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ART musical is Broadway-bound

Fish are still jumpin' and the cotton is high, but a whole lot has changed in a new take on 'Porgy and Bess'

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By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / August 7, 2011

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NEW YORK - Three stories up, inside a studio whose floor-to-ceiling windows gaze across 42nd Street at Madame Tussauds’s Manhattan outpost, Diane Paulus was four days into rehearsing the cast of her “Porgy and Bess.’’ In the corner, a pianist played while the actors sang.

The music stopped, and Norm Lewis, who is playing Porgy, asked a question. Paulus began to respond, and then something dawned on her. She turned to her associate director, Nancy Harrington.

“Oh my God,’’ Paulus said. “Nancy, I just realized no one else knows the end of the show yet.’’

Porgy, the crippled, love-struck beggar, will not be helped into his goat cart at the end of Paulus’s production, setting out from Catfish Row to seek his Bess in New York. That’s the ending of the opera George and Ira Gershwin wrote in 1935 with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, which premiered at the Colonial Theatre in Boston 10 days before it opened on Broadway. Audiences at the American Repertory Theater will see something different when “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ starts performances there Aug. 17, en route to its own Broadway run in December.

With a cast of 22 and an 18-person orchestra, this “Porgy and Bess’’ will be a musical, not an opera. Most of the songs, widely acknowledged to be the work’s greatest strength, will remain. But the recitatives, sung passages of dialogue between the songs, will often give way to speech. And while some lines and scenes are being added, this show is meant to be shorter, a theater-friendly 2 1/2 hours, with a clearer narrative and a new ending.

Adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray, both of whom are black, it’s also meant to address what has been the greatest obstacle for “Porgy and Bess’’ over the decades: the perception that this depiction of a black community in the American South, written in dialect by whites, is a racist work.

“I think I absolutely would have thought so as recently as a year ago,’’ said Audra McDonald, the four-time Tony Award winner who’s playing Bess. She had long performed songs from “Porgy and Bess,’’ and even recorded them. But she had strong reservations about being in a production of the show.

“Because,’’ she explained one afternoon at the ART, where rehearsals moved in mid-July, “how do we get it into a place where we can really just be with these characters and understand these characters and not be blocked by this wall of . . .’’ She broke off and shifted her voice low, doing a brief, gibberish impression of minstrel-show speech.

“You know, just that sort of Sambo-type racist talk,’’ she continued. “I want them to be real people in the way that Lorraine Hansberry was able to lift the shade and [let] everybody peer into a real American family with ‘Raisin in the Sun.’ ’’

Paulus, the ART’s artistic director, said she persuaded McDonald to take the part by assuring her that this production, which also stars David Alan Grier as Sporting Life, would be a true dusting off of the piece. It would bring “Porgy and Bess’’ forward, she said, eliminating the “period aspects’’ that once got a pass from white audiences.

Like the rest of the cast and creative team, McDonald has followed Paulus’s lead in delving into the history of the show and its authors, particularly South Carolina native DuBose Heyward. It was Heyward’s 1925 novel, “Porgy,’’ that spawned the hit 1927 Broadway play of the same name, conceived and largely written by his playwright wife, Dorothy. That, in turn, was adapted into the opera, whose libretto until the 1950s was liberally sprinkled with the racial slur known as the “n’’ word.

Aspects of those texts “can be absolutely horrifying,’’ McDonald said, “but I don’t think that was his intent at all. Based on that, I’m a little more forgiving now than I think I would have been. Having said that, we’ve had to change some things around just so that it can be palatable to a 21st-century audience.’’

In Catfish Row This is the story of “Porgy and Bess,’’ traditional version:

Porgy lives alone in a room in Catfish Row, a tenement in the black quarter of Charleston, S.C. Most of the men there do physical work, as stevedores or fishermen, but Porgy can’t walk, so he gets around in a goat cart and spends his days panhandling. When a man named Crown kills one of Porgy’s neighbors in a drunken fight and has to flee, Crown’s girlfriend, Bess, needs somewhere to live. Everyone else in Catfish Row shuns her, but Porgy opens his door to her.

