9:46 am Jun. 8, 20124
There is no one Porgy and Bess. It changes according to our perceptions—most obviously about race, but also about working-class versus middle-class Negro life …; about gender representations; and about Eros, addiction, and religion. Most importantly, Porgy and Bess has changed because history has made it change, and has made us change too.
—Margo Jefferson, from a panel discussion prior to a screening of the 1959 film adaptation of Porgy and Bess at Brooklyn College in 1998.
George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess has periodically generated controversy since its 1935 debut in 1935, and the latest Broadway production—renamed The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and up for 10 Tony Awards on Sunday—started generating its share even before the curtain went up.
Surprisingly, the controversy proved short-lived, and instead of the usual bugaboo of racial representation—except for a pair of white actors in non-singing roles, the entire cast is black—it focused on aesthetic issues raised by downsizing a grand opera into musical theater. Once the air cleared, even those critics who were lukewarm about the show as a whole conceded that Audra McDonald is wonderful as Bess. And I now agree, though I wouldn’t if all I had to judge from was the show’s first public performance, in Cambridge, Mass., last August. In that performance, McDonald and the other principal female characters were guilty of oversinging—as if Diane Paulus, the director (previously best-known for her 2009 revival of Hair), and Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer-winning playwright (and MacArthur Fellow) charged with the task of revising DuBose Heyward’s 1935 book, had neglected to tell them that Porgy and Bess wasn’t being performed as opera this time around.
“In the opera you don’t really get to know some of the characters as people,” Paulus told the New York Times during the Cambridge rehearsals, “especially and most problematically Bess, who goes back and forth from Crown’s woman to Porgy’s woman while also being addicted to drugs.”
So this was going to be a Porgy and Bess primarily for actors, driven as much by character and storyline as by George Gershwin’s score and Heyward and Ira Gershwin’s libretto. Fair enough. But “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and even the show’s less familiar numbers are so intrinsic to the storms brewing on Catfish Row, and in the hearts of the major characters, that oversinging them amounted to the same thing as overacting—especially (and, yes, most problematically) on the part of the female lead.
The Boston Globe reported that McDonald initially had “strong reservations” about accepting the role of Bess. She, too, felt the character lacked dimension, and agreed with many among the black critics who have objected over the decades to what they argue is the opera’s demeaning portrayal of black tenement dwellers in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1920s.
Even before McDonald changed her tune, expressing admiration for the material in subsequent interviews, I couldn’t help wondering if some of her initial hesitation stemmed from self-doubt; not counting a 2008 production of Kurt Weill’s musical hybrid Mahagonny, she had never sung opera, and here she was taking on a role dauntingly associated with the likes of Leontyne Price. And Paulus and Parks were doing her no favor by substituting naturalistic dialogue for much but not all of the opera’s recitative—unlike numerous earlier non-operatic productions in which recitative was eliminated altogether.
McDonald is extremely versatile, and anyone familiar with her Jenny the whore in Mahagonny, or her Carrie, the plucky millworker in a 1994 revival of Carousel, could be confident she’d ultimately find her way into Gershwin’s score and what is actually one of music theater’s most complex female characters. But McDonald wasn’t the only problem, nor was she the reason this Porgy and Bess began its out-of-town tryout under a cloud, pre-condemned by Stephen Sondheim, no less—Broadway’s greatest living composer, and His High Holiness Himself on matters pertaining to its musical canon.
Offended to begin with by the omission of Heyward’s name in the new title—“[m]ost of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone (‘Summertime,’ ‘My Man’s Gone Now’) or co-written with Ira Gershwin (‘Bess, You Is My Woman, Now’)”—Sondheim published a letter in the Times in which he went on to express “dismay” over “the disdain that Diane Paulus, Audra McDonald, and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself” after reading about their planned revisions to Porgy and Bess.
