CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — “Summertime,” one of the most recorded songs in music history, has been reinterpreted by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, to Brian Wilson and Janis Joplin. But the lullaby was first heard in “Porgy & Bess,” a 1935 American folk opera by George Gerswhin, his brother Ira Gershwin, and author DuBose Heyward.
Now, 76 years later, “Porgy & Bess” is being re-imagined at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. It’s in previews this week and is bound for Broadway. But changing this classic opera comes with some pretty hefty baggage.
Messing with an iconic work will always get people riled up, and the creative team behind the new “Porgy & Bess” understood that from the get go.
It’s a classic! What are you going to do? Oh no, it’s famous, and old!
That’s what a lot of people said to Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus hired Parks to help transform “Porgy & Bess” the opera into a piece of musical theater.
Just last week musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim wrote a blistering letter to the New York Times attacking Paulus and Parks for dishonoring the opera’s original creators. But Parks has a gentle reminder for the purists.
“We haven’t touched the opera, actually,” she said. “You know on your computer you push ‘duplicate?’ We’re making another show. We’re not saying this will replace the original brilliant opera called ‘Porgy & Bess.’
And, Parks added, “the Gershwins asked us to.”
Both the Gershwin and Heyward estates, actually. The trustees enlisted Paulus first.
“Every time in rehearsal, you know, when a music stand falls down or a book falls off or something crashes we’re always like, ‘There’s Gershwin!’ ” Paulus said with a laugh.
Paulus is also the artistic director at the A.R.T. in Cambridge.
“Actually, I think what makes it such a powerful classic is that you do feel like you’re in dialogue with not only George Gershwin, but Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and what they gave us 76 years ago,” Paulus said. “That we are still working on it and still mining it beat by beat, word for word, note for note.”
This past May Paulus lead the actors in workshops in New York before moving on to full rehearsals at the A.R.T. last month. But the brainstorming began more than a year ago, after Paulus contacted Suzan-Lori Parks and musical adapter Diedre Murray to take on the musical’s book and score.
Parks and Murray holed themselves up in windowless rooms, listening to recordings and pouring over the libretto, so they could “modernize without disturbing,” as Murray put it. She, like countless musicians and music lovers, reveres George Gershwin’s music.
“When you hear Gershwin you hear America,” Murray, a composer and cellist, said. “As an adapter, you kind of have to be able to try to think like that person.”
Murray likes to think Gershwin would give her his blessing if he was still alive. Sadly, he died only two years after “Porgy & Bess” premiered in 1935 at Boston’s Colonial Theatre.
As the story goes, Gerswhin and his collaborators paced through Boston Common arguing over what cuts to make to their four-hour opera.
Murray and Park feel a great sense of responsibility to the original creative team, but in looking at the text everyone saw problems with the narrative — which, of course, landed in the playwright’s lap.
“You just look at it and go, ‘Here are some words that are working to tell a story — how can they more effectively tell that story?’ ” Parks said.
In the tweaked “Porgy & Bess,” the story still unfolds in a southern fishing community called Catfish Row. It’s still set in the 1920s. Bess is still a beautiful drug-addict torn between her brutish boyfriend Crown and her growing love for the charming, disabled beggar, Porgy. But Parks had big questions about what makes the characters tick.
For instance, the original opera never explains why Porgy is disabled, so Parks turned to the source.
“Go to the original novel, DuBose Hayward’s novel, and then you realize he’s crippled from birth. ‘I’m crippled from birth, God made me to be lonely,’ ” Parks said, quoting a passage. “That’s in the show. What does that mean to marry those two things together?”
It deepens our understanding of why the love affair between Porgy and Bess is so transformative and dramatic for Porgy, Parks believes. She puts herself in his shoes to drive the point home.
Imagine being Porgy, “and into my life comes the most beautiful, cool, sexiest, most awesome chick, and I fall in love with her,” Park said. And that’s drama.
Now, Bess might be cool and sexy, but she’s also an extremely flawed character. Parks dug further into her backstory as well. Actress Audra McDonald said it really helped her connect to Bess’ plight.
“Any time you get more back story on a character, are you kidding? It just grounds your character’s reality,” McDonald said.
The team made countless changes to make the characters and plot more accessible, and more believable, too. They also made a particularly controversial decision to eliminate one of the opera’s key plot devices — Porgy’s goat cart. In this show, he gets around town using a cane. Parks also wanted to address a longtime criticism of the opera, involving the song “I Got Plenty of Nothing.”
“That’s the song that folks will go, ‘Oh man that’s a racist song,’ you know, it’s basically the happy darkie with the empty pockets song,” Parks said.
That didn’t bother Parks as much as her feeling that the song didn’t work dramatically. So she added a few words of dialogue to set it up.
“This is why words are cool,” Parks said. In her play, Porgy comes out of the house and other characters ask what he has been up to. Porgy tries to play it cool.
“Now he’s just been in the house with Bess,” Parks said. “If any of you have ever been in a new romance you know what that’s like. And they all start laughing, a bunch of guys on stage, and he starts singing, ‘I got plenty of nothing…’ ”
So, Park said, “it’s a song about I have love in my life now.”
Broadway performer Norm Lewis plays Porgy. He and the rest of the cast are proud to be part of an updated version of this famous, sometimes infamous opera. While it’s been called a racist piece — co-written by a Jewish New Yorker who some believe knew very little about real life in a southern, black neighborhood — they say it’s critical to remember how well-researched and radical “Porgy & Bess” was for it’s time.
Author DuBose Heyward was born in Charleston, South Carolina. He and his wife Dorothy wrote a play based on his 1925 novel, which they then adapted into an opera with the Gershwins. From the beginning the creative team stipulated it would always be performed by an all-black cast. And, in the ’40s, singer Todd Duncan refused to take the stage as Porgy at the segregated National Theatre in Washington, D.C., unless all seats were open to all people.
Baritone Phillip Boykin plays Crown in the new musical and believes it will attract more diverse audiences to the A.R.T. and to Broadway. Even though he’s sung the villainous role in opera productions all over the world, he says this version has taught him a thing or two.
“I’ve been doing ‘Porgy & Bess’ since like 1995 or ’96, and I never knew why Porgy was crippled,” Boykin said. “This show answers that. I never knew if Crown really loved Bess or not and this show answers that. It answers a lot of the questions that I’ve had forever.”
That, of course, is music to the creative team’s ears — and likely to the trustees for the Gershwin and Heyward estates. A group of them traveled to Cambridge this week for the final dress rehearsal and first performance.
I’ve been told they might very well request changes to the show. The estates stand to earn royalties from what’s now called, “The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess.” But more important to the trustees, and the creative team, is to have this 20th-century love story reach 21st-century audiences who don’t usually go to the opera house.