The Renovation of Catfish Row

Porgy and Bess is back on Broadway in a new production, directed by Diane Paulus, that offers an unconventional — and controversial — take on a classic of the American theater. FOSTER HIRSCH reports.

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A scene from Diane Paulus's 2011 Porgy and Bess production at A.R.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts
© Michael J. Lutch 2012
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Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald as Porgy and Bess in Paulus's production
© Michael J. Lutch 2012
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Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier, Bess and Porgy in Otto Preminger's 1959 film
© Columbia Pictures/Photofest 2012

Neutrality about Porgy and Bess is impossible. From the 1935 premiere right up to the present, when a controversial production, staged by Diane Paulus, is opening on Broadway, the show elicits fiery debates. Should the work be performed as opera with recitatives, as its composer, George Gershwin, originally intended? Or is it better served in musical-theater fashion, with spoken dialogue between numbers? Did a quartet of white artists — Jewish New Yorkers George and Ira Gershwin collaborating with old-school Southern aristocrat DuBose Heyward (the author of Porgy, a 1925 novel) and his wife, Dorothy (coauthor with her husband of Porgy, a 1927 play) — create a true work about black characters? Or did they concoct a pageant of demeaning racial stereotypes? To its fervent admirers Porgy and Bess is an unparalleled triumph. To its detractors it is an indigestible stew. 

Each of the major productions that preceded Paulus's current Broadway version, which is billed as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, was significant in its own way. The original 1935 staging was performed on Broadway with recitatives. (Gershwin cut forty-five minutes of the score after the four-hour opening-night tryout in Boston.) In 1942, producer Cheryl Crawford removed the recitatives and presented the show as a high-end Broadway musical. From 1952 to 1956, in a U.S. government-sponsored production by Robert Breen and Blevins Davis, the show was performed and applauded at many of the world's leading opera houses, including La Scala. During these years, Porgy and Bess was a roving goodwill ambassador — an assignment it would not have won in the Civil Rights era, when its Washington sponsors might have been concerned that the work could be used as anti-American propaganda: this is how white America has segregated its black underclass.

After the release of Otto Preminger's film version in 1959, there were no major productions until 1976, when Houston Grand Opera mounted a nearly complete version to wide acclaim. In 1985, at long last — fifty years after its premiere — the work arrived on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, in a production by Nathaniel Merrill that many considered ponderous and miscast. Trevor Nunn, a master director of Broadway and West End pop operas, staged the work in an uncut four-hour version at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1986. His scenically expanded, filmed-for-television adaptation in 1993 featured an opening set in a low dive — where the cast seems to be enacting a charade of blackness, sexy and violent, for white audiences — and a finale in which Porgy tosses away his cane, walking upright into the future. This is now the most readily available version.

Porgy and Bess created its own rules, fusing opera, jazz, blues, spirituals and Broadway. At its core, however, there are sensitive issues of racial representation. "Porgy was hailed [in 1925] as a fresh interpretation of the Southern Negro," writes Frank Durham in his 1954 biography of DuBose Heyward. "It is; but it is also a deceptive interpretation. Praise was accorded Heyward's sympathetic picture of the Southern Negro, his understanding of the racial psychology.... He presents us with all the detail of firsthand observation of the underworld Negro in a Southern city — a new subject; and to him and the reader this Negro is a human being with emotional problems worthy of serious consideration. But the Negro is to Heyward still an exotic, a picturesque representative of an alien culture, interesting for his humanity, yes, but distinctive mainly as superb material for art."

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A scene from the original 1935 Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and
designed by Sergei Soudeikine

© Photofest 2012

Is it any wonder that a cool, objective reaction to this problematic landmark is hard to come by? In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I am neither a musicologist nor an opera aficionado but a film historian and the biographer of Otto Preminger, who directed the 1959 film of Porgy and Bess. The film's legendary producer, Samuel Goldwyn, in order to secure the rights from the hard-bargaining Gershwin Estate, signed a contract under the terms of which rights reverted to the estate after fifteen years. The result was that, except for rare isolated screenings, the film has been unavailable — in effect, banned — for more than three decades. 

It is unfortunate that the Gershwin Estate has prevented generations of filmgoers from seeing, and judging for themselves, Preminger's film, which is at once elegant and stirring. Yet the estate has sanctioned the new Broadway venture, entrusting the property to a new team for a valid reason; as Robert Kimball, artistic advisor to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts, told me, "We signed off to a (mostly) black creative team [Paulus's collaborators, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, musical adapter Diedre Murray and choreographer Ronald K. Brown, are African–American], because we had received such requests for years, and we had been resistant. We thought, 'Okay, let's see what they can do.'" 