She drinks, she takes cocaine, and she’s despised by the other women in the community, but she changes under Porgy’s influence - and he changes, too - as they fall in love.

Crown isn’t gone forever, though, and Bess can’t resist him. When he comes to claim her, Porgy kills him, and when the police take him to identify the body, Bess despairs of his return. She gives in to the entreaties of the drug-dealing Sporting Life, who lures her back to “happy dust’’ and up to New York. Coming back to discover Bess has left, a heartbroken Porgy gets into his goat cart to find her.

This is also the story of “Porgy and Bess’’:

For 75 years, George Gershwin’s so-called “folk opera’’ has straddled the spheres of theater and opera. Its songs - “Summertime’’ especially, but also “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,’’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So,’’ and “I Loves You, Porgy’’ - have been covered by countless artists. Beginning in the 1950s, Miles Davis and other jazz musicians embraced Gershwin’s score, and it entered the jazz canon.

In 1935, when “Porgy and Bess’’ premiered, it was revolutionary to stage an opera with a cast of black singers, but Gershwin and DuBose Heyward insisted on it. (The piece’s few white actors appeared in minor, non-singing roles.) Having black performers play black characters remains an inviolable condition of any production, and one that discomfited some whites at the time.

The actor who created the role of Porgy, Todd Duncan, scored a civil rights victory in 1936, when the Broadway show toured to Washington, D.C., and he refused to perform at the National Theatre unless it desegregated. As Hollis Alpert recounts in his book “The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess,’’ the Musicians’ Union threatened Duncan with suspension and a $10,000 fine, but Anne Brown, the original Bess, said she wouldn’t go on, either. The theater backed down.

“I want to stand on the shoulders of Todd Duncan,’’ said Lewis, pondering the long line of Porgys that began with him. “I want to make him proud of me.’’

Another Porgy was that of Sidney Poitier, who only reluctantly played the part in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film adaptation. Poitier has since called the experience “painful,’’ noting that at the time, Hollywood had “almost no frame of reference for [blacks] except as stereotypical, one-dimensional characters.’’

‘Nothing’ means ‘something’ Transformation is the point of Paulus’s project, which Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards brought to her after they had worked together on the Tony Award-winning 2009 revival of “Hair.’’

“The reason that I felt this was so worth doing is because the estates of George, Ira, and DuBose Heyward said they wanted a writer to come into this process to work on the book,’’ Paulus said. “That’s pretty clear as an agenda.’’

“We didn’t want just another production of it, you know,’’ said Robert Kimball, a musical theater historian who is the artistic adviser to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. “We can get plenty of those.’’

Parks, a 2001 MacArthur fellow whose plays include “Topdog/Underdog,’’ “The Book of Grace,’’ and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,’’ said she had never given “Porgy and Bess’’ a thought until she signed on to “re-envision’’ it.

Since then, she said, she’s learned that Porgy’s song “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ’’ “has stuck in the craw of many a folk, because people have interpreted it as the happy darky song: There he is, out of nowhere, for no reason, singin’ about how he ain’t got nothin’ and how that makes him happy.’’

Parks, who said she doesn’t care whether elements of shows are politically correct or incorrect, was instead bothered that the scene didn’t work dramatically: Porgy comes out of his room into the courtyard and bursts into song, but why?

“So I say, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna add some dialogue,’’ Parks recalled.

“He says, ‘Good mornin’, everybody!’ And they say, ‘Good mornin’, Porgy!’ And one of the guys says, ‘Aw, but you’re lookin’ better than good, Porgy.’ And one of the other guys says, ‘Oh, look at that smile on his face.’ Another guy: ‘What you been up to, Porgy?’ And Porgy says, ‘Nothin’.’ And they say, ‘Nothin’? Huh huh huh huh. Nothin’, yeah.’ And Porgy goes,’’ and here Parks sang the line, “ ‘I got plenty of nothin’.’

“What does ‘nothing’ mean now?’’ she asked. “He’s just been in the room with Bess. ‘Nothin’ ’ suddenly means ‘somethin’.’ He’s gettin’ some. So suddenly he’s singing, ‘I Got Plenty of Nothin’.’ Now of course very quickly it becomes a song about how happy I am to be alive.

