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A.R.T. Takes New Spin on Porgy


An adaptation of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess starring  Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald and Phillip Boykin is scheduled to open at the American Repertory Theatre on August 17 at The Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, across the river from where the opera premiered in 1935. Director Diane Paulus has reconceived the libretto in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and Diedre L. Murray has reworked the score. Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel head the production team, which hopes to bring the show to Broadway later this year. (Like all productions of the opera in recent years, the work, as mandated by the Gershwin estate, is advertised as “the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” although brother Ira’s contribution of several lyrics, while significant, essentially supplemented that of DuBose Heyward, the work’s principal librettist.)      

Suzan-Lori Parks, Diane Paulus, and Diedre Murray (A.R.T. photo)

According to an August 7 preview piece in the New York Times by Patrick Healy, this A.R.T. production, spearheaded by the Gershwin estate, fleshes out the role of Bess, features a new ending, and more generally, presents the opera as a musical, with the recitative spoken rather than sung — an approach that actually dates back to Cheryl Crawford’s 1941 production of the work. In addition, much of the music has been re-orchestrated, re-harmonized, transposed, and otherwise rearranged, making this probably the most dramatic overhaul of the score in its history, at least for stage use; for jazz versions, including those featuring Mel Tormé and Francis Faye, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, have long taken considerable liberties with the material. (Murray described her adaptation to me as being “informed” by the Armstrong-Fitzgerald and Davis recordings in particular.)

The Times preview article contains some provocative remarks by a few of the show’s leading participants. “In the opera you don’t really get to know many of the characters as people, especially and most problematically Bess,” states director Paulus. “I think if he [Gershwin] had lived longer . . . he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including to the ending,” states playwright Parks. “Now [in this new version] there’s an actual dramatic arc to ‘Porgy and Bess,'” states Boykin, the production’s Crown. “The music is gorgeous. We all know that. But the opera has the makings of a great love story too that I think we’re bringing to life,” states McDonald, the production’s Bess. The show plainly regards itself not merely as a new version of an old chestnut, but a distinct improvement over the original.

Such posturing quickly prompted a satirical response from Michael Musto in the Village Voice and an appalled one from Stephen Sondheim in a letter to the Times. The opera surely deserves a more objective appraisal than that suggested by the Times preview piece and other publicity associated with this production.

Early in his career, George Gershwin composed a short one-act opera, Blue Monday Blues, for the George White Scandals of 1922. Although a flop, this effort showed the young musical comedy composer to be surprisingly ambitious and skilled. (It inspired bandleader Paul Whiteman to commission the Rhapsody in Blue.) Like the concert works Gershwin subsequently wrote, Blue Monday Blues even foreshadows Porgy and Bess, his next and, alas, last opera. But nothing Gershwin composed in the course of his all-too-short career truly prepares one for Porgy and Bess, a full-scale three-act work lasting close to four hours (with intermissions), with large, complex choruses and an orchestration full of deft and imaginative touches. While composing the piece, Gershwin, no musical ignoramus, had in mind the operas of Wagner, Bizet, Mussorgsky, and Verdi, and apparently Debussy, Puccini, and Berg as well, and incorporated aspects of these masters into the work, even while immersing himself in the African-American folk traditions that color the score. None of his other achievements so proclaim his prodigious genius.

Gershwin manuscript courtesy Library of Congress

The opera’s form resembles especially Puccini, with various numbers embedded into a rich musical structure and expressive recitatives that often veer toward song. The work has virtually no spoken dialogue aside from a few lines uttered by its minor white characters. Moreover, the vocal writing makes on the whole serious, sometimes daunting demands. Simon Estes, who sang Porgy at the Met, thought the role one of the most challenging in his repertoire and comparable to the Flying Dutchman and Wotan; if a few supporting roles, like Sportin’ Life, call less for an opera singer than a singing actor, one might recall that Papageno appears in the same work as the Queen of the Night. Reviewing the work’s initial Theatre Guild production directed by Rouben Mamoulian in 1935, the Boston and New York music critics, whatever they made of Gershwin’s description of the piece as an “America folk-opera,” agreed that what they had before them was no operetta or musical, but a veritable opera.