The Paulus team launched its production with a public-relations disaster. In an August 5 interview with Patrick Healy in The New York Times, while the show was in rehearsal for its August 17 pre-Broadway tryout at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, the collaborators adopted a we-know-better-than-the-authors stance, which was also reflected in commentary in the A.R.T. program book. "We are trying to create a more dramatically complete version that will be the most powerful experience in terms of story and characters for a twenty-first-century audience," Paulus said. "Different things need to be adapted and changed for different reasons," Parks claimed. "There are several what I would call 'anthropological moments' in the original, meaning moments created by people who were probably not deeply familiar with any African–American community…. And there are moments that need additions/rewrites/tweaks for pure dramaturgical reasons." Costar Audra McDonald complained that Bess is "often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character."

The Times article enflamed Stephen Sondheim, who, in a widely quoted letter to the paper, expressed dismay at "the disdain that Diane Paulus, Audra McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself. Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don't get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that's willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theatre, 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." 

Underlying the Paulus team's grievances is a resentment of white artists for co-opting a story about African–Americans. "Yes, Porgy and Bess was created by white guys, and that's just fine," Harold Prince, Sondheim's premier collaborator and one of the most influential directors in the history of the American musical theater, recently told OPERA NEWS. "Suzan-Lori Parks certainly has the talent to write her own libretto for a new black folk-opera, and she should do just that. But she should have passed on tampering with this one. To my mind, Porgy and Bess is sacred text. How can she or Diane Paulus know what George Gershwin had in mind? They don't have a clear line to him."

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Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in Porgy and Bess's 1985 Met premiere

To be sure, a doomed love story between a crippled black beggar and a drug-addicted woman with a past might offend some black artists and viewers. But I don't think the material can be altered or "reimagined" in order to bring it up to speed with contemporary standards of political correctness. The work was not written as, nor can it be transformed into, a social protest drama or a naturalistic portrait of actual black life in early-twentieth-century Charleston. It is a folk opera, a fable, a stylized period piece with archetypal characters.

By the time I saw a tryout performance in Cambridge in September, most of the rewriting had been scuttled. But other strategies for aligning the show with "a twenty-first-century audience" remained. The team's revisionism was fully displayed in the opening moments. Gone was the traditional Catfish Row set, replaced by an abstract panorama of pockmarked gray boards designed by Riccardo Hernandez. This choice eliminated Catfish Row from Porgy and Bess. The set suspended the action in limbo. Any remnant of DuBose Heyward's rich evocation of the "Negro Charleston" of another time had been deleted. There was no sense, as in Heyward's novel, of a vibrant black community filled to the brim and bursting with life. 

Into this anonymous nowhere, Clara (Nikki Renée Daniels) entered to sing "Summertime" in a casual, no-opera-here style — a clue to the audience that the show they were about to see, scored for a modest-sounding eighteen-piece orchestra, would be a bare-bones musical-theater rendering. "I asked myself, 'Why is [Clara] singing so high?'" the production's musical adapter, Diedre Murray, offered by way of explanation. "'That would make the baby wake up. It has to be a lullaby.' So I took the whole thing down. And then I decided I wanted to use an accordion." In the service of misplaced realism, "Summertime" was radically diminished, and Clara, in an underpopulated Catfish Row in which no children appeared, unnecessarily and distractingly sang to a real baby. 

If realism was the goal, where was the evocation of a steamy Charleston dusk down by the wharf? The lush descriptions of weather in Heyward's novel were nowhere to be found in Christopher Akerlind's minimalist lighting scheme. Too, if authenticity to black experience was the production's goal, why was all trace of Gullah (the regional dialect Charleston blacks at the time would have spoken) removed? (Diction was upgraded throughout: Sportin' Life became Sporting Life, "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" became "I Got Plenty of Nothing.") 

Heyward's inspiration for Porgy was a real-life Charleston resident named Samuel Smalls, a beggar who traveled around town on his knees on a goat-driven cart. In recent productions, Porgy has walked with a cane; the Paulus team went one better, inserting dialogue in Act II about Porgy getting a new brace that permits him to walk in a more upright way. Their choice reminded me of what a disgruntled film executive said to Otto Preminger after the first screening of the film: "The ending is too downbeat. Can't you make Porgy just get up and walk at the end?" The Paulus team not only upgraded Porgy's walking, it barely mentioned his begging and eliminated his belief in omens and superstitions. It was almost as if Paulus and her collaborators were ashamed of Porgy and wished him to be someone else. Their Porgy, Norm Lewis, has an innate dignity and command, and he would have endowed the character with these qualities (as Sidney Poitier did in Preminger's film) even in an interpretation more faithful to Heyward.

