Monday, July 07, 2014

Muny Preview: Whose 'Porgy' is it, anyway?

Photo: Michael J. Lutch
Although George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" is now widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera, it took (to quote one of the opera's lyrics) "a long pull to get there".

With a book by DuBose Heyward (based on his own original novel and play) and music and lyrics by the Brothers Gershwin, the original 1935 Theatre Guild production was a financial failure, and critical reaction was mixed and, from a contemporary standpoint, clueless. New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson dismissed it out of hand, and the paper's music critic, Olin Downes, found the mix of vernacular musical elements and sophisticated symphonic form completely baffling (a position which he would later recant).

Despite revivals of interest in the 1940s and 1950s, Porgy and Bess remained an essentially marginal work until a 1976 production of the complete score by the Houston Grand Opera (which played the Muny in 1977)—one that restored nearly an hour of music that had been cut from earlier productions—demonstrated conclusively that Gershwin's crowning achievement was also a great work of musical art. "Seen alongside the humanity in the music and text of Porgy and Bess", wrote Leighton Kerner in 1989, "other American operas seem slight".

Photo: Michael J. Lutch
That said, the piece is still a major challenge for any opera company. The cast is large, the music complex, and the demands of the staging can be daunting. Low voices—bass/baritones and baritones—dominate the leading male roles, making projection a potential issue, as does Gershwin's penchant for polyphonic choral writing. Add in the fact that the opera runs, in its original uncut version, over three and one-half hours with intermission (closer to four if you do it in three acts), and you have a project guaranteed to give any producer nightmares.

Some have dealt with the opera's challenges by simply re-writing it. Before the Houston production reclaimed "Porgy" for the operatic world, it was routinely sliced and diced in ways that made it look more like a conventional Broadway musical—usually by replacing Gershwin's recitatives with spoken dialog and cutting scenes and characters. The co-production by Union Avenue Opera and the Black Rep back in 2007, for example, used an edited version, although they did at least retains some of Gershwin's more innovative ideas, most notably the Act II "storm" sequence in which six completely independent vocal lines slowly merge with the chorus to produce the spiritual "Oh, de Lawd shake the Heavens".

Photo: Michael J. Lutch
The "Porgy and Bess" at the Muny this week is not a local production but rather a national tour of a musical titled "The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess" that was originally directed by Diane Paulus for the American Repertory Theatre and then moved to Broadway in 2011. "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" takes revision "one step beyond," with wholesale re-writes of Hayward's libretto by playwright Susan-Lori Parks and similar radical surgery on Gershwin's music by cellist/composer Deidre Murray. New scenes have been added, including backstories for the characters that were not part of the original work. All of which means that, although prepared with the cooperation of the Gershwin and Hayward estates, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," might (as Stephen Sondheim observed in a caustic letter to the New York Times) more accurately be called "Diane Paulus's Porgy and Bess."

Will it work? I haven't seen it yet, so your guess is as good as mine. The New York premiere certainly stirred up some strong feelings, both pro and con. Writing in the New Yorker, for example, Hilton Als defended the revisions as "politically radical and dramaturgically original" and suggested that Mr. Sondheim was just being racially insensitive. "[T]he stories he tells involve white characters", wrote Mr. Als, "and his professional world is a white one." Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review, struck something of a middle ground, praising Audra McDonald's Bess more than the show itself. "Ms. McDonald's Bess," he wrote, "is — in a word — great; the show in which she appears is, at best, just pretty good."

The only way to know who's right, of course, is to see the show yourself. "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" is certainly shorter than the original opera (which hasn't been seen on the Muny stage since 1988), clocking in at around two and one-half hours, so if you go you'll be on your way home before 11 PM. Performances begin at 8:15 PM through Sunday, July 13, on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information:

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