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'Porgy And Bess': Messing With A Classic

Audra McDonald (left) and Norm Lewis play the title characters in a new and controversial take on Porgy and Bess. (Courtesy of the American Repertory Theater)

Porgy and Bess, the classic American folk opera about love and life in an African-American fishing community, was the culmination of a great dream for collaborators George Gershwin, his brother Ira, and author Dubose Heyward. But it wasn't as successful as they'd hoped when it premiered in 1935. So, 76 years later, the Gershwin and Heyward estates are bringing Porgy and Bess back in a new adaptation. The piece is now in previews at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., with plans to move it to Broadway in December.

Messing with a classic will always make people mad. The creative team knew that from the get-go. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks and musical adapter Deidre Murray recall long hours in windowless rooms sweating over the monumental task they'd agreed to take on.

"We were sitting around talking about, 'What are we doing?' 'Cause we were saying, 'What are we doing? What are we doing?" Murray says, laughing. "And that's what you would say: 'We're modernizing without disturbing.' "

"I think I'm disturbing some things," Parks adds, laughing.

Parks has. Before their adaptation even reached an audience, musical-theatre legend Stephen Sondheim sent a letter to the editor of The New York Times accusing the new Porgy and Bess team of arrogance and dishonoring the creators' intentions. But the opera has been in flux since its very first performance. The story goes that, after opening, George Gershwin and his collaborators paced through Boston Common arguing over cuts to their four-hour work. Robert Kimball, a theater historian, friend of Ira Gershwin and longtime artistic adviser to the Gershwin estate, says they probably would have kept at it had they lived.

"Because two of the creators died so very soon after the premiere in '35 — George died in 1937 and DuBose in 1940 — we really don't know what they would've done with the piece," Kimball says. "Most operas go through changes; from city to city, from year to year, the creator has another look at it. There would've been changes here, as well."

Developing The Story

That's not to say the opera hasn't been done since: There have been plenty of performances and a film. But the Gershwin and Heyward estates turned to Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus to bring the work back to the stage in a new way. The artistic director at the American Repertory Theatre recalls seeing a Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy and Bess.

"I remember sitting there in that fancy opera house thinking, 'This is a great piece of musical theater,' " Paulus says. "And not in the sense of musical theatre — song and dance and light — but deeply moving, powerful music, characters, drama, emotion, catharsis."

It was the story, though, that attracted most of Paulus' attention. She says she felt the narrative needed clarification. The plot still unfolds in a fictitious neighborhood called Catfish Row. It's still set around 1920. But baritone Phillip Boykin, who's sung the role of Crown many times before, says letting him talk more allows his character to express more.

"In the opera, the focus is usually on the voice," Boykin says. "In this production, the focus is really on allowing the audience to see these as real people and go deeper into the characters, and that's one thing that I absolutely love. I really get to do whatever I need to do to portray this character."

At a workshop in May in New York, Diane Paulus introduced the cast to her notion that the original libretto would be fleshed out — or "mined," as she says — to make the update more like a piece of musical theatre, or a play, than an opera. Audra McDonald says she learned more about her character Bess as Paulus and Parks laid out more of the back story.

"Okay, at this moment, they're going through withdrawal, cocaine withdrawal," McDonald says. "At this moment, someone has just been murdered. At this moment, someone is promising to murder someone so that you will not relapse and run away. I mean, all of these things, when you put them in a realistic context, the songs come even more alive."

A Controversial Decision

Bess is still a beautiful drug addict torn between her brutish boyfriend Crown and her growing love for the charming, disabled beggar Porgy. But Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who was hired to open the script, had lots of questions about what made these characters tick. For example, the opera never explains why Porgy is disabled, so Parks turned to the source.

"In the book, you go to the original novel — Dubose Hayward's original novel — and you realize he's crippled from birth, so he put in the line, crippled from birth: 'I'm crippled from birth, God made me to be lonely.' That's in the show," Parks says. "What does that mean to marry those two things together? A piece of information with the statement, 'God made me to be lonely,' which was in the original, and we put them together, and suddenly he's a man who's having a conversation with God, which is, 'From before the day I was born, you made me to be lonely, and into my life comes the most beautiful, cool, sexiest, most awesome chick, and I fall in love with her.' "

To make that more believable, Parks and her collaborators made a controversial decision: to eliminate one of the opera's key plot devices. In the original, Porgy makes his way around town in a goat cart. Here, he walks with a cane. The creative team also added text to address a longtime criticism of the opera: that it's racist. Parks points to the song "I Got Plenty of Nothing."

