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Porgy and Bess Writ Small

The current Times Literary Supplement (UK) publishes my review of Broadway’s new Porgy and Bess — informed by a book I’m writing (for W. W. Norton) about Rouben Mamoulian and Porgy and Bess. This is what it says:

By far the most controversial show on Broadway this season is a refurbished Porgy and Bess that originated last August at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even before the premiere, Stephen Sondheim denounced its creators – Diane Paulus, who directs, Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the book, and Diedre L. Murray, who adapted the score – for “willful ignorance” and “condescension toward the audience.” The Paulus /Parks/Murray Porgy soldiered on to New York, where it’s a hot ticket loudly lauded or deplored in the press. That the iconic American opera should remain an object of strident debate must say something about America itself: troubled relationships of race and national identity, of “high” and popular culture, of New World and Old bedevil American self-understanding.

Porgy and Bess — with music by George Gershwin, a book by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin – split opinion when it opened on Broadway in 1935. No American could respond without prejudice to a black opera by a Brooklyn Jew with roots in Tin Pan Alley. Only immigrants and foreigners found it possible to acclaim Gershwin without patronizing him. A 1942 Broadway revival, recasting the opera as a musical, was more successful. In the 1950s and 1960s, Porgy and Bess was little mounted in the United States; its depiction of an impoverished African-American courtyard community was considered demeaning. Beginning in 1976, a widely seen Houston Grand Opera production revalidated Porgy and Bess and proved its operatic mettle. A 1985 production at the Metropolitan Opera was a ponderous failure.

The new Porgy and Bess is nothing if not boldly conceived. In 1942 (five years after Gershwin’s death), Gershwin’s recitatives were replaced by dialogue, and cast and orchestra were greatly reduced in strength. Paulus and company have done that and more. We have new speeches, new harmonies, new accompaniments, even virtually new numbers. “Summertime” is a duet. “It take a long pull to get there” is a male vocal quartet distending Gershwin’s pithy fisherman’s tune. Both pit and stage are substantially amplified.

There can be no such thing as a Gershwin purist. It is part of his genius that he cannot be categorized. The cultural fluidity of Porgy and Bess – of Gershwin, generally – is such that he is also interpretively fluid. Stravinsky insisted that his music not be interpreted. With Gershwin, interpretation is both necessary and irresistible. Rhapsody in Blue has no definitive text or length. The Concerto in F can be sentimental or sec, “Russian” or “French.” The first recordings of Porgy’s songs range in style from the operatic largesse of Lawrence Tibbett’s humbling “Oh Bess, oh where’s my Bess?” (1935) to Avon Long’s swinging “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” with the Leo Reisman Orchestra (1942). There will never be an “authentic” Porgy and Bess.

The surest spine of the new production is its casting. Norman Lewis (Porgy), Audra McDonald (Bess), Phillip Boykin (Crown), and David Alan Grier (Sporting Life) are exceptional singing actors who transcend the generic. All four respond deftly and creatively to new tasks at hand. Leaning heavily on his cane, dragging his bad foot, Lewis is more effortfully crippled than any goatcart Porgy could be. When he smilingly confides that he has plenty of nothin’, we laugh complicitly at the knowledge that Bess is his bedmate; the whole number levitates. McDonald ruthlessly cancels her natural glamour: Bess’s allure plausibly emerges from a cage of confusion and anguish. In “Bess, you is my woman now” Porgy beckons and Bess succumbs, hesitantly deciding she’s good enough for a good man – a reading credible, fresh, memorable. At the same time, amplification works against the intimacy of this linchpin duet. And Lewis’s high, light baritone, however handsome, does require reinforcement. In fact, his notes are frequently transposed up an octave, or subject to exigent modulations. If Bess’s confrontational duet with Crown (“What you want with Bess?”) is ultimately more telling than her love duet with Porgy, it’s because McDonald and Boykin make it the evening’s most operatic number. They remind us that, on balance, Porgy and Bess is an opera after all.

or that matter, the show’s biggest disappointment is Gershwin’s most consummated, most operatic sequence: Robbins’s funeral. Here Murray’s snipping and tucking distort the cumulative crescendo to Serena’s keening widow’s lament. Worse, Bryonha Marie Parham’s delivery is hyperbolic. Robbed of its pounding hieratic splendor, “My man’s gone now” shrinks to a passage of transitory individual pain. And this, writ large, is the central disappointment. Gershwin’s ceremony of mourning is at once a human and an epic tragedy. If the new Porgy feels small, it’s not because of abridgement or amplification or reduced forces. DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novella Porgy, the opera’s first cause, is a regional cameo documenting an exotic subculture: the Carolina Gullahs. Heyward’s story ends with Porgy, an abandoned beggar, adrift in obscurity. The opera Porgy and Bess, by comparison, feeds upon the spirituals that anchor Gershwin’s American style and subject matter: it is less a story than a communal rite, a universal saga of suffering and redemption. Its Porgy and Bess, accordingly, are archetypes. Bess is an addict, helpless submissive to Crown and to his “happy dust”; she fights her weakness strenuously, poignantly, but to no avail. Porgy is a cripple whose debility sensitizes him; held in special regard by the community, he becomes in return a moral beacon. His musical leitmotif, its primal fifth girding a bluesy minor third, compounds suffering and strength.

