‘The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess’ – Classic Opera or Broadway Musical? It Ain’t Necessarily So!

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The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (nytimes.com)
“The Crap Game” from The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (nytimes.com)

When I last visited New York City in September 2012, I took my youngest daughter with me to see her first Broadway show. What we saw was the final week’s performance of a recent mounting of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward (based on his 1925 novel Porgy and subsequent stage play, co-authored with wife Dorothy), and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward.

A musical-theater classic (its Broadway bow occurred on October 10, 1935), this latest version boasted a totally revamped book, substituting the sung recitative for spoken dialogue, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, with a musical score adapted by Dierdre L. Murray. First performed at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 17, 2011, the revival (or, more accurately, “revisal”) was choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, with scenic designs by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by ESosa, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and musical direction by Constantine Kitsopoulos. The entire production was directed by Diane Paulus (Hair, Kiss Me Kate, Pippin).

We were most fortunate to have seen and heard the original cast – a solid gold cast, I should add – headed by the incomparable Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Alan Grier as Sporting Life, and Phillip Boykin as Crown. Others in the talented ensemble included Nikki Renée Daniels as Clara, Joshua Henry as Jake, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah, J.D. Webster as Mingo the Undertaker, Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, and Nathaniel Stampley as Robbins, with Christopher Innvar, Joseph Dellger, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Phumzile Sojola, and Cedric Neal in smaller roles.

Surrounded by controversy before it even opened on the Great White Way (an ironic turn of phrase, I gathered, considering the show’s all-black cast), what Parks and Paulus did was to shake the cobwebs off the piece, to rethink it, rearrange it, stir it up, and refurbish some dialogue and musical material by realigning it in what I felt to be a respectful and inventive manner, if a tad leaner than what one has been used to in the past – all with the blessing and backing of the Gershwin Estate.

Director Diane Paulus (arts.columbia.edu)
Director Diane Paulus (arts.columbia.edu)

“We are trying to create a more dramatically complete version that will be the most powerful experience in terms of story and characters for a twenty-first century audience,” Paulus declared. “Different things need to be adapted and changed for different reasons,” claimed Parks. “There are several [of] what I would call ‘anthropological moments’ in the original, meaning moments created by people who were probably not deeply familiar with any African-American community… And there are moments that need additions/rewrites/tweaks for pure dramaturgical reasons.” To the discussion above, McDonald added that Bess “is often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.”

Notwithstanding their efforts, and without having even seen the completed show, famed Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote a blistering condemnation of the team’s motives in The New York Times: “Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. The characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theatre, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.”

Award-winning director Harold Prince, who collaborated with Sondheim on many of his finest musicals, offered this view of their so-called tampering with the classic: “To my mind, Porgy and Bess is a sacred text. How can she and Diane Paulus know what George Gershwin had in mind? They don’t have a clear line to him.” Indeed, how can any of us know what playwrights and composers, not to mention lead producers, book writers, songwriters and lyricists, had in mind for any of their past musical projects? That’s why we have revivals: to test the waters, try out new theories and advance opposing ideas.

Other reviewers jumped on the critical bandwagon – a bit prematurely perhaps, for the show turned out to be a huge hit, its run having been extended several times. Not only that, but McDonald went on to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, as did Diane Paulus for Best Director of a Musical Revival, a wake-up call to those detractors who claimed this version was an unworthy endeavor.

Say what you will about this or any other revival of Porgy, the work speaks for itself. That it had such eloquent spokespersons as McDonald, Paulus, and Parks testifies to its durability and relevance for our time. But is Porgy and Bess a classic opera or a Broadway musical show? That’s a question the smartest, most thoughtful minds in the business have been pondering for generations – and a most tantalizing one to have to answer!

A Show by Any Other Name

George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin
George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin

Certainly George Gershwin, the show’s composer and guiding light, and one of Tin Pan Alley’s greatest (if not the greatest of) songwriters, thought it was an opera – a folk opera to be exact, in the jargon of the 1930s, but an opera nonetheless. Realizing that the opera ran to over four hours during its out-of-town tryout in Boston, George and his lyricist brother Ira, along with novelist Heyward (a native of Charleston, South Carolina), decided to cut back the mountain of material they had originally created by trimming away many of the score’s more picaresque moments, much as Giacomo Puccini was forced to do with Madama Butterfly after its initial failure at La Scala.

“If I am successful,” Gershwin claimed later, “it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of [Bizet’s] Carmen and the beauty of [Wagner’s] Die Meistersinger.” Such superb ensemble writing as the opening “Crap Game,” for instance, was unheard of for an American opera composer at the time. “Like Carmen, Porgy and Bess has gorgeous songs that are an integral part of its musical fabric,” wrote Robert Kimball, in his program notes, “The Roots of ‘Porgy and Bess’,” for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s milestone recording of the work. “Arguably,” continued Kimball, “the comparisons to Meistersinger are even stronger. The large choral ensembles and dramatic scenes, the effective use of leitmotifs, the Wagnerian scope and difficulty of its principal roles, and surely the fight-scene fugue owe much to Meistersinger. Above all, there is a similar feeling of community that links Catfish Row [the setting for the play and the opera] and Nuremberg.”