Wise or not, many of those proposed changes—streamlining the opera’s three-plus hours into a more audience-friendly two-and-a-half, for example, or freeing Porgy from his goat-drawn cart in favor of a “modest” cane—were hardly unprecedented. (The crippled beggar has been up and walking, albeit with visible difficulty, at least since Trevor Nunn put him on crutches for the much-respected 1988 Glyndebourne Festival Opera production. And no one recalls last seeing the goat.) But along with newly created back-stories for some characters, including dialogue explaning how Porgy became disabled, there was to be a new, “more hopeful” ending. That’s what really got Sondheim’s goat, I think, because I know it got mine.
As if to prove that nothing is sacred in the arts, even to a work’s creator, the first to change the ending to Porgy and Bess was DuBose Heyward himself. The 1935 opera was itself something of a revival, adapted as it was from Porgy, a hit 1927 stage drama by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, itself adapted from his best-selling novel from two years earlier and already practically a musical by virtue of incorporating Negro spirituals and at least one example of what folklorists would later call ring shout. The plot is essentially the same in all three tellings, and so is the setting—referred to as Catfish Row, but actually the courtyard of a four-story mansion from colonial days gone to ruin and a tenement now, home to a teeming community of black fishermen and stevedores, some of whose wives work as domestics. Bess, a loose woman addicted to booze, “happy dust” (no doubt cocaine), and maybe rough treatment at the hands of her lover, the villainous stevedore Crown, finds herself on her own there when Crown flees to Kittawah Island to hide out from the law after killing a man during a fight over who rolled what in a game of craps. The only door open to Bess is Porgy’s; and even though she’s first drawn to him for the money he makes begging, a deep love develops between them, and Bess changes her ways enough to earn the respect of the community’s “proper” ladies (even resisting the “happy dust” the pimp and drug dealer Sportin’ Life attempts to lure her back into the life with). But Porgy and Bess’s relationship (nurturing for both of them) is tested when she encounters Crown again at a community picnic on Kittawah, and gives in to his advances. In all three versions of the story, Porgy winds up murdering Crown—not for revenge, but because Bess acknowledges that she’ll be unable to resist the touch of Crown’s “hot hands” as long as he’s alive.
The only difference from novel to play to opera is the degree of premeditation on Porgy’s part. In all, Porgy is thrown into jail, not as a suspect in Crown’s death (the idea that a disabled man could overpower the strapping Crown never occurs to the cops) but for refusing to cooperate as a possible eyewitness. In the novel, Porgy returns to Catfish Row after a few days only to find out from Maria, the community’s matriarch (and conjure woman, though not in the play or opera), that Bess has gone away. After hesitatingly breaking the news, Maria, who has always thought of Porgy as ageless, realizes for the first time how old he’s grown. Fighting back tears, she returns to her room, “leaving Porgy and the goat alone in an irony of morning sunlight.”
The more dramatic but equally tragic ending that theatergoers are familiar with originated in the 1927 stage play, and it was Dorothy Heyward’s lasting contribution. Bess, having fallen twice, to Crown and then to Sportin’ Life’s “happy dust”—and knowing she’s doomed to fall again and again, to more drugs and to other able-bodied men who can give her the physical satisfaction that we’re left to assume Porgy cannot—leaves with Sportin’ Life for “the good life in New York,” though she has to realize he intends to pimp her after getting her hooked again. Delusional to the point of madness, Porgy starts out after her, presumably never to be seen again by the folks on Catfish Row—unless they find him picked clean by the buzzards he warily spotted circling overhead in Act One.
At least that’s my interpretation, and I don’t think it’s too grim. Two men are brutally murdered in Porgy and Bess, and another loses his life at sea during a hurricane, followed by the death of his wife in the same storm. Though “Summertime,” the opening aria, is sung to an infant, its circular rhythms and pendulous chords make it as much a dirge as a lullaby—and as reprised by Bess during the hurricane that claims both parents of the baby she’s numbly comforting, it’s a death march. And does anybody but Porgy (and maybe not even he) truly believe that “the heavenly land” he’s bound for at the end is the Big Apple? Of course, some do believe just that—among them, apparently, Sondheim, who referred to “Porgy’s heroic journey” in his letter to the Times.
