When the national tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess comes to Cleveland Tuesday, audiences won’t be seeing the original, full-length, sung-through folk opera. This is the streamlined, revamped Broadway version of George Gershwin’s timeless work, with naturalistic dialogue replacing the opera’s recitatives plus changes to the libretto (book), staging and voicing as well as new, jazz-oriented musical arrangements.
The Gershwin estate’s goal was to create a musical version of the 1935 opera that would appeal to broader, modern Broadway audiences. The resulting show, directed by Diane Paulus — known for her radical interpretations of familiar works such as Hair — premiered at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. After transferring to Broadway, it won 2012 Tony awards for best revival of a musical and best lead actress for Audra McDonald as Bess.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) was charged with adapting the show’s book, working closely with musical score adapter Diedre Murray.
“I hadn’t had any real experience with the opera. I had never seen the opera,” Parks said in a phone interview from New York on Jan. 22. “All my biggest clues were in the libretto, and the music had a lot of clues as to where I might venture in an adaptation of the book, and be true to the original intent.”
In this story, based on DuBose Heyward’s original book Porgy, the beautiful Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) tries to break free from her troubled past. The only one who can rescue her is the courageous Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), who develops a romance with Bess in Charleston’s Catfish Row.
Some of the opera’s original recitatives have become spoken dialogue, while others have been cut.
“We really combed through it, and some we kept and some we didn’t,” Parks said. “It’s this mythic quality of the music that I was trying to replicate and honor in the new libretto.”
The opera’s gorgeous, soaring songs were meant to evoke the lives of the Catfish Row residents to the fullest, Parks said: “They are full characters when they sing, and so we wanted to get more of that into the book.”
For example, a few key words of dialogue have enriched the meaning of the crippled Porgy’s tune I Got Plenty of Nothing, which formerly had Porgy celebrating his simple life of poverty. Parks found that cringe-worthy, so she added dialogue to create a new, key plot point.
Now, Porgy embraces his beloved Bess in the morning scene and says good morning to his Catfish Row neighbors.
“Oh, you lookin’ better than good, Porgy. What’s that smile on your face? What you been up to?” someone asks him.
“Nothing,” Porgy knowingly responds.
“Nothing?” the resident asks.
“Oh, I got plenty o’ nothin’,” Porgy launches into song, celebrating his sensual love with Bess.
“As a dramatic architect, I would say that celebrating poverty at that moment does not move the plot forward,” Parks said of the song’s original intention. “In this scene, [Porgy] now has love in his life for maybe the first time.”
“I want to make the plot cook,” she said. “It’s a sweet moment.”
Similarly, rather than focusing on leading lady Bess as a victim of the dangerous ex-lover Crown and the drug-pushing Sporting Life, Parks wanted to give the drug-addicted Bess an arc of character. She’s an emotionally damaged character with complicated relationships.
“It’s dramaturgy. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about architecture,” Parks said. “She’s a woman who is unfortunately seduced by her ex-boyfriend.”
Rather than painting Crown as pure evil, he’s now a big, strong, sexual tough guy.
“He’s the bad boy that we just love to date,” Parks said.
Porgy, on the other hand, is no longer someone to be pitied for his disability. He’s the heart of Catfish row — a handsome man who walks with a cane and a brace rather than riding a goat cart, as he did in the original story. Porgy and Bess can now look into each other’s eyes on the same level, as equals.
The beautiful love between Porgy and Bess is what has always drawn Adrianna Cleveland, a 2012 graduate of Baldwin Wallace College, to the show. She now plays a Catfish Row woman as well as the understudy for Clara and Serena in the musical, which is her first national tour.
The Pittsburgh native, 23, said she met director Paulus while the tour’s cast was in rehearsal in New York.
“She’s just an amazing, amazing woman. We got a chance to hear her take on things and hear her ideas. She wanted to bring the truth and honesty of the novel as well as the opera forward,” Cleveland said.
The actress has loved the opera since she saw it at Opera Theater Pittsburgh in 2008. When she first heard the number I Loves You, Porgy performed live in that production, “It made my heart want to scream,” Cleveland said.
Now, she said she cries every night onstage during the show’s powerful ending, where the noble Porgy vows to get his woman back no matter what it takes in the song I’m on My Way.
For the new Porgy and Bess musical, Parks also revamped the show’s dialect, rather than using white libretto writer DuBose Heyward’s original impression of Gullah, the Creole spoken by some black communities in South Carolina and Georgia. Making the dialogue understandable was of foremost importance.
Instead of using “an approximation of a misunderstood approximation,” Parks wrote the revised book in standard American English. Next, the cast worked with a dialect coach to create the dialogue as a community. The result is a Southern dialect that’s understandable, Parks said.
When the 2012 musical premiered, reviewers described it from “politically radical and dramaturgically original” to “sanitized.” Before the show even opened in Cambridge, celebrated composer Stephen Sondheim wrote an outraged letter to the New York Times opposing the purported rewriting and distortion of Porgy and Bess’ original characters.
Parks said this purist question whether to amend a classic is a distinctly American one, in a country that amends its own revered Constitution.
“I gleefully and gladly accept the responsibility. I get to be a respectful and loving amender of a classic,” she said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.