Several people have already offered responses here to The Gershwins’® Porgy and Bess® now playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, in a “Broadway” style greatly simplified from Gershwin’s opera of 1935. In the Intelligencer, the response has been largely negative; in the theater world, as opposed to the musical world, much of the response has been quite different, indeed, almost 180 degrees away.
I have worried about what was going to happen to one of my favorite works when, last March 23, I attended a seminar to discuss how Diane Paulus and company planned to treat Porgy and Bess in the fall. As one who dearly loves Gershwin’s great work, I was frankly curious how it could be done as an opera in the Loeb Theater. I quickly realized that there was no intention of performing the work as an opera in even the most extended sense (with, say, a reduced orchestra and perhaps a smaller chorus). The participants in the seminar included two people who were actively involved in the production, director Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks, who, we were told, was going to rewrite the libretto. And there were several other representatives of Harvard: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the W.E.B. Dubois Institute for African and African American Research; English professor Marjorie Garber, a distinguished literary critic; and musicologist Ingrid Monson, a specialist in African-American music. Some of them had taken part in a Harvard course that year, a seminar on Porgy in all its manifestations — novel, play, opera, reduced opera, and film.
The discussion at the public event bothered me a great deal, because it seemed that none of the participants gave any particular sign of having really heard the full opera. They all paid obeisance to the great songs, but references to the “recitative” or the “dialogue” claimed that it didn’t do enough to tell us about the personality and character of the residents of Catfish Row, or that there is no “arc” for the development of the relationship of Porgy and Bess. It sounded to me as if they planned to throw out everything but the songs and rewrite the entire book. I approached both Paulus and Parks at a reception after the discussion and asserted my strong belief that it is Gershwin’s music that takes the words of the dialogue and makes living human beings out of those characters — as indeed is also the case in the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and any other great master of the opera. The response I got was so neutral that I actually wondered if they had listened to the opera with any attention. So I feared the worst come September. (The response became more understandable when I realized later that Diane Paulus had been essentially commissioned by the Gershwin Estate to turn the work into a Broadway show.)
During the long period of previews, I heard rumors that seemed to reinforce my fears. The plot was changed — especially to give the opera a “happy” ending. Stephen Sondheim’s now famous letter to The New York Times went viral. I felt I had to see the ART production, if only to confirm my worst fears.
And I am happy to say that they were not confirmed. To be sure, Porgy and Bess has been cut down drastically, in length and musical elaborateness. The extraordinarily rich orchestra is much smaller and much less “classical” in sound. The choral writing that is one of the marvels of Gershwin’s score has been heavily cut, though the dozen cast members form a more modest chorus when the choral sound is absolutely unavoidable (as when singing the various spirituals (all original with Gershwin) that fill the score. (Probably the greatest amount of time recaptured for a shorter performance came from removing choruses.)
But beyond that, it seems that Ms Paulus and Ms Parks, as well as the musical arranger Diedre Murray, have remained far more faithful to both the letter and the spirit of Gershwin than early announcements indicated. Those who saw the show in early previews evidently saw a number of experimental changes, of which the most important was surely and ending that was actually played in front of an audience in which Bess returns to Porgy at the end, still hopped up on cocaine, but eager to be with him and persuade him to come to New York with her. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine that this ending could ever have struck anyone as a good idea, or as remotely consistent with the characters. Porgy would have been utterly out of place in New York, and the only reason Bess had for going there at all was to follow her cocaine supplier. If she really wanted to stay with Porgy, it would surely be to go back to “living clean” with him, and kicking the drug habit. Moreover, both of them were (we assume) lifelong residents of Charleston and the neighborhood of Catfish Row. The idea of their suddenly moving to New York sounds more like a rerun of the Beverly Hillbillies, only set on the East Coast.
Happily, that change was reversed, whether because it clearly didn’t work or because the ART people got cold feet after Sondheim’s quite forceful attack and subsequent widespread response to it.
So what actually happens onstage at the Loeb? The production team ended up with a show far closer to Gershwin’s original than I had expected. Yes, it is quite heavily abridged, but what is there largely retains Gershwin’s music and the Hayward libretto. The song lyrics were, as far as I noticed, entirely unchanged.
“Gershwin’s music” in this context means the tunes and the harmonies. Many of the songs were transposed downward, which would be a common move for a show being sung by popular Broadway singers than by opera singers. No doubt this is to reassure non-operatic attendees that they will not be forced to listen to those screechy “operatic” voices. Ironically, however, Nikki Renée Williams has sung the role of Clara at the New York City Opera, and the range for this performance seemed too low for easy projection. Porgy’s “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin” was also transposed downward, but that forced Norm Lewis to take part of the tune up an octave when the melody went too low.
My worst fear for Gershwin’s music was not realized: the production retains a very large part of the sung recitative, which is often highly expressive, and which (as in any good opera or song) the composer functions as the director, actually creating the “reading” of the line. When it is well done, the text becomes far more expressive as sung. The result is that Gershwin’s basic melodic line flows through the entire show from beginning to end, and that is probably the most important element in playing fair with the composer.
The text, also abridged, has far less in the way of rewriting or new plot lines than early reports seemed to indicate. We were promised an explanation for Porgy’s physical condition (in this production, a misshapen leg that forces him to walk, slowly and painfully, with the aid of a cane; in the all the original forms — novel, play, and opera — Porgy had no use of his lower legs at all and mostly moved around riding in a goat cart). The “explanation,” in the end, amounted to a single throwaway line indicating that he had been born like that. Some of the dialogue that was acceptable in presenting African-American characters in the ’20s and ’30s (but is no longer) was, naturally, reworked—but that sort of change has been going on for more than a half century already. The most notorious epithet used for black characters was changed most often to “dummy.”
Within the context of this abbreviated, simplified version of the piece (something I might be tempted to retitle “About 30% of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”) the ART has mounted what I found to be a strong, interesting, enjoyable production. The open set (unlike most productions, which recreate a fairly realistic neighborhood scene) required the audience to imagine the flexible, changing locales—but there is no harm in that. It made possible fast-moving shifting from scene to scene.
The actors are well fitted to their roles, both singing and dancing superbly (though mostly miked, as is conventional these days in Broadway houses, but not in Gershwin’s day). Audra MacDonald is a superb Bess, in her singing and her acting. She makes clear in her body language that life as Crown’s woman was no bed of roses; this makes her preference for the gentle Porgy a perfectly understandable decision. Norm Lewis revealed the humanity that made him a popular member of the community, one whom the others watch out for — first expressing concern that he would hook up with a woman like Bess, later happy to see that he has become more contented with his life after her arrival. Philip Boykin’s Crown is imposing and very scary, especially in his encounter with Bess on Kittiwah Island, which was staged with a high degree of brutal realism.
The rest of the company makes an excellent “community”— for Porgy and Bess is as much about Catfish Row as an entire small world as it is about the two named principals. On the whole, I am one of those whom Diane Paulus called a “purist” in a newspaper interview. Certainly I will attend future performance of the full-scale opera — the work, after all, the Gershwins actually composed — whenever I have the chance. But I’m glad I saw the ART production; it carried me along even as I was aware of what had been removed or adapted, but it did so with verve and energy. I am sure many, many people will see this version who would never think of going to an opera — and perhaps it might convince them to try “The Full 100% of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.
Interest in the A.R.T. production of The Gershwins’® Porgy and Bess® — as we are all now supposed to call what many regard as America’s greatest opera (so far) — has sparked many comments from some of Boston Musical Intelligencer’s most prestigious readers and reviewers, including the one here which appears, a week after the official press opening.