That the makers of the new Porgy and Bess reject these archetypes as African-American “stereotypes” based in weakness is a reading of consequence. Bess becomes more robust, less pathetic. Porgy emerges wiser, more sophisticated, more specific. “When Gawd make cripple, He mean him to be lonely,” sings Gershwin’s archetypal Porgy. “He got to trabble dat lonesome road.” Paulus’s diminished Porgy sings, “When God made me, He made me to be lonely . . . I got to travel that lonesome road.” Gershwin’s Porgy is outsmarted by a lawyer selling Bess a “divorce” from Crown. Paulus’s Porgy is the whimsical author of Bess’s divorce; it’s his way of sealing her rehabilitation. Gershwin’s Porgy murders Crown in brutal anger. Paulus carefully justifies Porgy’s homicide by having Crown threaten to kill him first. No wonder the Paulus team struggles to find a suitable ending. McDonald’s Bess is too savvy to credibly flee to New York with Sporting Life. Lewis’s Porgy is too sensible – too civilized — to plausibly attempt limping one thousand miles in pursuit. He sings “Oh Lord, I’m on my way to a heavenly land” alone, on an emptied stage: a small, makeshift conclusion.

Before Porgy and Bess there was the 1927 play Porgy, co-authored by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. But a crucial animator of Porgy the play was its director, Rouben Mamoulian – he became a Broadway star overnight. Mamoulian’s Porgy in certain respects created a template for Porgy and Bess – also Mamoulian-directed. No feature of either production was as widely praised as the gigantic shadows cast by the mourners at Robbins’s wake – an effect extravagantly admired by Max Reinhardt, among others. Paulus, too, silhouettes the mourners on the back wall of Serena’s room. But what Mamoulian sought and achieved was an elemental effect: voodoo and Gauguin were points of reference adduced by stunned reviewers. Paulus, predictably, eschews any suggestion of the primitive. No one is stunned.

Another Mamoulian touch, in Porgy and Bess, stands alone; to my knowledge, it has never been copied. Paulus and McDonald agonize fruitlessly over Bess’s capitulation to Sporting Life. A tortured pantomime has Bess reprising snatches of his “There a boat that’s leaving soon for New York” while pondering a cocaine vial, then inhaling its contents, then furiously washing her hands. Heyward’s original libretto instructs Bess to accept the cocaine just before Sporting Life croons his snake-in-the-grass song. But Mamoulian has Bess reject the powder. Sporting Life then deposits it on a step leading to Porgy’s room. She runs into the room and slams the door. Sporting Life exits. Heyward keeps the stage empty while the orchestra grandly reprises Sporting Life’s song (Maestoso, fortissimo). But Mamoulian has Bess return: “[She] comes out, looks around, and hesitates; suddenly, she grabs powder and goes in house, slamming door.” The resulting counterpoint of music and gesture – the grandiose peroration juxtaposed with Bess’s pathetic self-defeat – is vintage Mamoulian, a savage ironic flourish. The orchestra’s wicked laughter unexpectedly produces one of the opera’s saddest moments. Bess’s helplessness, sympathetically portrayed, is here more affecting than anything Paulus or McDonald have come up with in their efforts to make a character more “real.”

Because it pokes at the fissures of the American experience, Porgy and Bess will always excite debate. Be that as it may, Porgy, through growing self-knowledge, earns the note of high elation with which the opera closes. As he sings “On my way,” Gershwin seals the epic moment by having his orchestra recall Porgy’s idealistic credo (“I got plenty of nuttin’”), his rapture of fulfillment (“Bess, you is my woman now”), and the pang of Bess’s betrayal (“What you want wid Bess?”). Porgy the cripple has endured; he has emerged strong and whole. If the Paulus Porgy and Bess (which omits this layered Wagnerian summa) is ultimately constrained – if Porgy’s culminating paean seems an uncertain non sequitur – it’s not George Gershwin’s fault.

an ArtsJournal blog