As her pre-opening comments to the Times indicated — she observed that "the opera has the makings of a great love story ... that I think we're bringing to life" — McDonald also resisted Heyward's original characterization. With Suzan-Lori Parks, she was hoping to write a backstory for Bess, and to find ways of making the character more modern and independent. There was no backstory in the performance I saw, except the one that was already there, in plain sight, in Bess's dialogue and lyrics, and in the responses of other characters. McDonald's interest in reinterpreting her character, along with the other claims launched by the Paulus team for "correcting" Porgy and Bess, raised some hotly contested issues about revival etiquette. How much creative rearrangement is permissible before the dividing line between reinterpreting and rewriting disappears? There can't be any hard-and-fast rules, and the only question worth asking is whether a revival enhances or illuminates a show, or distorts it.

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Porgy and Bess collaborators George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin
© Photofest 2012

Sometimes, perhaps all too rarely, a revival has been produced as a plain and simple tribute: let's put on this show because it is terrific as it is, and if we do our job right, today's audience will appreciate the work as much as we do. More often, a revival is instigated because someone has a new insight. In recent years, this has usually meant locating a dark underlining unsuspected or not fully revealed in the original: Nicholas Hytner's Carousel is a prime example. If a new approach, however, begins with a conviction that the work is seriously wounded — that it is out of date and requires major overhauling — why bother? That kind of distrust in the material only leads to tinkering that more likely than not will tarnish rather than restore the work's luster.

Because it has areas of possible discomfort for African–American audiences, Porgy and Bess poses particular problems for any revival. But as indicated by the difficulties the Paulus team has encountered in revisiting the work — writing and then abandoning or streamlining new material — the show offers little latitude for making major changes. Indeed, a follow-up interview with the Times in November revealed second thoughts about the sets and reduced orchestrations. A truly radical approach to reviving this opera as a Broadway offering would be a production that would demand of the audience that it rise to the troubled, towering majesty of the work itself and meet this long, grandiose, controversial work on its own terms.

McDonald, in fact, played the love story forcefully, and her two duets with Porgy, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy," were thrillingly performed in the A.R.T. mounting. She gave poignant expression to Bess's longing to become part of a community — as Porgy's wife and as the adoptive mother of Clara's baby. But most of the time she seemed at war with the character as written. She didn't exude the charged eroticism that is the driving force in Bess's "backstory." And because of how she interpreted the role, as stronger and more self-aware than Heyward's character, it was difficult for her to play Bess's last scene. Like it or not, Bess's addictions to drugs and sex overcome her resolve, and she leaves Porgy and Catfish Row. McDonald's Bess indeed would have the courage to stay; Heyward's Bess does not.

In Act I, the new production laid claim to two triumphant moments. In their reframing of Porgy's "I Got Plenty of Nothing," always a problematic number — "a happy darkie" song, as Parks describes it — the newcomers outwitted the show's creators. Emerging from offstage in evident post-coital pleasure, Porgy slyly said "nothing" when asked what he had been up to. And rather than an uncomfortable spectacle of a crippled beggar celebrating his dispossession, the song became the joyful expression of the character's erotic bliss. Crisply orchestrated and performed, it was an authentic victory for the creative team, and for Norm Lewis. 

The other startling moment (conceived by the original writers, but realized here with vivid impact) was the sudden, engulfing silence at the first appearance of white characters, judged by the show's white creators as unworthy of the musical bounty they reserved exclusively for the denizens of Catfish Row. Paulus's staging underlined the fact that, in the world of Porgy and Bess, white men can't dance.

In Act II at A.R.T., something almost mystical happened. The transporting power of the work itself, rising up against the challenges posed to it by this production, took over and carried all before it. And by the end, despite my gripes, I was quite moved.

The timing is right for a new musical-theater Porgy and Bess. But the A.R.T. production, a would-be revisionist bonanza, was too often at cross-purposes with the material, and it was visually stingy. The definitive Broadway incarnation for the twenty-first century — robust, show-wise, drenched with Southern atmosphere and sensuality — remains to be seen. spacer 

FOSTER HIRSCH is a professor of film at Brooklyn College and the author of sixteen books on film and theater.  

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