in retrospect, getting called out by the living legend of American musical theater seemed like a good thing to Diane Paulus.
Paulus is director of a new Porgy and Bess, now playing on Broadway with a starry cast topped by Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier. It's a revised and stripped-down version of the classic American opera, with a score by George Gershwin, that was first performed in 1935. The production was initiated by the Gershwin estate, which essentially commissioned Paulus to make the work more relevant for 21st century audiences.
"We wanted it to be a close-up, more intimate, less epic and operatic Porgy and Bess," Paulus said when I interviewed her by phone in May. "The intention is to increase the access to this piece."
With 10 Tony Award nominations, the show has settled in for a good run in New York, but it got off to a rocky start last August during a tryout at the American Repertory Theater, where Paulus is artistic director, in Cambridge, Mass.
That's when Stephen Sondheim took Paulus and her principal collaborators in adapting the opera for musical theater — playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and jazz composer Diedre L. Murray — to task in a scathing open letter to the New York Times.
Sondheim, whose own classic musical Follies is nominated for the Tony for best revival of a musical, as is Porgy and Bess, charged Paulus and company with "willful ignorance" and "condescension toward the audience" for making such changes as ditching the goat cart that the disabled Porgy usually gets around in and even thinking about rewriting the ending.
He mocked the official title of the musical — The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess ("I assume that's in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart Porgy and Bess that was coming to town") — for glossing over the contribution of DuBose Heyward, author of the 1925 novel Porgy, who wrote or co-wrote lyrics of the work with Ira Gershwin.
The Sondheim letter hit the theater community like a bombshell, with almost 600 comments posted in response on the newspaper's website, and drew intense attention to the ART production, which had not even opened yet. He based his critique on an advance feature story by Patrick Healy in the New York Times in which Paulus, Parks and McDonald discussed their desire to make the relationship of Porgy and Bess more fully developed.
Naturally, being attacked by Sondheim was upsetting. "I tried to call him the day the letter was posted online, but he wouldn't take the call," said Paulus. The director has yet to speak with the eminent composer-lyricist, who, as far as she knows, has not seen the show. "I just hope someday that he comes to see it."
Now that the crisis is a footnote to her production's history, Paulus, who directed the hit Broadway production of Hair several years ago, said that, basically, any publicity is good publicity.
"I spend almost all my time (as ART artistic director) trying to get people to care about the theater," she said. "The fact that people were so passionate about this, and that people were talking about Porgy and Bess, and arguing about it, and debating about it was just a tribute to what a masterwork it is."
A former colleague of Paulus, actor and director Anna Foss Wilson, put it more pungently when she assessed the impact of the Sondheim letter. "It is a dream come true to make an old, distinguished white guy angry," Wilson told the Harvard Crimson. "The controversy is going to make more people want to see the show."
After the letter, Paulus told me, the cast and company of the production rallied around what they were doing. "It kind of bonded us and made us ever more committed," she said. "We were on a mission, I think, from that moment on to do our work with as much integrity and respect and truth and courage as we could."
If the idea was to draw a new audience to Gershwin's "folk opera," then the Paulus version has to be judged a success. Playing to adequate attendance, if not sellouts — 61 percent of capacity during a recent week of eight shows at the 1,335-seat Richard Rodgers Theatre — the show's limited Broadway run, which opened in January, has been extended through September. A national tour is planned for 2013-14.
Nobody could complain about the superstar cast. The performance I saw in March was an effective portrayal of Catfish Row, with McDonald, the rare singer-actor who easily encompasses both operatic and musical theater styles, giving a powerful interpretation of Bess that ranks with the likes of Leontyne Price, whose 1963 RCA disc of highlights from the opera, with William Warfield's Porgy, is the gold standard. With an ugly scar across her face, McDonald was heartbreaking as a cocaine addict, torn between the abusive men in her life, daring to dream of "living decent" with Porgy. Her Bess is a stronger, more textured character than the pathetic pawn she can sometimes be, and her Summertime was superb.
Lewis is a far cry from the booming bass-baritones who typically play Porgy, and his part has been transposed up an octave to fit his lighter, more fine-grained singing, but he brought a warmth to the beggar that was appealing. In Living Color's Grier played Sporting Life, Bess' pimp and drug dealer, and his stylish song and dance in numbers such as It Ain't Necessarily So and There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York was a treat. The most purely operatic performance was by Phillip Boykin, playing the menacing, muscle-bound Crown, whose violent scene with Bess on Kittawah Island was deeply unsettling.
I am no expert on Porgy and Bess, having seen only a couple of bus-and-truck tours through the years (for all its fame, the opera is not done often). The Paulus production reminded me, in scope, of the La Boheme that Baz Luhrmann staged on Broadway a decade ago, though he used multiple casts of opera singers to rotate in the roles. For Murray's adaptation of the Gershwin score, I enjoyed the bubbly sound of the 22-piece orchestra, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, and the accordion added to the instrumentation was an oddball touch. But of course the music is richer in an opera house with more orchestra musicians and a larger chorus, who can do full justice to a complex big number like The Killing of Robbins.
As Paulus pointed out in her interview with me, Porgy and Bess has a long, involved history of revisions. The original opera runs close to four hours, and Gershwin himself cut some 40 minutes from it between the premiere in Boston and a subsequent New York engagement. The Paulus staging replaces some of the opera's sung recitatives with spoken dialogue and clocks in at a streamlined two hours, 30 minutes, including intermission.
"There have been many versions of Porgy and Bess," she said. "We looked at all the different versions, and then crafted our own. It was a bit of detective work, a bit of excavation, and then a real collaboration with the cast to flesh out who these characters are and give them an arc, so you invest in the love story, invest in who Porgy is, who Bess is, and what they find in each other and how they change each other."
In one shift of emphasis in Parks' revised libretto, I Got Plenty of Nothing has become a sort of droll post-coital celebration of the besotted Porgy's newfound love for Bess.
"A lot of people feel that it's racist for a black man to sing that he's happy with nothing," Paulus said. "Suzan-Lori went to the dramaturgy. Why is Porgy singing this song? When you look at where it's placed in the opera, he's had a month with Bess — the hottest woman on the block, living in his house. When Suzan-Lori was improvising with the cast, at the point where one of the actors said to Porgy, 'What you been up to?' Norm Lewis smiled and said, 'Oh, nothing . . . I got plenty of nothing,' meaning he's got everything."
During the Cambridge tryout, Paulus experimented with a new ending that apparently had Bess returning to Porgy to persuade him to go to New York with her. (Rent, inspired by La Boheme, takes similar license by having Mimi survive at the end.) However, on Broadway the traditional ending with her succumbing to Sporting Life's offer of a boat ticket and "happy dust" (cocaine) is more or less intact.
"There's a lot of room for how you can stage the ending," she said. "We were exploring what this moment is for Bess, what her reality is and the choices she has. What I'm happy with now is that I think you feel empathy with her struggle."
Yes, Porgy is without his famous goat cart; instead, he has a leg brace and cane. But Paulus insists that is nothing new. "Opera productions have taken Porgy out of the goat cart since the 1980s," she said. "I think we became a lightning rod for issues that weren't specific to our production."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.