A sometime thing: The history of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ as complex as the history of race in America

A scene from 'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess' ()
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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.

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“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.