THE LEADING MEN: Porgy and Bess Star Norm Lewis

By Kenneth Jones
26 Jan 2012

Lewis and Joshua Henry
photo by Michael J. Lutch
Do you get the sense that there's more hope in this version than in the opera?
NL: I do. I do. People always ask, "Are you going to find [Bess]?" That's what we leave up to the audience. We want the audience to decide that for themselves, but, for me, yeah, it's all about hope and change. Up until [they meet], Porgy and Bess have decided this is the way that they are, and this is their lot in life — she's the cocaine-addicted, easy woman that sleeps with all of the men to survive, where Porgy is someone who's "crippled" and seen as not a "real man" or a "natural man," as he says, and will never be loved. There are a lot of layers for the both of them. And, then, once they've discovered that there is some hope and some love between the two of them, it's kind of beautiful to watch them transform and try to be better for each other. They both have disabilities.

He's only motivated to become "whole" — with braces — once she comes into his world.
NL: Right. It's her, definitely, but, I think [it's] the fact that love has come into his world. Now that door is open, and he knows that he can be loved.

I get the sense that if there was not love in his life, he wouldn't have made an effort to seek medical help.
NL: I think the fact that he is seeking medical help is to make himself more of a natural person — a "natural man" — for her, yes.

We want to believe that he will make the journey to find Bess. The director has given us clues that it's possible.
NL: I will leave that up to you. That's the part that's audience participation right there. [Laughs.] We leave that up to you guys, so you can make up your mind.

Is it answered in the novel?
NL: You know, that's a good question. I don't think it is. That's a good question. I have to go back now. I don't think it is, no.

I have to go get the novel now.
NL: Yeah.

Porgy has never been kissed before?
NL: No, no. The way I see him is that he's probably paid someone down the road, but I don't think he's ever, ever been intimate with someone.

Lewis and Audra McDonald
photo by Michael J. Lutch

There is something that happens between you and Audra that I so appreciated: There's a sense of discovery about you finding each other. It's not an instantaneous "Aha!" opera moment. There's a kind of tentativeness. I wonder how director Diane Paulus talked to you guys about finding each other.
NL: Well, she's such a great director. She's so smart and she did give us ideas that she came up with — and through the book and through the opera and what she and Suzan-Lori Parks ended up finding within recitative. The dialogue that we have, a lot of it, is the recitative from the opera. Some of it's been tweaked. Some of it is the actual words. But, they found a lot of beautiful treasure within these things, and she wanted us to discover, I guess, our lot in life and our sense in this community, our presence in this community.

If you think about it, Bess has always been controlled by men, and the first thing she does is give herself to them in order to survive and to have a place to stay or to eat or to receive money, somehow. Porgy is showing her kindness and being a gentlemen. I think the song "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" basically defines that: It's not like "I possess her" or "I own her," but it's "I want to care for you, I want to nurture you and I will do anything to protect you." That has never happened to her before. She really has discovered love, and that someone can love her and she can love someone else.

I love that in the first scene you two are in the same space together, but you're not really aware of each other. The relationship has somewhere to go. It builds in a beautiful way across the length of the show.
NL: We're still discovering a lot of things, and we're not done yet. I mean, we're done — it's frozen, but…there are all these new discoveries, like, "Oh my God, yeah, that's there! Wow! Okay, I got that intent."

Lewis sings "I Got Plenty of Nothing."
photo by Michael J. Lutch

I get the sense in "I Got Plenty of Nothing" that Porgy's got a cleaner shirt on. He's really cleaned up in a way, isn't he?
NL: Yeah, yeah… he's cleaned up for his woman.

Is it literally a costume change?
NL: It's a new shirt, yeah. I mean, literally, it's a different shirt — a cleaner shirt.

God is in the details, right?
NL: Yeah, absolutely. You're good. And, even my hair — my hair is in a little bit better shape. In the beginning, we purposely try to stick it out, like I'm not combed, and in that particular scene I've decided to kind of groom my hair a little bit more….

Porgy's entrance in the show is in a gorgeous flood of Gershwin music, as is typical of the opera. That must feel amazing to be bathed in Gershwin as you enter after someone says, "Here comes Porgy!"
NL: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] It's pretty darn cool, man. This is a dream come true. I've never thought about being the title role of a show on Broadway. I mean, it was a dream, and I never knew when it could ever happen, and it's great that it's with this show and this music. I'm just over the moon.

How did you shut out all of the negative buzz last year, when critics grumbled about the revisions before they even saw the show?
NL: Well, I really believed in the work, and knew that we were doing something that was not disrespectful, and still paying homage to this great piece of work. If anyone wanted to see the opera…it's out there still, and it will never go away. It's been running now for 76 years around the world, so the opera will always be there. I believe in the work, and, if anything, I want to thank the people who were responsible for the controversy, if you will, because it brought more light to this piece.

This is "a" Porgy and Bess, not "the" Porgy and Bess.
NL: Right.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenenth.)

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