Following its premiere, the work – without even considering the countless jazz and popular renditions of the score – embarked on a particularly colorful history, highlights of which include the aforementioned 1941 revival by Cheryl Crawford that made its way to Broadway; a 1943 European premiere in, of all places, Nazi-occupied Copenhagen; a 1951 almost-complete recording conducted by Lehman Engel; an extraordinarily successful 1952 government-sponsored Blevins Davis-Robert Breen production that helped launch the careers of Leontyne Price and William Warfield and toured the world, including Soviet Russia; a 1959 Samuel Goldwyn film version directed by Otto Preminger, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge (their singing dubbed by Robert McFerrin – Bobby McFerrin, Jr.’s father – and Adele Addison); the first complete recording, with Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra; an acclaimed 1976 Houston Grand Opera revival conducted by John DeMain, also recorded; a 1985 Metropolitan Opera premiere, with Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry under James Levine; a 1986 Glyndebourne production with Sir Simon Rattle, which yielded both an audio and video recording; a 2006 recording with conductor John Mauceri based on the 1935 Theatre Guild version; and a 2006 West End musical version directed by Trevor Nunn.

The work’s many productions employed varying texts that, in nearly all cases, deviated from Gershwin’s published 1935 piano-vocal score, including the opera’s initial Broadway production, which cut about thirty minutes of music. (Director Mamoulian and musical director Alexander Smallens supervised these latter cuts in consultation with the composer.) Indeed, for all the work’s popularity, only two productions – the 1985 Met production and the 1986 Glyndebourne production – have presented the work as originally conceived. (The Maazel, DeMain, and Rattle recordings similarly feature the complete score, whereas the Mauceri release, as mentioned, duplicates the shorter Broadway premiere.) Otherwise, the opera has proved something of a free-for-all. Some of the versions – the Cheryl Crawford revival, the movie adaptation, the Trevor Nunn musical – either reduced or largely eliminated the recitative, while cutting some of the numbers as well. The two most popular operatic versions – those produced by Davis-Breen and HGO – retained Gershwin’s sung-through approach, but took various cuts that over time brought the opera in at under three hours (not incidentally helping to reduce expenses). The Davis-Breen production originally kept the work’s three-act structure, but eventually presented the piece in two acts, which became standard for most versions, including those mounted by HGO. Some productions have used a reduced orchestra; and in classic operatic tradition, some vocal embellishments have made their way into the score as well. The libretto also has been tweaked, with Ira Gershwin himself replacing the sporadic use of the word “nigger” with such phrases as “buzzard” and “low-life.” The Times article quotes Audra McDonald as saying, “I imagine Gershwin purists will have their arrows in their bows, ready to shoot,” but if there are any Porgy and Bess purists, they would seem to be few and far between.

That is not to say that some commentators have not argued on behalf of one or another version of the score. Scholar Charles Hamm, in an article here, and conductor John Mauceri  both championed the 1935 Theatre Guild version, arguing that since this version would remain the last before Gershwin succumbed to a brain tumor in 1937, it can be considered authoritative, if not definitive. But the evidence strongly suggests that Gershwin agreed to the cuts taken by the Theatre Guild largely because of the exigencies of a Broadway house, including the unlikely prospect that a Broadway audience would sit through anything close to four hours in length and the impossibility of performing so much strenuous music eight times a week. When Gershwin composed the work, he presumably thought largely in terms of an opera house, that is, of an audience unfazed by a work of Wagnerian length and a cast that only would have to perform the work at most a few times a week; but at the time, no opera company could be expected to mount a piece with a virtually all-black cast, as the composer wanted. (Even today, it can be challenging for major opera companies, who have their own choruses under contract, to arrange for an all-black chorus.) More conditioned by Broadway and Hollywood than most serious composers, Gershwin accepted the situation with characteristic equanimity.

