Broadway Finally Ready for "Porgy and Bess"
By Jared Bowen
BOSTON — On a very cold night in February of 2011, I had dinner with the American Repertory Theater’s artistic director, Diane Paulus. She wanted to discuss her next project—one for which the Gershwin estate had hand-selected her. For two hours in a restaurant overlooking the Boston waterfront, she explained to me her thoughts, passion and emotion for “Porgy and Bess”. It wasn’t a mere pitch. It was an artist at work on her canvas as her love for the project poured out.
She was already steeped in the history of the opera’s creation, of its cultural resonance and she could see how to make it a defining piece for this generation. I left that dinner knowing the musical would match her ambition, that it would go to Broadway and I was pretty certain it would have a big impact. I didn’t go as far as to predict a Tony award, but I could see success for her, wrought by the purity of her creative spirit.
Stoic and calm, at least whenever I saw her over the next ten months, Paulus adhered to her vision. When the musical opened at the A.R.T. in August, she deftly fended off Stephen Sondheim’s thunderous criticism of her plans to adapt the work with Musical Book Adapter Suzan-Lori Parks and Score Adapter Diedre L. Murray. Together they crafted a “Porgy” for our times. Last night, “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” won the Tony for best musical revival, 76 years after the original received its try-out in Boston’s Colonial Theatre.
"When we won the best revival, I could barely contain myself," Paulus told me. "It was so emotional and so overwhelming and we went backstage and Mandy Patinkin [one of Paulus’ musical theater heroes] was so effusive about the production and he was congratulating us!”
The cast Paulus brought together for her production is sublime—Norm Lewis (Porgy) should have won a Tony last night. David Alan Grier (Sporting Life) and Phillip Boykin (Crown) were monumentally inspired in their portrayals and Audra McDonald simply seared. I did predict her Tony nomination and win, but a second win took Paulus by surprise. Hearing that McDonald was up for best performance by an actress in a musical, Paulus had to double-back to her seat. “We were running in our heels down Amsterdam back to the Beacon because I wanted to be back for that award," Paulus said. Sadly, Paulus did not win as best director, but she will undoubtedly have numerous other chances over what promises to be a long and engaging career.
Ironically, Paulus’ adaptation has fared better than Gershwin’s original 1935 production “Porgy and Bess”, which was derided by the majority of New York critics and experienced only a limited run. By extension, we are winners too. Between the A.R.T. and the Huntington Theatre Company, several Boston-born productions made it to Broadway this past theater season, proof that our theater community is a vibrant and fulfilling place to reside.
Read and watch Bowen's coverage of "Porgy and Bess" with the links below:
>> A.R.T. Reimagines "Porgy and Bess"
>> Porgy and Bess Controversy at the A.R.T.
>> David Alan Grier on Reinterpreting the Gershwin Play
Catch even more WGBH coverage of this performance:
>>The Callie Crossley show: "Reimagining 'Porgy and Bess'"
>>Author Kim McLarin's review, "Porgy and Bess" at A.R.T.: Transformed and Illuminating"