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.)
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.
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.”
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.