La Scala.
But this “Porgy and Bess,” as you may have heard, belongs to Audra McDonald, whose voice soars operatically even as her every gesture and facial expression attempt to capture a real woman behind what everybody seems to be calling an archetype. I wish I knew how Bess were an archetype, and why “archetype” is somehow better than “stereotype.”
The outrage over this revision of “Porgy and Bess” for some reason brings to mind the reactions to the Village Halloween Parade. When it began, it was a neighborhood affair, startlingly original, modest, and small, the various paraders through back-streets of Greenwich Village almost like an art happening. Its popularity transformed it into an annual televised extravaganza attracting millions of people and channeled to the main avenues; a tourist event. There are many Villagers nostalgic for the original, indignant at what it has become.
But here is the difference with “Porgy and Bess”: The original is still around — or rather, the operatic version put together decades after its debut — available on albums and in opera houses. Both “Porgy and Bess” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” are worth seeing.
THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS
At the Richard Rodgers Theater
By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray; directed by Diane Paulus; choreography by Ronald K. Brown; orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Acme Sound Partners; wig, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene; music supervisor, David Loud; music director and conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos; music coordinator, John Miller; associate director/production stage manager, Nancy Harrington; technical supervisor, Hudson Theatrical Associates; company manager, Bruce Klinger; general manager, Richards/Climan; associate producers, Ronald Frankel, James Fuld Jr., Allan S. Gordon, Infinity Stages, Shorenstein Hayes-Nederlander Theaters, David and Barbara Stoller, Michael and Jean Strunsky and Theresa Wozunk. Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Rebecca Gold, Howard Kagen, Cheryl Wiesenfeld/Brunish Trinchero/Lucio Simons TBC, Joseph and Matthew Deitch, Mark S. Golub and David S. Golub, Terry Schnuck, Freitag Productions/Koenigsberg Filerman, the Leonore S. Gershwin 1987 Trust, Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Ken Mahoney, Judith Resnick, Tulchin/Bartner/ATG, Paper Boy Productions, Christopher Hart, Alden Badway, Broadway Across America, Irene Gandy and Will Trice..
Cast: Audra McDonald (Bess), Norm Lewis (Porgy), David Alan Grier (Sporting Life), Phillip Boykin (Crown), Nikki Renée Daniels (Clara), Joshua Henry (Jake), Christopher Innvar (Detective), Bryonha Marie Parham (Serena) and NaTasha Yvette Williams (Mariah).
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
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