“Of course he’s happy to be alive! He’s got a girlfriend! Yea! And everybody’s like, ‘Yea, Porgy’s gettin’ some! Porgy’s happy.’ I mean, it’s not crude and tacky. But it’s more about, ‘Yea, Porgy’s in love!’ He’s like, ‘I got the sun and the moon and the stars, I got my gal, I got my Lord, I’ve got my song.’ ’’

Set in its new dramatic context, Parks explained, “it’s not a happy darky song anymore.’’ Thus it “accomplishes a political purpose’’ as well - even if, as she said, that wasn’t her point.

“And it’s lovely,’’ she said. “You add a few words.’’

A ‘universe of sound’ When you add or subtract text from a piece with a musical score, the score has to expand or contract to fit it seamlessly. Making that happen is the task of Murray, who wrote the music for “Best of Both Worlds,’’ the gospel and R&B “Winter’s Tale’’ adaptation that Paulus staged at the ART in 2009.

“We’re setting our own universe of sound,’’ said Murray, who drew a bright line between composing and her job on “Porgy and Bess,’’ which she defined as adapting and arranging within the existing music.

“I think that the music, the Gershwin, speaks for itself,’’ she said. “It is beautiful, and I’m in agreement about not disturbing its beauty and respecting it. But I’m also in agreement that we are modernizing it.’’

The creative team is tossing out various conventions of the piece’s staging, too. Riccardo Hernandez’s set, more impressionistic than literal, is very deliberately not the Catfish Row of collective memory.

Likewise, Paulus didn’t want Ronald K. Brown, whose choreography for “Porgy and Bess’’ contains echoes of African and Caribbean movement, to be held to the show’s traditional dance moments.

“Diane said, ‘We want you to tell us where you think dance should be in the piece, because we’re trying to reimagine it,’ ’’ recalled Brown. Rather than creating big production numbers, which would not have interested him artistically, he listened to the music and lyrics to locate moments that felt right. “There’s liberation there,’’ he said.

Phillip Boykin, who plays Crown, has found freedom, too, in reprising a role he’s sung in operatic productions since 1995.

“There are things I’ve done in the opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ that I’ve hated for years. I’ve hated the lines,’’ he said. But with Parks willing to hear suggestions, he’s been able to ditch some of them. “I just love it,’’ he said. “I love it, love it, love it, love it, love it.’’

Grier, in contrast, came to the production without ever having seen “Porgy and Bess,’’ aside from parts of the movie when he was a child. He knew that his father, William, had always loved the show, though he had never thought about why. A retired psychiatrist who coauthored the 1968 scholarly book “Black Rage,’’ the elder Grier contracted polio during the Korean War.

“He was in an iron lung. They said he wouldn’t walk. He was in a wheelchair. Then he taught himself to walk with crutches,’’ his son said. “He had a brace and a cane, and then [he walked] with a limp. So - it just hit me what his relationship to this musical was. Of course.’’

Grier said he didn’t know whether his father, who has post-polio syndrome, would be able to travel from California for this “Porgy and Bess.’’ If he did, he would see Lewis’s Porgy get a brace, too.

Fuel and friction For Paulus, who co-taught a class on “Porgy and Bess’’ at Harvard University as part of her research for directing it, the show’s history both fuels her and serves as something to react against.

“When I’m working with Norm onstage, Sidney Poitier’s on my shoulder, saying, ‘I didn’t like doing this.’ Well, why didn’t he?’’ she said. “We don’t have to do this the way Sidney Poitier was asked to do this in 1959.’’

The film Poitier so disliked making turned out to be a flop. In fact, in commercial terms “Porgy and Bess’’ has often not done well.

The last celebrated production expected to transfer to Broadway, Trevor Nunn’s 2006 musical theater adaptation, ran just six months in London’s West End and didn’t make it to New York.

Paulus’s version will be the show’s seventh revival on Broadway, where it has never enjoyed a particularly long run. The original production played only 124 performances. The longest-running was in 1953, with Leontyne Price as Bess and Cab Calloway as Sporting Life. That one made it through 305 performances.