"That's the song that folks will go, 'Oh, man, that's a racist song,' " Parks says. "It's basically the happy-darkie-with-the-empty-pockets song."

That didn't bother Parks as much as her feeling that the song didn't work dramatically, so she added dialogue to set it up.

The Ghost Of Gershwin

At rehearsals earlier this month, Parks and the rest of the team said it's important to remember that the opera's creators stipulated the work would always be performed by an all-black cast, and to this day their estates hold firm to that requirement. Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy, points out that the opera's first national tour played a role in desegregating — briefly — the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. The original Porgy, Todd Duncan, refused to go on stage unless all seats were open to all colors for all performances.

"This was in the late 1940s, and this was before the civil-rights movement even started," Lewis says. "So for him to have that sort of wherewithal and strength and power and courage was a major milestone."

Throughout the entire process, director Diane Paulus says she especially felt George Gershwin's presence.

"Every time in rehearsal, when a music stand falls down or a book falls off or something crashes, we're always like, 'There's Gershwin!' " Paulus says. "I think he's in the room with us all the time, and actually I think what makes it such a powerful classic is that you do feel like you're in dialogue with what they gave us 76 years ago. That we are still working on it and still mining it beat by beat, word for word, note for note."

Writer Suzan-Lori Parks has this clarification for what the cast calls "the purists out there."

"We haven't touched the opera, actually," Parks says. "What we did is — 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 and Bess.' And again, the Gershwins asked us to."

Of course, the Gershwin and Heyward estates stand to earn royalties on the new production of what's now called The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. But, more importantly, they say they want the classic tale to reach 21st-century audiences who don't usually go to the opera house — and maybe have only heard the song "Summertime" sung by a contestant on American Idol.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host: "Porgy and Bess," the classic folk opera about life and love in an African-American fishing community, was a great dream for its collaborators, composers George and Ira Gershwin, and author Dubose Heyward, who wrote the 1925 novel, "Porgy." But it wasn't as successful as they had hoped when it premiered in 1935. So, now, after 76 years, the Gershwin and Hayward trusts are reviving "Porgy and Bess" in a new adaptation. It's now in previews at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with plans to move it to Broadway in December. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has been following the project's evolution since April.

ANDREA SHEA: Messing with a classic will always make people mad. The creative team working on the new "Porgy and Bess" knew that from the get-go. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks and musical adapter Deidre Murray recall long hours in windowless rooms sweating over the monumental task they agreed to take on.

DEIDRE MURRAY: We would say, what are we doing, what are we doing? And that's what you'd say, sort of modernizing without disturbing.

SUZAN LORI-PARKS: I think I'm disturbing some things.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHER)

SHEA: Before their adaptation even reached an audience, musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim sent a letter to the editor of The New York Times accusing the new "Porgy and Bess" team of arrogance and dishonoring the creators' intentions. But the opera has been in flux since its very first performance. The story goes that, after opening night, George Gershwin and his collaborators paced through Boston Common arguing over cuts to their four-hour work. Robert Kimball, friend of Ira Gershwin and longtime artistic adviser to the Gershwin estate, says they probably would have kept at it had they lived.

ROBERT KIMBALL: Because two of the creators died so very soon after the premiere in '35 - George died in 1937 and DuBose in 1940 - we really don't know what they would have done with the piece. Most operas go through changes; from city to city, from year to year. There would've been changes here, as well.

SHEA: That's not to say the opera hasn't been done since. There have been plenty of performances and a film. But the Gershwin and Heyward estates turned to Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus to bring the work back to the stage in a new way. The artistic director at the American Repertory Theatre recalls watching a Metropolitan Opera production of "Porgy and Bess."

DIANE PAULUS: And I remember sitting there in that fancy opera house thinking, this is a great piece of musical theater. And not musical theatre the way we tend to think, you know, song and dance and light and entertainment, but deeply moving, powerful music, characters, drama, emotion, catharsis.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PORGY AND BESS")

SHEA: It was the story, though, that attracted most of Paulus' attention. She felt the narrative needed clarification. The plot still unfolds in a fictitious neighborhood called Catfish Row. It's still set around 1920. But baritone Phillip Boykin, who's sung the role of Crown many times before, says letting him talk more allows his character to express more.

PHILLIP BOYKIN: In the operas, usually, the focus is mainly on the voice. In this production, the focus is really on allowing the audience to see these as real people and to go deeper into the characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PORGY AND BESS")

BOYKIN: (as Crown) There's the woman I'm looking for. Why you ain't come up here and say hello to your man?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) You ain't her man.

