THE LEADING MEN: Phillip Boykin, the Tony-Nominated Force of Nature of Porgy and Bess

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21 May 2012

Phillip Boykin
Phillip Boykin
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Meet 2012 Tony Award nominee Phillip Boykin, now making his Broadway debut as the rapacious Crown in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.


Phillip Boykin is a natural-born Catfish Row resident, having grown up in Greenville, SC, 102.5 miles from that Charleston enclave. On seven different occasions since 1996 he has made himself right at home in the musical neighborhood immortalized by author DuBose Heyward. His latest residency begin Jan. 12 as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess moved into the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.

These days you'll find him lording heavily over that mythic community as Crown, the murderous disruption in the already complicated relationship of the "crippled" Porgy (Norm Lewis) and the promiscuous Bess (Audra McDonald). All three corners of that triangle are currently raking in Tony votes.

Not only that, Boykin is one of three performers — Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow and Jeremy Jordan in Newsies are the other two — who are up for 2011-2012 awards from the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle as well as the Tonys, and have already won Theatre World Awards for their first year on Broadway.

Boykin was not always snarling out Crown in his best bass-baritone. When he first entered Catfish Row years ago, what he had in mind was Porgy, but that role was already taken — by the director, Larry Marshall, who suggested that more seasoning was needed for the 24-year-old applicant and rerouted him to be the Crown understudy.

Working his way up to full Crown volume, Boykin bided his time with lesser Catfish Row denizens, most of whom have disappeared or been diminished in the Suzan-Lori Parks/Diedre L. Murray adaptation that director Diane Paulus has delivered to Broadway (earning ten 2012 Tony nominations): Jim, the cotton picker whose main plot function is to introduce the cotton hook that Crown uses to kill Robbins; Frazier, the "lawyer" whose bogus hocus-pocus dissolving Crown's marriage to Bess becomes a shtick for matriarch Maria; Jake, the fishing-boat owner; and a fisherman, Nelson, who never made this voyage.

Boykin in Show Boat.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Crown became a kind of career for Boykin. Between various Porgy and Bess tours and productions, he played Joe in Show Boat, the Ken Page role in Ain't Misbehavin', the Frederick B. Owens part in Smokey Joe's Café and, most recently (at New York City Opera), Inspector Watts in Stephen Schwartz's only opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

"I've done a lot of operas," Boykin proudly asserts. "I've played Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia. I've done Don Alfonso in Cosi fan Tutte, Turandot, Rigoletto. Most of the reporters list me as an opera star."

Do you like "opera star," or do you like your new listing, Broadway actor?
Phillip Boykin: I like entertainment. My email address is theboykinentertain so I can do both opera and musical theatre. I've done an equal amount of both.

Your background is the operatic Porgy and Bess. What do you call the version you're doing now?
PB: Our show? I like to call it the Broadway version of Porgy and Bess. Larry [Marshall] said, "It's like apples and oranges." The opera is the opera — and it's still performed everywhere — and this is the musical-theatre version of the opera.

Going from the opera version of Porgy to the musical-theatre version, you presumably had no "purist" problem.
PB: Well, actually, I did. I had a slight problem. When I first heard they were turning it into a musical-theatre piece, I couldn't see how that would work. It's one of the greatest American operas there is. It's a masterpiece. I just never considered it being a musical-theatre piece. But after we did the workshop and after we did more than 50 performances up at Cambridge, I was able to see that this version is just a different animal. The opera is still around. We're not trying to get rid of the opera at all. In fact, there's no way you ever could. We're just trying to make the story more accessible to audiences and to present the characters as real humans with real emotions.


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