From this point of view, the conventional ending is already hopeful, so what was Paulus and Parks’s problem with it? Dorothy Heyward herself said the ending was supposed to be “pathetic, not uplifting”; to soften it violates everything we’ve learned about these characters over the length of the show, not to mention everything we know from experience about the laws of desire and the inexorable workings of fate. Yet in Cambridge, in an ending thankfully scrapped before the show hit Broadway, there was McDonald’s Bess throwing away Sportin’ Life’s happy dust but sailing for New York anyway—and Norm Lewis’s Porgy hurrying to catch up to her on the dock, or catch the next boat, after initially rejecting her offer to travel together out of wounded pride.
Between the lines of the brief debate that ensued from Sondheim’s temper tantrum, one side seemed to be arguing that the 1935 opera book written by a well-meaning white Southerner was racially insensitive by contemporary standards, and the other side that tampering with a classic text for such reasons was kowtowing to the most humdrum sort of political correctness. Nobody came out of this debate unscarred. Sondheim, of all people, should have known better than to weigh in on a show that neither he nor anyone else had seen yet. But Parks, in particular, relinquished whatever higher ground she and her colleagues had gained from Sondheim’s breach when she started giving interviews in which she seemed to be pulling rank over Gershwin and Heyward as well as Sondheim by virtue of being a black woman with presumably greater insight into the show’s characters. She even went as far as to chastise Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”—dialect and all, dandy Depression-era lyrics in the noble Tin Pan Alley tradition of songs like “The Best Things in Life Are Free”—for “leaning towards racist, darkie shit.”
All of this was treading old ground. Objections to the images of blackness projected by Porgy and Bess reached a crescendo not long after the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, with a 1959 film adaptation starring a reluctant but contractually obligated Sidney Poitier. (Ironically, a few years earlier, many conservative white politicians had questioned the U.S. State Department’s wisdom in sending the opera on an extended world tour, including performances in the Soviet Union.) In The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, a cornerstone text in early Black Studies programs, published in 1967, Harold Cruse called for a boycott of Porgy and Bess, not just by black audiences, but by black performers.
Through the decades, consternation over Porgy and Bess has inevitably reflected its own era’s black class anxieties as well as white misconceptions about black life—for black audiences desiring characters like themselves to identify with, the question hasn’t always been one of representation so much as the much trickier one of surrogacy. In its own day, even those critical of the opera’s racial modus operandi credited it with at least giving a flock of talented, conservatory-trained opera singers a foot in the door. But Porgy and Bess achieved far more than that.
In the thick of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporaneous with Alain Locke’s The New Negro, the opera pointed to a nascent black genteel tradition embodied by its performers—even if some in the black press and elsewhere were unable to make the reverse leap of separating these members of W.E.B. Du Bois’ talented tenth from the semi-literate working people and lowlifes they were portraying on stage (who weren’t “ready yet,” in that day’s parlance). Much about Porgy and Bess was musically new for both Broadway and the opera house in 1935, beginning with Gershwin’s use of blues cadences in lieu of the ragtime syncopations still favored by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, and his forays into harmonic territory to that point explored only by European composers like Alban Berg (the pentatonic, almost Asian-sounding “My Man’s Gone Now,” for example, anticipated much jazz experimentation of the 1960s by three full decades).
But Gershwin’s determination to mount Porgy and Bess as a grand opera rather than as a conventional Broadway musical represented more than just a celebrity songwriter’s desire to extend his realm, I think. Opera allowed for the expression of fine feelings by black characters previously limited to eye-popping, buffoonish display and the rawest of human emotions. And to give an idea of what the alternative might have been, Al Jolson was also vying for musical rights to the Heywards’ Porgy, intending to play the lead role himself, probably in blackface.
Curiously, once the current production of Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, even though the reviews were mixed (including in the Times, which gave it team coverage not seen since the entire editorial staff lined up to blow kisses at Rent’s adorable young boho poseurs in 1996), it was as if the race card had disappeared from the deck. I don’t think this relative scarcity of debate about the show’s racial implications means we’ve finally become a “postracial” society any more than the election of a black president did.