But if he “was generally even tempered” about the cuts, as reported in the Times preview article (drawing on Hollis Alpert’s 1991 book on the opera), he found them distressing, at least according to both his girlfriend, composer Kay Swift, and the original Porgy, Todd Duncan. And for good reason too. In my biography George Gershwin: His Life and Music (2006) I note some of the unfortunate consequences that result from the cuts taken for the Broadway premiere, a line of thought further developed in an article co-written with music theorist Andrew Davis for the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Later abbreviated versions present similar problems, although some seem stronger than the first production in certain respects, weaker in others. The Theatre Guild version at least shares with the original score a three-act structure, which allows for three effective curtains, as opposed to most other versions, which involve a curtain somewhere in the middle of the second act.

Moreover, in the two years left him after the opera premiered, Gershwin showed no inclination to revise his published score, which further suggests that he remained attached to his original vision. In a guide published by A.R.T. concerning this new production, both director Paulus and Gershwin expert Robert Kimball assert that the composer, in Kimball’s words, “was not finished with the score” when he died, a new and, as far as I know, undocumented claim (although after the opera’s premiere, Gershwin, encouraged by the generally good response to Porgy and Bess, plainly set his sights on writing another opera, possibly once again with DuBose Heyward).

Admittedly, the opera, in various guises, has provoked controversy, with some observers decrying its use of ethnic stereotypes (both black and white) and its hybrid musical style, others cheering its warmth and humanity and the beauty and vitality of its music. Some critiques have real merit, although others need to be taken with a grain of salt, including literary commentaries insensible to ways in which the music enriches and ennobles the text. Tellingly, a number of opera singers who initially approached the work with skepticism report falling in love with the piece in rehearsal. Unfortunately, because black singers traditionally have encountered racial prejudice as an obstacle to their careers, Porgy and Bess has become associated with the limited performing opportunities for black performers, but that obviously cannot be held against the work. Indeed, the opera for decades has provided a steady source of income to many black performers, to the point that some cast members have been known to refer to the work jokingly as “Pork ‘n Beans.”

Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in rehearsal with Alicia Moran, Trevon Davis, Cedric Neal, and Roosevelt André Credit in the background (Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

As for Paulus’s criticism, stated in the Times article, that the opera lacks an “understandable and fully rounded” heroine, one might note that in Porgy, the DuBose Heyward novella from which the opera derived, Bess forms a somewhat secondary figure. Heyward and his wife Dorothy gave the character a greater presence in their hit 1927 Broadway adaptation of the novella, also entitled Porgy, on which Heyward based his libretto for Gershwin. The opera enlivened the character still further by featuring Bess in the first-act finale, three major duets, and a reprise of “Summertime,” as well as by providing her with some spectacular recitative (as in her brazen, “Robbins, have one to the Gawd fearin’ ladies. There’s nothing like ’em, thank Gawd,” or her poignant arioso that begins, “It’s like dis, Crown”), although in truth she does not get a solo of her own. (She would have been still more prominent had Gershwin retained a duet for Bess and Serena that he eventually excised.) A number of operatic Bess’s have gone on record expressing deep empathy with the character, even if their interpretations vary. Still, the story, at least as conceived by Heyward and Gershwin, remains essentially Porgy’s, about his growth through love, and if Gershwin suggested adding Bess’s name to the title, that was partly, perhaps primarily, to distinguish the opera from the play, which also had been produced by the Theatre Guild and directed by Mamoulian.

Studying the reception of the work’s many versions, one cannot draw any clear correlation between the performance edition used and popular or critical success. The uncut version unveiled at the Metropolitan Opera received some of the worst reviews in the opera’s history; the same version presented at Glyndebourne the following year, some of the best. Attempts to transform the piece into something more like a musical have met with considerable success (the Cheryl Crawford version), mixed success (the movie version), and little success (the Trevor Nunn version). One can only conclude that the individual songs and choruses are so good that, with the right performers and direction, one can shape the piece into an effective stage entertainment in a variety of ways, although the numbers alone are not enough to guarantee success.

Regarding this latest incarnation of the opera about to open at A.R.T., Gershwin presumably would have been glad to have his name and his work, in some fashion, before the public. And hopefully, this new production, whatever its fate, might inspire more performances and productions of the complete score in all its glory, so that whatever its shortcomings, its stature can be more fairly and fully appreciated and understood.

