THE LEADING MEN: Porgy and Bess Star Norm Lewis
By Kenneth Jones
Norm Lewis, of Broadway's Sondheim on Sondheim and the most recent Les Miserables, is plenty of something in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess on Broadway.
It's not as though Norm Lewis doesn't have some choice credits on Broadway — or that his voice isn't smooth and rich and shimmery as ribbon candy — so why does it feel like he is finally in his full glory as a Broadway Star in Porgy and Bess? Is it because he's playing an iconic role, the disabled beggar of Charleston's Catfish Row, in one of the masterworks of George Gershwin? Is it the variety he brings to the part — a mix of warmth and humanity and violent passion? Is it that pitch-perfect voice that feels so at home in the baritone-tenor world? Whatever it is, his Porgy both complements and erases his Broadway resume, which already includes Chicago (as Billy Flynn), The Little Mermaid (as King Triton), Les Misérables (as Javert), Side Show (as Jake) and Sondheim on Sondheim (in which he was in the principal ensemble, among Barbara Cook, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer and Vanessa Williams).
We spoke to Lewis the week after the Jan. 12 opening of this controversial Porgy and Bess (now branded as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, and co-starring Audra McDonald) to talk about the differences between the original 1935 opera and this newly revised "musical-theatre" version adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray under the direction of Diane Paulus.
I'm curious to know what your experience with Porgy and Bess was before this. Did you know it? Had you been in it?
Back in the '80s, there was an opportunity to be a part of it with the Orlando Opera Company. They just needed some bodies on stage to be part of the community. So, I auditioned for the Orlando Opera Company, and I got to be an extra — basically a part in the chorus. Donnie Ray Albert was our Porgy and Elizabeth Graham was our Bess, and she's a professor at the University of Florida. It was great to learn all that music and to be a part of that whole event. It was beautiful, but it was four hours long. [Laughs.]
When you came into this newly revised production, did you want to go back and study the original opera or did you simply let that go and focus on what adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Diane Paulus were doing?
Do you like to create or draw upon your character's "back-story" when crafting a performance?
Is there a further explanation of Porgy's disability in the DuBose Heyward novel? Was it illness, injury, a birth defect?
In the new production, Porgy walks with the aid of a cane, with twisted legs.
There's also an incredibly practical storytelling issue here. [Spoiler alert!] If he is about to really make a life-changing journey at the end of the show, a goat pulling him on a cart becomes a little…impractical.
[Spoiler alert!] Your Porgy gets braces for his legs. There is a medical hope. That's new to this production.
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.
I get the sense that if there was not love in his life, he wouldn't have made an effort to seek medical help.
We want to believe that he will make the journey to find Bess. The director has given us clues that it's possible.
Is it answered in the novel?
I have to go get the novel now.
Porgy has never been kissed before?
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.
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.
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?
Is it literally a costume change?
God is in the details, right?
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!"
How did you shut out all of the negative buzz last year, when critics grumbled about the revisions before they even saw the show?
This is "a" Porgy and Bess, not "the" Porgy and Bess.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenenth.)
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