It might just mean that black audiences are smart enough to know this isn’t 1935 anymore, or that all of us, but black theatergoers in particular, are now OK with a lot of things we didn’t use to be. Besides, as Margo Jefferson has pointed out, Porgy and Bess has itself changed with the times—a gradual process that began with Ira Gershwin excising all instances of the word “nigger” from the libretto for a 1951 Columbia Masterworks recording. Nearly all of the outdated dialect is gone from the current production, and good riddance; it would create unwanted distance from characters landlocked in 1935.
There was still plenty of debate surrounding The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, only it centered on the arcane and ultimately pointless question of whether Porgy and Bess can be genuinely Porgy and Bess unless performed as an opera lasting over three hours. To go Jefferson one better, there is literally no one Porgy and Bess—no single“original” text, but three, chronologically and in order of diminishing order of length: Gershwin’s published score; the 1935 opera; and the 1942 non-operatic Broadway revival. Our sense that a scaled-down Porgy and Bess done as a musical rather than as an opera violates Gershwin’s intentions dates only to the influential Houston Opera production of the mid-1970s, which (along with a recording conducted by Lorin Maazel from around the same time) advertised itself as “complete” by dint of restoring the 45 or so minutes of music that Gershwin himself discarded following the opera’s Boston tryouts.
Even now, though, an operatic Porgy and Bess is a sometime thing. Just in the past few years, not even counting this new Porgy and Bess, there have been at least a half dozen productions ranging from full-scale opera to concert presentations to stripped-down chamber renderings. And it hardly needs to be pointed out that from the beginning, many of the score’s individual numbers, including “Summertime,” have enjoyed a double life as both arias and out-of-context pop songs; even though jazz singers and instrumentalists have largely been the ones keeping those songs alive through the years, younger people are more likely to know “Summertime” from having heard Fantasia sing it on American Idol, or “I Loves You, Porgy” from (God help us) Christina Aguilera’s heaving assault on it at the Grammys a few years ago.
Broadway always seems abuzz about something below the general public’s radar, however, even if it’s only how much Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would ultimately cost to produce, and how many actors and stagehands it would wound. This time, the question actually being pondered following The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess’s debut was one perhaps bettersuited to a semiology seminar: does one work of art ever simply replace another? Though Porgy and Bess’ survival as an opera seems assured no matter how many other ways it’s done, in the case of Heyward’s original novel, sadly, the answer is yes; even if racial politics and evolving literary taste hadn’t eventually turned against it, Porgy was relegated to oblivion as a mere source on the opera’s opening night.
Reading it today, one is immediately struck by how different it is from such novels of the same period as Edna Ferber’s Show Boat and Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, melodramas whose white authors addressed what was still referred to as “the race problem” by way of miscegenation and “passing”—concerns one doubts were foremost in the minds of most black Americans then. Heyward attempted something riskier. Though often dismissed as a minor Southern regionalist, he was at least intuitively a naturalist, a literary Darwinist in the lineage of Zola and Dreiser. With Porgy, he sought to present a picture of Southern Negro life that was as realistic emotionally and psychologically as it was in its exterior details, and this meant entering the minds of people entirely unlike himself. But as the son of a woman poet who earned a meager living lecturing on the folklore of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands (today, she might be extolled as a “storyteller” and funded by the NEA). Heyward grew up steeped in a culture whose African retentions made it alien even to most black Americans, and on some level, he may have felt a bond with his disabled title character—recovering from polio as a teenager, he worked as a cotton counter on the Charleston docks, where he too must have gazed enviously at the black stevedores, admiring “the panther-like flow of enormous muscle power under absolute control,” as Porgy sees it.