BOYKIN: (Singing) It's sure time I was brung(ph) back for you.

SHEA: At a workshop in May in New York, Diane Paulus introduced the cast to her notion that the original libretto would be fleshed out, or mined, as she says, to make the update more like a piece of musical theatre, or a play, than an opera. Audra McDonald says she learned more about her character Bess as Paulus and Parks laid out more of the back story.

AUDRA MCDONALD: OK. At this moment, they're going through withdrawal, cocaine withdrawal. At this moment, someone has just been murdered. At this moment, someone is promising to murder someone. I mean, all of these things, when we put them in a very realistic context, the songs come even more alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PORGY AND BESS")

MCDONALD: (as Bess) (Singing) Oh, I got my ticket ready an' de time is getting short, 'cause we're leaving today. And we're headed for de promised lan'.

SHEA: Bess is still a beautiful drug addict torn between her brutish boyfriend Crown and her growing love for the charming, disabled beggar Porgy. But Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who was hired to open the script, had lots of questions about what made these characters tick. For instance, the opera never explains why Porgy is disabled, so Parks turned to the source.

LORI-PARKS: In the book, you go to the original novel, Dubose Hayward's novel, and you realize he's crippled from birth, so he put in the line, crippled from birth. I'm crippled from birth, God made me to be lonely. That's in the show. What does that mean to marry those two things together? A piece of information with the statement, God made me to be lonely, which was in the original. We put them together, and suddenly here's a man who's having a conversation with God, which is, from before the day I was born, you've made me to be lonely, and into my life comes the most beautiful, cool, sexiest, most awesome chick, and I fall in love with her.

SHEA: To make that more believable, Parks and her collaborators made a controversial decision: to eliminate one of the opera's key plot devices. In the original, Porgy makes his way around town in a goat cart. Here, he walks with a cane. The creative team also added text to address a longtime criticism of the opera: that it's racist. Parks points to the song "I Got Plenty of Nothing."

LORI-PARKS: 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.

SHEA: That didn't bother Parks as much as her feeling that the song didn't work dramatically, so she added dialogue to set it up.

LORI-PARKS: So, when Porgy comes out of the house, he shouts:

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PORGY AND BESS")

NORM LEWIS: (as Porgy) Good morning, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Well, good morning, Porgy.

LORI-PARKS: But he's just been in the house with Bess, so he comes out of the house with a big smile on his face. And they say what you've been up to and he's like:

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PORGY AND BESS")

LEWIS: (as Porgy) Nothing. Nothing.

LORI-PARKS: They all start laughing. A bunch of guys on stage, they're all laughing. And he starts singing:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT PLENTY OF NOTHING")

LEWIS: (as Porgy) (Singing) Oh, I got plenty of nothing. And nothing's plenty for me...

SHEA: At rehearsals earlier this month, Parks and the rest of the team said it's important to remember that the opera's creators stipulated it would always be performed by an all-black cast, and to this day their estates hold firm to that requirement. Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy, points out the opera's first national tour played a role in desegregating - briefly - the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. The original Porgy, Todd Duncan, refused to go on stage unless all seats were open to all colors for all performances.

LEWIS: And this was in the late 1930s, early '40s. And this was before civil rights actually really started. So, for him to have that sort of wherewithal and power and strength and courage to do something like that was a major milestone.

SHEA: Throughout the entire process, director Diane Paulus especially felt George Gershwin's presence.

PAULUS: Every time in rehearsal, you know, when a music stand falls down or a book falls off and something crashes, you know, we're always like, there's Gershwin. You know, I think he's in the room with us all the time. And actually I think what makes it such a powerful classic is that you do feel like you're in dialogue with what they gave us 76 years ago. That we are still working on it and still mining beat by beat, word for word, note by note.

SHEA: And writer Suzan-Lori Parks has this clarification for what the cast calls the purists out there.

LORI-PARKS: We haven't touched the opera, actually. What we did is, 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 and Bess." And again, the Gershwins asked us to.

SHEA: Of course, the Gershwin and Heyward estates stand to earn royalties on the new production of what's now called "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." But, more importantly, they say they want the classic tale to reach 21st-century audiences who don't usually go to the opera house - and maybe have only heard the song "Summertime" sung by a contestant on "American Idol."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

MCDONALD: (as Bess) (Singing) Summertime...

LEWIS: (as Porgy) (Singing) Let the sun set on me...

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

YDSTIE: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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