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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Paulus “was already a remarkable force” when she entered the directing program, Bogart says. At Columbia, “she was continually innovating, not only with the plays and projects that she realized,” but by making “strong alliances with students and faculty,” many of whom would become colleagues.

While still a student, Paulus assisted Serban on a Massenet opera in Paris, where she met the impresario Brian Dickie. Dickie would later call on her to direct Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Chicago Opera Theater. It was Paulus’s first opera.

Before graduating, Paulus sought advice from Bogart on what to do next. “She just looked at me, and she touched my heart. It was a physical gesture, like ‘Follow your heart.’”

In 2007, the phone rang, and the Public Theater was on the line. Would Paulus like to direct a fortieth-anniversary concert version of the rock musical Hair?

“I almost dropped the telephone,” she says. “Are you kidding? I know every song of that show, backwards, forwards.”

James Rado, one of the original creators of Hair, was impressed by both Paulus’s precision and her preparation during their collaboration on script changes. “I was elated by the working process,” Rado says. “She was aware of the original production; she’d studied the history. She did not want to repeat any of the ideas. She wanted to make it her own.”

The concert morphed into a fully staged production in Central Park in the summer of 2008 and was transferred to Broadway the following year. The revival featured powerhouse singing, exuberant interaction with audiences, and a sense of both the energy and pathos of America’s 1960s youth culture. The Times critic Ben Brantley called it “thrilling” and “emotionally rich.”

The tweaks Paulus and Rado made, including giving more voice to the female characters, were subtle rather than startling. “I made the decision early on that we’re not going to update Hair and make it about Iraq and Afghanistan,” she says. “We’re going to go back to 1967 and really look at what America felt like to a young person.”

The obvious antiwar parallels nevertheless contributed to the show’s resonance, making it simultaneously a historical snapshot and a more general lament against violence and cultural repression. Paulus’s work deepened Hair’s emotional connections by treating its characters “as living people, with all their flaws and virtues” and would become a prototype for Porgy and Bess.

The producer Jeffrey Richards visited Paulus in her dressing room. “Diane, I don’t give opening-night presents,” he told her. “I give you your next project.”

Following Hair’s triumphal Broadway opening, the producer Jeffrey Richards visited Paulus in her dressing room. “Diane, I don’t give opening-night presents,” he told her. “I give you your next project.”

Richards suggested Greta Garbo Came to Donegal, by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. Paulus followed her heart. “This is a great play,” she told Richards after reading it, “but, you know, I’m really mad for musicals.”

A few weeks later, in celebration of Paulus’s Tony nomination as best director of a musical, Richards took her to lunch and made another suggestion. “OK, how about Porgy and Bess?”

“Now you’re talking,” Paulus recalls thinking.

On August 10, the day the Sondheim letter was posted online, Richards flew up to Cambridge to address the brewing crisis. He and Paulus met with the company. “As artists, they were devastated by it, because everyone has such respect for Stephen Sondheim,” he says. “But I think that when Diane and I spoke with the company, it had a bonding effect, because everybody believed in what we were doing.”

As for Paulus, Richards says admiringly, “She did not let this deter her.”

In fact, Paulus says she placed a call to Sondheim the day the letter went live. He never called back. “Our reaction,” Paulus says, “was to put our heads down and stay focused on the work.”

In Cambridge, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess drew sellout crowds, and the estates approved the transfer to Broadway.

In New York, Paulus and her team continued to refine the piece before it opened this past January. Now playing on Broadway, Paulus’s Porgy and Bess moves swiftly, dispensing with some of the grandeur and musical sophistication of the opera. Bess, with a prominent scar on her cheek, is physically as well as emotionally damaged, teetering, in McDonald’s edgy performance, on the precipice of drug addiction and worse. Her preference for the robust Crown (beautifully sung by Phillip Boykin, who’s performed the role in opera houses) no longer seems a given, since Norm Lewis’s Porgy is a splendidly handsome man handicapped only by a limp. Catfish Row is powerfully portrayed as an affectionate, if still afflicted, community.

The critical response has been split. The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, who saw the production when it was still in Cambridge, praised it as “politically radical and dramaturgically original,” while the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout blasted the Broadway version as “a sanitized, heavily cut rewrite that strips away the show’s essence so as to render it suitable for consumption by 21st-century prigs.” Only McDonald’s portrayal of Bess has won near-universal accolades.

Addressing students on March 9 at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, Paulus delivered this valedictory on the Sondheim controversy: “I’m just always desperate to get people to care about the theater. I joke, ‘I don’t want to be on the arts page — I want to be on the front page.’ I guess be careful what you ask for. But it showed me how much people cared about this. It had very little to do with our production; we hadn’t even opened. It became a flash point for discussion of what is sacred in art, what is not to be touched, and what you can reimagine.”

These artistic questions linger, as contested as ever. But in commercial terms, Broadway audiences have spoken. They have been giving The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess standing ovations, and its run has been extended through September.

“We are doing very well,” producer Richards says. “I anticipate that we will enter the Promised Land of recoupment.”


Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

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