Porgy contains psychological insights worthy of Richard Wright, as when Bess falls sick and Porgy mulls over the advantages and shortcomings of “the white man’s religion” (Christian prayer), “the white man’s science” (hospitalization), and “the old ways” (conjure), unable to summon up faith in any of them. The novel’s admirers among black writers included Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, who called it “the best novel by a white about Negroes.” It’s well worth reading today, with the proviso that the mix of Gullah dialect and proto-Ebonics spoken by its characters (“buckra” for white man, for example) takes some getting used to, especially juxtaposed with Heyward’s poetic omniscient narration.
In an interview soon after the current production opened on Broadway, Audra McDonald said she carries a dog-eared copy of the novel everywhere and reads a passage from it every night before going on stage; and the cheek scar she insisted on to establish from the start that her character is damaged goods comes straight from the Heywards’ forgotten stage play. Seeing this Porgy and Bess a second time, last winter in New York, I found myself wondering if Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks had stolen a glance at Heyward, too. A brutal scene near the end, in which the white cops throw Porgy and his clanging leg brace roughly to the floor, is in no other production I know of, but it’s similar to a passage in the novel where the cops callously hoist Porgy in their paddywagon “wagon, goat, and man.”
From today’s vantage point, the beauty of Heyward’s book for Porgy and Bess is that in conjunction with an unlikely love story that ends tragically, it also tells the story of a largely self-sufficient, hard-working black community—albeit one from which all four major characters (Porgy, Bess, Crown, and Sportin’ Life) remain outsiders for various reasons, which is where the dramatic tension comes in. An important but overlooked subplot—and a key to Bess’s enigmatic character—is her unspoken desire to be accepted by the proper women of Catfish Row and her gradual acceptance as one of them, climaxed by the moment when the young mother Clara, before rushing into the storm to join her dead husband, hands her baby over to Bess, in effect transferring the sanctity of motherhood to her (along with “Summertime,” the aria we heard Clara singing to open the show). McDonald plays the scene beautifully, with a stunned gravity that lets us absorb its full importance.
From a dramatic standpoint, the real problem confronting this production—had Paulus and Parks been able to express it without defaming Heyward—was that McDonald, for whom the show is largely a star vehicle, was off stage for the final fifteen minutes. Instead of bringing her back for a feel-good ending, the solution proved to be giving her a final scene she could throw herself into with such physical abandon that it stays with you after she’s left: she still contemptuously tosses the happy dust David Allen Grier’s Sportin’ Life gives her, but then drops desperately to her knees to snort it off the floor after he’s confidently sashayed away. McDonald has large, vivid features she knows how to use to register slight shifts of emotion as well as unambiguous attraction or alarm; the eye goes to her even when she’s standing still and not singing or speaking, and when she delivers the title phrase of “I Loves You, Porgy” in an italicized, faster-than-tempo rush, so does the heart.
Plenty to find fault with remains in the new production. Parks’s new book seems a little absent-minded; instead of strangling Crown with his bare hands, as in most productions, Porgy kills him with a knife, so what was the point of keeping the scene in which Sportin’ Life observes that Porgy has an awfully strong grip for a cripple? And Norm Lewis, although he certainly looks like we think Porgy should, with his grey whiskers and sullen dignity and painful-to-watch swivel as he propels himself from spot to spot with his cane, can’t match McDonald vocally. Happily, the male cast member who can, and does, is Phillip Boykin as Crown; when he grabs McDonald by the shoulders on Kittawah Island, she knows he’s no good for her and so do we, but their voices fill the theater so mellifluously it’s as if they’ve been drawn together by natural selection.
The PS Classics cast album is disappointing, exposing vocal shortcomings disguised by superb acting in the theater. On stage, the show is entertaining even at its most maddening. Originally scheduled to play only through June, it’s proven appealing enough to audiences (including the racially mixed one I saw it with at the Richard Rodgers, which clearly loved it) that it’s been held over at least through September, with rumors of a national tour to follow. McDonald is a heavy favorite for Best Actress in a Musical at Sunday’s Tonys, and (ironically) the show’s only real competition for Best Revival of a Musical is a lifeless production of Sondheim’s Follies that ended its limited engagement in January. With or without a Tony, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is a hit, and though I can’t speak for Sondheim, that’s a happy ending I can live with.