Howard Pollack is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Music at the University of Houston and the author of five books, including Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (1999) and George Gershwin: His Life and Work (2006). His webpage is here


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A wonderfully even-handed account. I agreed with Sondheim’s reaction to the statements of the creative staff, which were condescending and dismissive of Gershwin to a degree I think would disturb the estate, which seems to be eminently disturbable.

    While the original Broadway cuts disturbed Gershwin, the revisions he made in the arrangements and other small touches wrought out of the actual rehearsals enhance the work dramatically for me a lot. This is always the process for musicals and plays, you can not know what works until you rehearse it. Gershwin the theater man doesn’t get much credit when those are ignored. I suspect having written a few plays myself that his not touching anything after the initial production was exhaustion, not a stamp of approval for what is the first draft version that was published. To work on something new, for a least a substantial spell of time you have to leave your last work behind. He could not afford after “Porgy’s” failure financially to spend any more time on it. For me the ideal “Porgy” would be his revisions of the Broadway version with the cut material restored. “Buzzard Song” in particular was cut because he and the director feared Duncan’s voice could not sustain a run if it was retained. I do wish Mauceri had recorded exactly what he did but with the cut material restored, then he might have provided the template for what stage versions of “Porgy” should be.

    The cast of the coming version is too good not to make something interesting, but it will not be Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.

    Comment by John Ellis — August 13, 2011 at 9:44 am

  2. This thoughtful and informative article needs to be read in tandem with Sondheim’s much more polemical take in the New York Times. The upcoming ART production may be interesting and engaging on its own terms, but it is not going to be the extraordinary Gershwin-Hayward “Porgy and Bess,” which, for all its flaws, deserves better than such extensive plastic surgery.

    Myself, I’m working on a newer version of “Don Giovanni” in which the exuberant Don repents at the last minute, pays generous palimony to Donna Anna, and marries Leporello. Why be bound by stultifying tradition?

    Comment by Joel Cohen — August 14, 2011 at 7:07 am

  3. Well, making cuts is a normal, workaday activity in the the theatre world, but not many people have the nerve to do wholesale rewrites, if you discount Disney, and that falls under adaptation, which has looser rules.

    Moving an opera to a musical theatre setting, however, is not an adaptation, as the medium, the score and the book remain much the same, so the need to tack on a happy ending is beyond me. By all means, trim if you see fit, “Porgy”‘s score is too demanding for musical theatre’s eight shows a week without a bit of cutting back, but why rewrite the play? Why add a happy ending? Why add back story? These things aren’t needed surely. In fact it is the sign of a weak director that they might resort to such things, or worse, a director who has no trust in her audience. Yes, the punters watch crap every day on the boob-tube, but they respond to good,intelligent work, so why pander?

    In the meantime, I’m going to work on a new R&J for my niece, who asked me why Juliet doesn’t simply tell Romeo to sod off and then head off to Club Med for a fling. She asked me this after reading the text through. I then took her to a very good production of the play, and she understood, and cried. But still for all the other teenagers, I will rewrite it with a happy ending, at least for Juliet. And of course, I’ll add a hip-hop back beat to the Prokofiev score, because there is no way those kids’ll listen to the old score, right? And just to be sure that it is still branded, I’ll call it “Bill Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”, just to make sure that they know it is from a marketable brand name. Yup, that’ll do it. Cuts? Oh, of course there’ll be cuts – I can bring it in in just under 80 minutes!

