By Jared Bowen
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Porgy and Bess is considered the American opera and one of the most singular pieces of theater ever produced in this country. Now, the piece has undergone a transformation of sorts. American Repertory Theater Artistic Director Diane Paulus was handpicked by the Gershwin estate to refashion the opera into a musical.
Starring Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy, it's now running at the A.R.T. before opening on Broadway in December.
It is a wistful prelude, a young woman's lullaby to her baby. A calm before the storm that will strike Catfish Row, a hardscrabble community in 1930s Charleston, South Carolina.
So begins The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, a musical adaptation of the classic American opera now playing at the American Repertory Theater. It is a tale mightily tossed by storms — a literal hurricane, waves of brutal violence and a romance darkly clouded by human frailty.
"I don't think she has the courage to kill herself so she's just surviving. Then all of a sudden, once she hooks up with Porgy she starts to try one more time to sort of cling to some sense of self-worth just as a last ditch effort," said Audra McDonald who plays Bess.
Bess is deeply wounded and literally scarred. Cast off by her peers, she's plummeted into the abyss of drug addiction and finds herself attached to Crown — a Catfish Row terror who moves from manipulative to murderous. Bess is withered, near broken — a pariah until she finds Porgy, the crippled beggar whose ailments render him a man vastly diminished. "There's a murder and she needs help and I'm the one who gives it to her. So we fall into this spiral whether it be good or bad, we fall into this spiral of this new awakening," said Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy.
It is a tale of love among the ruins, amid the wreckage of poverty and despair. When internal demons and outside ones can be bridled, however briefly. The story of Porgy and Bess first appeared in a 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward. He and his wife Dorothy quickly adapted the material for a play which opened on Broadway two years later. Eyeing his own Broadway adaptation though, was the country's most celebrated composer, George Gershwin.
Performer Michael Feinstein was Ira Gershwin's assistant for six years. "When Porgy and Bess was created, it came at a time that was one of great divide for our country in that when George Gershwin decided he was going to write an African American opera with an all black cast he was met with tremendous resistance from everybody. There was certainly tremendous racism involved," Feinstein said.
Director Diane Paulus says Gershwin shut out his critics, moved south, and turned his life over to crafting a Porgy and Bess opera with the Heywards. After 18 months of writing, with all of Gershwin's other projects on hold, Porgy and Bess was born in Boston. Its out-of-town opening at the Colonial Theatre in September, 1935 was history-making. The first American opera had debuted. "It was like a love letter to African American culture. He loved African American music, he loved jazz," Paulus said.
"Boston of course was the most extraordinary experience because it was the first time anyone in the world had heard the complete show," said Feinstein. "There were some visionaries that recognized from the beginning that what Gershwin had created was something that was unique and extraordinary. There were few people who got it. And I think there were more positive reviews in Boston than there were later."
When the show reached Broadway shortly after, momentum collapsed. Porgy and Bess ran for just 124 performances. That's a long run for opera, but dreadfully short for a Broadway show.
"There were people who wanted to see a Gershwin musical comedy who said what is all this other stuff? There were people who could not accept it in terms of an opera. I have a copy of George Gershwin's financial ledger that shows how the box office on the thing kept getting lower and lower and he was trying his darndest to keep it running but the public would not support it," Feinstein said.
Despite a post-Broadway multi-city tour, the show lost money. The 37-year-old Gershwin would die of a brain tumor in less than two years. And Heyward would be dead of a heart attack in five. The show, of course, survived and is now receiving only its second musical adaptation in its 76-year-history.
"It touches every generation. The fact that you've got Janis Joplin wanting to record and interpret the music. And Nina Simone and Ella and Louie," said Audra McDonald. "How much of your own personal connection do you find to Bess? Struggling with self worth. Most definitely I can, I can identify with that. Especially in a society where we're taught one thing is beautiful."
Resonant as ever, Porgy and Bess is still very much about fending off storms, on stage and off.
Tune in to Greater Boston on Tuesday for more coverage of the A.R.T.'s Porgy and Bess.
MORE GREATER BOSTON
WEB EXTRA: NORM LEWIS ON PLAYING "PORGY"