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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Hundreds of Times readers responded, most as outraged as Sondheim. Paulus’s Porgy and Bess, scheduled to open in Cambridge in just days, was spectacularly savaged, its Broadway future thrown into doubt — all before the curtain had risen on a single performance.

 “What’s important to know,” says Paulus, forty-five, a diminutive woman with piercing eyes, long dark hair, and a forthright manner, “is that the Gershwin estate said, ‘We have the opera, and the opera is going to exist forever. We’re not asking you to do the opera. We’re actually coming to you to create a version of the show that will coexist with the opera, a version that will be for the musical-theater stage, for Broadway, which means for a broader audience.’ That was something that the estate was very passionate about. That was our charge.”

Based on a best-selling 1925 novel by the Charleston, South Carolina, writer DuBose Heyward and a stage adaptation by his wife, Dorothy, Porgy and Bess is the story of a crippled beggar and his lover, who live in a fictional black slum called Catfish Row. Even those who don’t know the opera are familiar with parts of the George Gershwin score: “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Heyward, a poet as well as a novelist, wrote the libretto and collaborated with Gershwin’s brother, Ira, on the lyrics.

His woman now: Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in Porgy and Bess / Photograph by Michael J. Lutch

The early reaction to the opera, and its mostly black cast, was respectful, but critics didn’t always know what to make of it. Over the years, the work has toggled between the opera house and the musical-theater stage. It has also been subject to considerable tinkering. George Gershwin himself made about forty minutes of cuts to the four-hour piece between its Boston tryout and Broadway opening, and Cheryl Crawford, in her immensely popular 1942 version, which replaced recitatives with dialogue, streamlined it even more.

In 1952, a production initially starring William Warfield and Leontyne Price toured Europe to great acclaim. But Otto Preminger’s 1959 attempt to translate the opera to the screen, with a cast that included Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr., was not successful. A 1976 Houston Grand Opera production reestablished the piece’s operatic bona fides, and the Metropolitan Opera finally undertook its first Porgy and Bess in 1985.

Michael Strunsky ’62GS, the sole trustee of the Ira Gershwin Estate (and Gershwin’s nephew by marriage), says he has wanted a Broadway version of Porgy and Bess since he saw Trevor Nunn’s 1992 Covent Garden staging. Nunn’s 2006 Savoy Theatre production, intended for Broadway, never made it there. Strunsky calls that production “opera lite” and says he thought a more ambitious approach was needed.

In the spring of 2010, the Gershwin and Heyward trustees and their lawyers flew to Boston to meet with producer Jeffrey Richards, Paulus, and staff members in Paulus’s ART office. Suzan-Lori Parks attended via speakerphone.

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