It Ain’t Necessarily…

Photo: Michael J. Lutch

Broadway enthusiasts have spent 70 years debating what Porgy and Bess is. (Stephen Sondheim, a longtime admirer and sometime defender of the show, suggests that it’s a musical when it’s in a theater, and an opera when it’s in an opera house.) When the somewhat reworked Broadway revival opened on January 12, New York’s theater critic, Scott Brown, posted a generally positive review—you can read it here—and then engaged classical-music critic Justin Davidson in a friendly argument.

Justin Davidson: Hi, Scott. In your review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, you called it “theatrical rapture.” I share your admiration for Audra McDonald, but couldn’t the producers field a whole cast that would do justice to that flabbergasting score?

Scott Brown: Well, you’re coming at this from the Wagnerian cliffs of opera. Down here on Broadway Row, we have Norm Lewis, Joshua Henry, Nikki Renee Daniels—all solidly accredited musical-theater talents. So my question is, Does a folk opera, whatever that is, require Met-level vocal immensity to be emotionally effective?

J.D.: That’s a complicated question. Gershwin conceived Porgy as an opera but realized it as a Broadway show—he was a practical showbiz pro, and he wanted people to see it. To me, the distinction is a matter of resources and logistics, not style. Doing it in a theater instead of an opera house means you can keep it going eight performances a week. The trade-off is that you have a smaller pit, you have to amplify, and you’re not going to have 120 people on the stage. And there’s such a diverse musical ecology at work here—the Gershwin-written spirituals, a gospel choir transformed into a massed chorus that wouldn’t be out of place in Boris Godunov—but here, the incredible variety gets emulsified into something blander.

S.B.: I certainly agree that the music is the indispensable force. It gives life to these archetypes—and archetypes they remain, the revamp and Stephen Sondheim’s well-documented fears notwithstanding. But I felt more going on up there than dumbing down. Did you have a bigger problem with this show than the non-operatic voices?

J.D.: I guess it’s that the producers are presenting this version as an updating. Now, if you want to transform Porgy and Bess, then by all means do it. You want to scrap the spirituals, gospel, and ragtime references and substitute hip-hop? Be my guest. But if you’re going to use the music in its original form, it should be because you love and understand it. What I feel here ranges from indifference to distaste.

S.B.: In fact, I’m writing a hip-hop Porgy on Garageband. (White guys: We just can’t resist this material!) But “distaste”? I don’t believe in inviolable classics. Musicals, even accidental musicals, were made to be dented, and Porgy is expressly about expanding what a musical can be.

J.D.: I agree, and I don’t mean that Porgy and Bess must be done according to venerable rules. Obviously, Gershwin didn’t think so. Then again, the critic Alex Ross once proposed that before hiring any stage director, an opera company should administer a two-item questionnaire: (1) Do you like opera? (2) Do you like this opera? It’s amazing how many people who’d answer no get the job anyway. This creative team (and even the Gershwin estate) seemed to agree that DuBose Heyward’s book stinks. So Diane Paulus & Co. have replaced one set of stereotypes with a whole bunch of others: Mariah the matriarch speaks as if she were being played by Eddie Murphy; some of the rhymes are like bad Dr. Seuss; and the gum-chewing, abusive detectives are straight out of a fourth-rate cop show.

S.B.: Hey, those racist white cops are first-rate, cable-worthy caricatures. But whatever “revisionism” Team Re-Porgy might’ve espoused, it’s clear that the original work repelled most of the edits. Seussian rhymes? Ira Gershwin didn’t need any revisions to sound singsong. And how different is Heyward’s book, really, even with Suzan-Lori Parks’s changes and additions? Sure, Bess has been reoriented, but only subtly. Mariah’s gained the power of some snipped-out men (including Archdale, a Great White Redeemer we can all live without), and I think that’s an elegant fix.

J.D.: Bess has definitely been improved, but not to the entire show’s benefit. Hers is the only full characterization. I couldn’t help wondering whether Audra had a clause in her contract saying that she had to be three times better than everyone else.

S.B.: Well, Phillip Boykin killed the night I was there. The audience hissed Crown’s entrances! There’s no greater compliment for a performer playing a villain.

J.D.: True, and the most exciting moment is the scene between him and Bess on Kittiwah Island. Maybe the thing should be renamed Audra and Crown, Plus Porgy.

S.B.: Let’s be fair to Norm Lewis. He’s too debonair and commanding for Porgy, but that leading-man charisma also makes him a hero you want to root for. His poise and his voice bolster each other. Does his sound blend perfectly with Audra’s? No, but that’s rare and nearly impossible when you’re importing opera-size music to a Broadway house. I can’t say I minded the frictions among the voices. They kept me tuned in.

J.D.: Are you saying that Broadway necessarily sacrifices musical nuance?

S.B.: I’m saying there’s a certain endearing vocal bricolage that marks many Broadway productions. That heterogeneity—matched with enormous performance energy—is something I enjoy. For me, it’s about the sell, not the style.

J.D.: Hey, I’m not anti-Broadway. My ideal version of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” is from a Gershwin centennial concert I attended at Carnegie Hall, when ­McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Listening to the recording now, I’m struck by its subtlety and elasticity. In this production, the conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos keeps time as if he were beating a carpet.

S.B.: I’m not going to claim this is the best Porgy ever. But we’ve got to leave room for the rough-and-tumble of a fully committed staging—emotional, physical, dramatic, and musical. I think Diane Paulus ended up with less a revision and more of a demo—and I mean that as a compliment. Because of Porgy’s stutter-step history, we think of it as a kind of pageant rather than a commercial show. That’s legitimate, but what I saw last week was a musical, a simple play distilled in gorgeous song, and it breaks the vacuum seal around Porgy and Bess. I like my toys played with, not unscuffed in the bubble wrap. Look to see this theory in action in 2046, when my P-ORGS + b3ss: An Electro­Neuropera debuts in your telepathic FaceBrain Queue.

J.D.: I’d like to see that. Mind-meld me the link when it’s up?

It Ain’t Necessarily…