    Comment by Aleksandr Wilansky — August 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm

  4. The first sentence of this piece says that the ART’s production will be “starring Phillip Boykin and Audra McDonald,” and a few paragraphs later it quotes “Boykin, the production’s Porgy.” Phillip Boykin will play Crown, while Porgy will be portrayed by Norm Lewis.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — August 16, 2011 at 11:59 am

  5. Thanks to Mr. Owades for pointing out our omission.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 16, 2011 at 12:27 pm

  6. NPR ran a segment on Sunday morning August 21st on “Weekend Edition/Sunday” that dealt with this production, giving it nationwide distribution:

    There’s a transcript and a 9-minute audio file.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — August 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm

  7. The hype and controversy surrounding this production assures full houses. Calling the show ‘The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess’ is either disingenuous or deliberately provocative. Certainly, no one would have been pleased if Peter Brook’s adaption of Carmen had been called ‘Bizet’s Carmen.’ I nevertheless intend to see it without prejudgement. It is reassuring that – whatever my reaction – the original, unadulterated ‘Porgy’ will always be there.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — August 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm

  8. My wife and I attended the performance Tuesday night. I had meanwhile read Sondheim’s letter and a representative sampling of the over 500 responses to it on the New York Times website, especially those from the last couple of weeks, including those from people who had seen the ART production. By way of opening disclaimer, let me say that this post is not a review. BMInt has commissioned one of its ablest staff to do that, so I am restricting myself to a few points pertinent to the discussion generated by the head article.

    My attitude going in was that there’s no harm in converting P&B from an opera to a musical–it’s been done before, in 1942, 1951 and for the movie in 1959. What matters is that, first, it be a musical as good in its own genre as the opera is as opera, and second, that it not seek to deceive an unwary public that what it is getting is “like” seeing and hearing the original, “only better.”

    In this respect the statements made by Mesdames Paulus, Parks and Murray to the Times and in the “guide” to the ART production that the audience got along with the actual program, are disingenuous. They want you to think simultaneously that they are recasting the opera in new form but also making it better, even to the extent of creating fictitious intentions on the part of Gershwin to do the same thing. Porgy and Bess–the real one, the George Gershwin-DuBose Heyward opera with some help from Ira Gershwin–does not need any improvement whatever. It is what it always has been, the greatest operatic creation yet penned by Americans, and one that can hold its own with the greatest created by anybody anywhere. What the PP&M trio might be forced to say, if pushed into a corner or seated below a bare light bulb, is that for the purpose of converting this opera into a musical that contemporary musical theater audiences would in their opinion like (a very limited purpose–sort of like converting it into a graphic novel), they thought it desirable to strip the score to a succession of hit tunes singable by Broadway rather than opera-house voices, give the score a steadier, thumpier beat and less complicated harmony, make the characters state their motivations in readily digestible sound bites, and provide an ending that just might be conducive to extending the franchise with a stream of sequels.

    Judged on its own terms, what PP&M have done is not irrational vandalism. They want a Broadway hit that will make them lots of money, which prior metamorphoses of P&B as an entity have not reliably done. The same rationale applies to the bodies corporate whose sanction this enterprise required. Contrary to a lot of the invective hurled in the blog commentaries concerning the permissions and branding of this use, and several other recent uses, of P&B, the sobriquet “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”–its title bristling with scary trademark indicia bespeaking packs of feral lawyers snarling to be unleashed–was fully endorsed not only by the George and Ira Gershwin estates (for all practical purposes the same thing, though one wonders where George’s hidden heir fits into all this), but also by the Heyward estate. The latter obviously knew that its bread was buttered on the Gershwin side, and raised no objection to omitting the librettist’s name from “above the title.”

    “Porgy and Bess” is a work of art; “The Gershwins'(R) Porgy and Bess (R)” is commerce. In the story, Bess heads for Broadway; for her to defer to it now is just a matter of professional courtesy.

    Comment by Vance Koven — August 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm

  9. I enjoyed Steven’s review immensely, and thought Joel Cohen’s and Vance Koven’s remarks absolutely on the mark. Everyone who wrote is right about this being a guaranteed megahit on Broadway. It’s all very sad, including the Gershwin’s estate letting this treatment of aa sublime work being so inanely tampered with.

    Comment by Susan Miron — September 1, 2011 at 9:05 am

  10. Very good piece, thank you! I’d be interested to know what happened to and after that Met production of 1985. How was it received? Was it ever revived? Why not. It would seem to me a perfect candidate for the Met in HD. Does anyone know if that has been considered? Rejected? And why?

    Comment by helen epstein — September 3, 2011 at 10:28 am

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