Kimball, who was close to Ira Gershwin and to Duncan and Brown, the first Porgy and Bess, wagers that the new production can topple the record if its stars stick around long enough.

“Maybe it’s not going to reach a mass ‘Book of Mormon’ audience,’’ he said. “In fairness, look at the enduring regard that the piece has achieved. It has been a very successful work. So it’s complicated. But if you look at it simply in terms of Broadway longevity, in terms of ‘Cats’ and ‘Les Miz’ and ‘Phantom,’ no. You’re not going to have huge planeloads of tourists coming in without sleep to sit in the theater and collapse and watch it. That’s just not the nature of the piece. It’s a more demanding work than that.’’

The night “Porgy and Bess’’ premiered at the Colonial Theatre, it was 3 1/2 hours long. After the opening, Alpert writes in “The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess,’’ George Gershwin and a small gaggle of associates “walked the Boston Common until 3 in the morning, discussing and arguing over more cuts.’’ Unveiled on Broadway, it was a tighter show.

Paulus, similarly, expects another round of rethinking before her production gets to Broadway.

“We’re in a process,’’ she said, “and I feel like this whole run here is the first leg in the process.’’

The last time the ART premiered a musical that went on to Broadway, the result was a hit. The show was “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’’ which opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in April 1985, 14 months after its ART debut. It ran 1,005 performances.

Leaving the garden Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to learn the new ending for “Porgy and Bess,’’ this is the place to stop reading.

Nikki Renée Daniels knows the libretto to “Porgy and Bess’’ well. The role she’s playing at the ART - Clara, the young mother in Catfish Row whose lullaby to her baby is “Summertime’’ - is one she’s sung before, at New York City Opera. But when she read Parks’s script, she was in for a surprise at the finish.

“I turn the page, and there’s Bess in the last scene. I was like, what is this?’’ she laughed. “To me, it seems like the ending will maybe end up being a little more hopeful than it is in the opera.’’

True, Parks said, but writing a happy ending was not her point. Her point was to fix a conclusion that she found dramatically unfulfilling: Not only was there no scene at the end between Porgy and Bess, but there was also no demand in the original libretto that Porgy confront the fact that he’s committed murder for Bess’s love.

In Parks’s version, Bess does not take the boat to New York, and she doesn’t take the drugs Sporting Life is pushing. But he plants some happy dust on her before he makes his exit, and that “makes things look very bad for her,’’ Parks said.

As they did in Bess’s moment of need at the beginning of the show, the residents of Catfish Row turn against her. Porgy has to choose between Bess and his community. And Porgy and Bess fight.

“What they have to do to really find love, those two, our Porgy and our Bess, they have to come face to face with their demons, which are ‘I’ve never thought I was good enough. I’ve never seen myself as a man, so I went and did what men do. I killed for you,’ ’’ Parks said.

“And she’s like, ‘I think the world will always see me as a crack ho. Look! The community is looking at me as if I’m a crack ho. They never liked me, they always thought they were too good for me. . . . So I’m out of here.’

“And he collapses, and then pulls himself together and says, ‘I’m leaving Catfish Row,’ ’’ Parks said.

“It’s like if you and I got in a lovers’ quarrel right now,’’ she continued. “ ‘I’m leaving you! I’m outta here!’ I’d walk out to Harvard Square, right, to get on the subway, get on Amtrak. But, you know, I’m in love with you, really, even though I called you a name or whatever, and so I’m walkin’ slowly.

“And you, like, have a nervous breakdown, and your friends are like, ‘Don’t worry. . . . She ain’t no good. Whatever. She’s like a ho anyway.’ And you’re like, ‘But I really love her!’ ’’

So, Parks said, “you walk and follow me. And there I am, like a block away, and there you are. And we start singing the last verse of that song together: ‘I’m on My Way.’ ’’

Traditionally, that song is a spiritual, but Parks has made it secular. Now it’s a love song capping a story that Parks sees as a Garden of Eden tale.

“They do leave the garden together,’’ she said. “And then the rest is life, you know?’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS Presented by American Repertory Theater

At: Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Aug. 17-Oct. 2. Tickets: $25-$110. 617-547-8300, www.american repertorytheater.org