Out of the Woods

With her radical interpretations of familiar works, theater director Diane Paulus has often led audiences down surprising paths. Then she wandered into Porgy and Bess.

by Julia M. Klein Published Spring 2012
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Diane Paulus / Photograph by Louise Savoie

“Be bold.” This was what the estates of George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward advised director Diane Paulus ’97SOA as she took on a towering creative task: transforming one of the benchmarks of American music, the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, into a Broadway musical attuned to present-day sensibilities.

The admonition was probably superfluous. This was, after all, an artist who had staged an all-female version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a nightclub, with cross-dressing and disco songs. Her daring paid off: the 1999 off-Broadway production of The Donkey Show ran for six years and toured internationally. As the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since 2008, Paulus has built on the experimental tradition of one of the country’s most prestigious regional theaters. And her fortieth-anniversary revival of Hair, which concluded with the audience dancing onstage, received rapturous reviews and a Tony Award.

But The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess — the production’s official title — represented a more daunting challenge: adapting the opera would mean figuring out how to approach African- American characters written by white men in the 1920s and ’30s. To wrestle with that question, Paulus brought in some heavyweights: Obie Award–winning composer Diedre L. Murray, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and four-time Tony Award–winning actress Audra McDonald, who quit the television series Private Practice to play Bess.

Last summer, during rehearsals for Porgy and Bess at the ART, which is resident at Harvard, Paulus shared her thoughts about this undertaking with New York Times theater reporter Patrick Healy. “In the opera, you don’t really get to know many of the characters as people, especially and most problematically Bess,” Paulus told Healy. “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires having your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.”

These remarks, echoed by Parks and McDonald, might not have seemed particularly outré in an age of sometimes-radical revivals. Consider, for example, the surgery recently performed on one decidedly lesser work, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which the female lead morphed into a gay man. But when Healy’s article was published in the Times on August 7, one reader in particular was appalled. Stephen Sondheim, perhaps the greatest living figure in musical theater and a great admirer of Porgy and Bess, fired off a blistering letter to the editor.

“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 and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.”

“If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to ‘excavate’ the show,” he wrote, “she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not Heyward’s?”

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