I think that for a full evening’s entertainment, though, the four-hour running time is a bit much for modern audiences to have to sit through. The demands on cast and crew are daunting as well, especially for the chorus and orchestra. This is a work of Wagnerian proportions, no doubt about it – a total work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk as Wagner would term it. It’s a long and fascinating piece, best appreciated on records and CDs, with beautifully worked out numbers, textual acuity, an adult story line and three-dimensional characters: Bess is a whore and a dope addict, plain and simple; Sporting Life is a drug dealer and a pimp; Mariah a bossy Earth Mother; Crown a cold-blooded murderer; Porgy a superstitious beggar and cripple with a heart of gold; Jake a male chauvinist, and so on. To winnow things down to Broadway-size proportions, without abandoning its operatic origins, is a challenge on any front.

Compare and Contrast

Paulus directing Boykin & McDonald (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
Paulus directing Boykin & McDonald (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)

Gershwin drew a comparison above between his Porgy and two classic operatic works. I’d like to make one of my own, if I can: in comparing the Act II, scene ii picnic episode on Kittiwah Island with a similar scene in Carousel, one gets the sneaky suspicion that Rodgers and Hammerstein must have known the opera well, for they virtually “cloned” this sequence into their own musical outing from a decade later (April 1945, to be precise), but with an all-white ensemble instead. Not a deliberate steal, mind you, but an obvious homage, I’d like to imagine, one that’s been overlooked by musicologists for years.

In fact, how many other works have profited from Porgy’s dramatic truth and tunefulness? And what other show has such instantly recognizable hit tunes as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess, You is My Woman,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Leaving for the Promised Land,” “It Takes a Long Pull,” etc., and so forth?

Suzan-Lori Parks (newsinfo.iu.edi)
Suzan-Lori Parks (newsinfo.iu.edi)

I could go on and on praising its songs, but I want to take issue with something Suzan-Lori Parks said earlier. She talked about some of those “anthropological moments” by “people who were probably not deeply familiar with any [my emphasis] African-American community.” I respectfully disagree with that statement.

According to Kimball, a musical theater historian and co-author (along with Alfred Simon) of The Gershwins (Atheneum Publishers, 1973), Gershwin paid “many visits to Charleston to work with Heyward… His longest stay was in the summer of 1934 when he and his cousin, Henry Botkin, rented a place on Folly Island off the Carolina coast. In search of inspiration for his music, Gershwin visited Carolina churches, homes, night clubs, and prayer meetings, soaking up everything.”

Heyward himself later described “their fruitful working experience” in the following passage: “[W]e established ourselves on Folly Island, a small barrier island ten miles from Charleston. James Island with its large population of primitive Gullah Negroes lay adjacent, and furnished us with a laboratory in which to test our theories, as well as an inexhaustible source of folk material… I shall never forget the night when, at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island, George started ‘shouting’ with them. And eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’”

What Ms. Parks may have objected to was the lack of political correctness in many of the words and phrases both Gershwin and Heyward used to describe the poor blacks they came into contact with. She and quite a few others may have forgotten that Gershwin grew up and worked in multiracial, multi-ethnic neighborhoods, in the teeming byways of the Lower East Side of New York, as well as in Harlem, where the Gershwin family had lived. If I may quote from Kimball again: “Gershwin knew such influential black musicians as James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake, studied for a time with Charles Luckeyth ‘Lucky’ Roberts, and greatly admired Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, Art Tatum and W.C. Handy. One of many black musicians who befriended Gershwin was the talented arranger and composer Will Vodery. When Gershwin left [his publishing company] in 1917 to try to make it on his own, Vodery was one of the first to offer help and encouragement… It is important [to note] that it shows Gershwin had an interest and a musical involvement in Negro life early on.”

This is not to say that ignorance and prejudice did not exist in the 1920s and 30s. Far from it! However, where the Gershwins and Dubose Heyward were concerned, they consciously tried to capture the speech pattern, rhythm and cadences, musically as well as vocally, of the Southern black population that lived and loved in the fictional Catfish Row of their imagination. If Parks wants to call their attempts at doing this as “not deeply familiar with any African-American community,” then by all means do so – keeping in mind, if you will, the historical, sociological and musical context in which these men labored and thrived in. Were their observations “racist”? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s say they were products of their era and leave it at that.

