The Curious Case of ‘Porgy and Bess’

As the opera heads to Broadway as a musical, debate goes on: Is it a relic or still relevant?

Courtesy of the A.R.T. Production
Courtesy of the A.R.T. Production

You may not know the storyline of Porgy and Bess, but you certainly recognize some of the music, beginning with that standard “Summertime.” Black artistic royalty have been among those who have performed Porgy in whole or in part, onstage, on-screen, on vinyl or disc, as a theater musical, as a concert or — as it was originally intended by George Gershwin — as an opera. These include Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Gregory Hines and on and on.

On its way to Broadway as a musical rather than an opera, Porgy has drawn its fans and its critics. Now in previews, it is set to open next month and run through June.

The story, set in a fictitious Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., is one of exaggerated love, lust, drug dealing, crapshooting, murder, piety among church ladies and the victimization of a good-hearted but  “loose” woman, Bess, all told in a kind of Sea Island dialect. It has been stirring the artistic pot since the mid-1930s, and now Audra McDonald, the four-time Tony winner, and David Alan Grier, the comedian, actor and two-time Tony nominee, are on Broadway with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The creative team includes the acclaimed director Diane Paulus and the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, Suzan-Lori Parks.

As producers of the new theatrical version promised to make changes that would, among other things, appeal to a contemporary audience, they triggered a debate led by the Broadway eminence Stephen Sondheim, who says there is no need to mess with the original, and Hilton Als, the New Yorker critic who says that Sondheim doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this effort at “humanizing the depiction of race onstage.” Als says that Parks and Paulus “have rescued a work that was mired in condescension and a bizarre and unreal sexuality.”

The staged musical theater piece is not the same as the opera, but the storyline is the same and raises the same issues of whether this is a period piece that should be appreciated for all the groundbreaking effort Gershwin put into it in the 1930s or whether it is a period piece that should be archived in a museum. It raises insecurities that blacks still have about the past, seen and heard during the recent Broadway play Driving Miss Daisy and the acclaimed film The Help. A lot of folks don’t want to go back there, while others say we must if we are to go forward.

Grace Bumbry, who performed the role of Bess in the 1985 production by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, later said: “I thought it beneath me. I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there.”