On Porgy and Bess

by Bryce Lambert on September 11, 2011

All the comp tickets in the world couldn’t have paid for better publicity than the “controversy” Stephen Sondheim generated with his letter to the New York Times in response to Patrick Healy’s pretty much cookie cutter preview on the A.R.T.’s production of Porgy and Bess. Some are saying Sondheim’s preemptive hating on the show has already doomed its New York run, but controversy is always the best publicity. It’s the ultimate form of audience engagement, begetting blogs and blog comments and tweets and re-tweets and giving people something to talk about before the critics even see it. And of all the debates in theater today, there are none more accessible than “how much change to an original work is too much” and “what’s racist and what’s not.” In his letter, Sondheim concludes that the production should have been billed explicitly as an adaptation of an opera into a Paulus musical, rather than just its subtle (or as Sondheim might’ve thought, deceptive) re-titling as “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.” Surely all this controversy would’ve been avoided if the show was considered a musical adaptation of an opera, done with the same artistic license Paulus exercised on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for The Donkey Show.

While this might be easily done with a source opera like Carmen, Porgy and Bess has always been a mutant. Just seven years after its Boston premiere in 1942, the opera was cut down and its recitative was swapped out for spoken dialogue to please an audience that likely had a greater appreciation for Gershwin’s musicals than his operas. The 1959 film starring Sidney Poitier was heavily criticized for not being operatic enough, re-orchestrating and cropping Gershwin’s score, and fooling around again with that pesky recitative. Now, while these examples figure into the opera’s performance history, I wouldn’t cite a 1952 production and a movie that’s only available on bootleg as having any real influence. What really matter are all those recordings by Louie & Ella, Nina Simone, and Judy Garland, who gave opera’s “arias” a beloved place in the popular American songbook. And there you have the rub. You can’t Broadway-ify Porgy and Bess, because its already been done by seventy-odd years of American cultural force. It exists in our cultural memory as fragments, songs taken out of context with their literal meanings obscured or twisted by individual performers and performances. When all the difficult work has been done for you, does the artistic carte blanche that usually comes with adaptation apply? Or are you just nitpicking at something, deciding how many canes Porgy should have if he’s not going to have a cart?

Despite the claims in the New York Times preview that baited Sondheim, it turns out that Paulus’ production is more interested in mucking around in recently plowed soil than breaking new ground. Trevor Nunn stayed pretty true to Gershwin in his 1993 Glyndebourne Festival stage production that’s on DVD, but he did ditch the goat cart for two canes—which Porgy casts aside as he sets out for New York. In 2006 Nunn re-wrote the recitatives with scripted dialogue, cast musical theater performers, and re-orchestrated the music to suit more popular tastes, also titling it The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Just like the opera itself, Paulus’ production isn’t quite an opera or a musical–although it’s certainly more of the latter. It’s a mash-up of opera and musical theater. The long list of cast bios lists credits from The Lion King to The Rape of Lucretia. Essentially, this breaks down to Phillip Boykin (as Crown) and Audra McDonald (as Bess) singing in a high operatic style (which McDonald mocks several times), while Norm Lewis (as Porgy), David Alan Grier (as Sporting Life), and most of the other cast members sing in a musical theater style. Generally, this works, but duets between Porgy and Bess, like the popular “I Loves You Porgy,” suffer from the vocal clash. On the other hand, “What You Want with Bess” comes off beautifully with all the harmony Gershwin intended between Bess and Crown thanks to the two of them being opera singers. And even though Paulus’ version of Catfish Row feels like the setting of a musical, Riccardo Hernandez’s set looks like something that belongs on an opera stage, blowing up the shanty we might imagine Porgy lives in into an amphitheater-like abstraction of the fishing community.

Porgy and Bess at American Repertory Theater Boston

Shelter from the Storm (Michael J. Lutch)

The claims that have been made by the creative staff that the story and characters have been “enhanced” strike me, at least in part, as a cover story for edits to make sure the production comes off politically correct. These include stripping the white cops of some of their power to incarcerate material witnesses; not pointing Porgy “way up North pas’ de custom house” when he asks for directions to New York City; and cutting a scene where a white guy strolls in and, after being greeted congenially by Porgy with a “How you does, boss?,” chastises a Catfish Row resident for selling phony divorces. Norm Lewis’ Porgy isn’t forced to shuffle around on his knees in a metaphorical position of repression. Here, he gets around on two canes, and later on just one. His disability isn’t something that permanently pushes him to his knees but instead, like his being single, is something for him to beat within the duration of the show. It’s even been written in that he’s saved up for a leg brace! With his gray beard and the respect he receives from the others of Catfish Row, Porgy is here almost a senior in the community, quite literally an upright citizen.

Porgy has also been stripped of his superstitions. He doesn’t see buzzards as bad omens and, much more importantly, isn’t scared Crown’s wounds will bleed when he identifies his body at the police station. Instead he’s worried his face will betray his guilt. I would argue that Porgy’s original superstition is less racist than it is operatic. Many operas revolve around such small irrational plot points and even today, in a pop culture of vampires, werewolves, and zombies, we certainly aren’t strangers to plots that depend on cultural superstitions.

The most apparent change, which Sondheim wholeheartedly lamented, is in the show’s ending. Once Porgy called for his goat cart, onto which he was helped, and set off for New York seeking Bess with a grand farewell from all of Catfish Row. They warned him against leaving, but stood by him as they always had. In the A.R.T. show, he’s able to set off on his own two feet, but he does so alone. He’s no more or less sure of himself than he once was, but perhaps, in the audience’s eyes, he’s much more likely to make it. And although we cheer him on, the residents of Catfish Row do not. They turn their backs to him, refusing him help. It’s a sadder ending, as the community of Catfish Row is what makes it a happy place. Paulus has made Porgy a more independent man, but in the process she’s whittled away at the solidarity of a community that, as the sum of its parts, is perhaps the opera’s greatest character.

Norm Lewis as Porgy in Porgy and Bess at the ART Boston

Norm Lewis (as Porgy) and Company (Michael J. Lutch)

1 Bryce Lambert September 13, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Thanks to the Berkshire Review for pointing out the following

Current legalism requires all new productions and even concert performances of Porgy and Bess to be billed as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” The source for the piece is Charleston writer DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy and Heyward and his wife Dorothy’s stage play version of the book. Heyward wrote the libretto for George Gershwin’s opera and some of the best song lyrics—“Summertime,” for example. Gershwin’s brother Ira, with whom he often worked, wrote some further lyrics for Porgy. The A.R.T. program book gives ample and proper credit to Heyward.

2 Rich September 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Nice review Bryce!

3 Matt Lambert III September 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Very erudite but accessible. Excellent.

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