Bess, You is the Woman Now

McDonald & Norm Lewis (chicagotribune.com)
McDonald & Norm Lewis (chicagotribune.com)

The first thing I noticed with this version of Porgy was Bess’s domination of the stage, a rare occurrence indeed and one director Paulus struggled especially hard to convey. Toward that end, she had the phenomenal Audra McDonald to rely upon. McDonald brought enormous stature to the role, a raw energy, a gutsy, combative spirit, a strong personality, strong wants, strong needs, and even stronger desires – drug lust and sexual craving chief among them. Her obsession with the massively realized Crown of Phillip Boykin, her fear of him, and her own irrational fascination with him, came through boldly and vividly.

It was a risky choice on Audra’s part to do this, but it paid off handsomely in the long run by bringing the usually reticent personality of Bess into sharper focus, in addition to making her one of the central figures in this production – as well she should be, since Bess is one of the title characters, along with Porgy.

And speaking of which, Norm Lewis’ soft-spoken, low-key traversal of the crippled Porgy, by turns pained and sullen, as well as gentle and loving in his absolute dedication to Bess, was a breath of fresh air. As comprehending a soul as could be found, his Porgy was patience personified, what with Bess’ drug addiction and sexual appetite vying for his affection. True, this was a downplayed yet determined Porgy – again, a different interpretation from past adherents – but one not to be toyed with. He was ever mindful of his deformity and affliction. For his troubles, the production dispensed with the usual goat cart; in its place, Porgy sported leg braces, which aided in his (literal and physical) standing on his own two feet to face the tribulations to come.

I admired the way Lewis took his time with the part, and especially how he took Bess gently into his arms – so tender, so full of joy and hope and longing – for a thoroughly satisfying “Bess, You is My Woman Now”; again, not the usual operatic bawling, but a calm, almost gradual awareness of their burgeoning love. The couple practically billed and cooed like the proverbial lovebirds.

By contrast, Phillip Boykin’s overpoweringly monstrous Crown was a force of nature. His volcanic presence bullied and bludgeoned all around him like nothing I’ve witnessed on the stage. A veritable hurricane of a man, Boykin was the most impressively sung and physically imposing Crown in memory (only Gregg Baker at Glyndebourne and the Met came close). When Boykin came a-knocking during the Act II storm scene, I half expected the devil himself to come bursting through that door, so overwhelming in impact was he in this role. His “What You Want With Bess?” duet with McDonald was the highpoint of their emotional encounter, and of the show itself. Both artists outdid themselves – in fact, Crown’s rape of Bess left many in the audience squirming with discomfort. But that was the point! To have actually felt the man’s presence and Bess’s desperation in that awful moment, even at a safe remove from the stage, was absolutely terrifying.

David Alan Grier as Sporting Life (centrictv.com)
David Alan Grier as Sporting Life (centrictv.com)

Walking the walk and talking the talk, David Alan Grier was an assured and downright roguish Sporting Life, his snakelike strut and air of self-satisfaction telegraphing the character’s evil intent at every turn. Still, I missed that last note of sarcasm in the voice – his “It Ain’t Necessarily So” lacked the bite that such memorable portrayals as those of John W. Bubbles (the original Sporting Life), Cab Calloway, and Damon Evans have brought to the part. All the principal and secondary roles were excellently performed, but in a toned down, non-operatic manner, i.e., very little belting to the rafters but certainly not lacking for lyricism. A perfect illustration of this was Joshua Henry’s Jake and Nikki Renée Daniels’ Clara. NaTasha Yvette Williams’ Mariah was sassy and brassy, as the part required, without sacrificing any of the character’s warmth and motherly concern, while the chorus was a shade undernourished.

Since a good deal of the opera’s scenes had to be “trimmed” and rearranged – an hour’s worth of content, by my reckoning – this left some of the work’s most elaborate musical numbers, such as Jasbo Brown’s opening piano pounding, by the wayside. What a shame! The sets were simple and attractive, especially in the second act nighttime sequence, but were nothing to write home about. However, in the show’s defense (something I believe I have been doing since the start of this review) there was the sense of a real community at play, a Catfish Row made livelier by the men and women who inhabited it.

Norm Lewis "I'm on My Way" (berkshirefinearts.com)
Norm Lewis “I’m on My Way” (berkshirefinearts.com)

At its conclusion, Porgy ultimately finds the strength to go on, a strength he never knew he had, by his brief association with Bess. After being told that Bess has run off with the revolting Sporting Life, Porgy goes after her sans his formulaic goat cart; to trudge along an unworn path on steel braces, to the big Northern city of “Noo Yawk,” in a most heartrending finale. A finale that’s emblematic of this work’s having “made it” on its own two feet, and on its own merits.

So now we come to the question that still needs answering: is Porgy and Bess an opera or a musical? I’d say neither. It’s one damn terrific show, that’s all! And I’m so glad not to have missed it.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “‘The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess’ – Classic Opera or Broadway Musical? It Ain’t Necessarily So!

    Paulo Afonso de Lima said:
    June 4, 2016 at 10:17 am

    What a bright and clever review! The best one I’ve read about Diane Paulus aproach of PORGY AND BESS!

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