“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” a new adaptation of the famous Gershwin opera originally performed in the 1930s, faced controversy in its debut on the Broadway stage this season. But the women behind the musical, director Diane Paulus, SoA ’97, and book adaptor Suzan-Lori Parks, said they stand behind it and are “extremely proud” of the project at last week’s Arts Initiative-hosted campus conversation at Miller Theatre.
“We were on a mission with this show,” Paulus told Spectator before the event. “We had a great piece of art, and we had a chance to make a difference with it.”
“Porgy and Bess,” set in South Carolina in the 1920s, centers around the tragic love story of Porgy, a crippled beggar, and Bess, a beautiful but troubled former prostitute and drug addict. Bess is continually turned toward her old ways by Crown, her abusive partner, and a drug dealer named Sporting Life.
When the Gershwin estate approached Paulus and Parks about reworking the opera, Parks said that, as a writer, she immediately thought about new ways to humanize the characters. For example, Crown, generally considered the villain of the work, murders a man at the beginning of the play and is forced to flee. Parks, though, said that she wanted to give more depth to the character by emphasizing that the murder was “an accident.”
Some were skeptical that any significant changes would benefit the work, including composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times after the newspaper published a feature on the musical.
“Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people,” Sondheim wrote. “Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over in over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.”
Although Paulus refused to comment on this response, she and Parks explained that all of the changes were extremely thought-out and deliberate—casting alone took them two years.
“When I’m watching a film, or looking at a painting, I’m very conscious that it’s a result of a multitude of decisions,” Parks said. “In ‘Porgy and Bess,’ you can be sure that every decision was agonized over.”
But the artistic process “was agony in a joyful way,” she added.
Though Paulus maintained that the work was still “musically driven,” Parks said that making that transition had a lot to do with the actors that they cast.
“We needed actors that are more multitalented,” Parks said. “They have to sing like a bird, dance, and act like an actor.”
The final cast reflects that goal. Audra McDonald, who portrays Bess, is a Tony Award-winning actress for her work on Broadway and has also dabbled in opera and starred on ABC’s “Private Practice.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, David Alan Grier, who plays Sporting Life, was named one of Comedy Central’s “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.”
All of these efforts were geared toward making the iconic work speak to a contemporary audience.
“When I say ‘contemporary audience,’ I mean that I wanted to remind the world that black people, that these characters, are human ... and this is a conversation we’re still having,”
Parks said. “Here we are, we are people. It’s that simple.”
Paulus, the artistic director at the American Repertory Theatre, holds numerous theater and opera credits, including the recent Tony Award-winning revival of “Hair.” She received the Varsity Show’s 2009 I.A.L Diamond Award for Achievement in the Arts. Parks is the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her 2002 Broadway play “Topdog/Underdog,” and is a recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.”
Paulus said that her first experience with Parks’ works was when she applied to the Yale School of Drama—and kidded that she didn’t understand them.
Parks’ response? “I don’t understand them either,” she joked.