Porgy and Bess, Controversial From Its Roots, Gets Revised for 2011

By Mervyn Rothstein
15 Aug 2011

DuBose Heyward
Paulus says they have "explored filling out what's never been explored, taking the characters steps further, completing them, fully realizing them. That's the focus of what it means to do it now."

"Our team has worked together to get to the essence of the piece. We're choosing to strip away anything that feels dated, that doesn't serve the core action," at the same time keeping "the integrity of the music."

Diedre Murray is working on adapting the score, "because with every change made in the book, since it's a through-composed work, you have to sew it together."

(By Aug. 10, more than a month after Paulus was interviewed for this article, and after it was written, there was growing criticism, including from Stephen Sondheim, of the changes she and her team are making http://www.playbill.com/news/article/153542-Stephen-Sondheim-Comments-on-Broadway-Bound-Porgy-and-Bess-Revisions— the idea that the work needed strengthening or additional context, that the characters needed to be more realized. In response, on Aug. 11, Paulus issued the following statement: "The entire creative team and cast have the most enormous love and respect for Porgy and Bess, and we are grateful for the support and encouragement we have received from the Gershwin and Heyward Estates for this production.")

The show has been called racist. "That's part of its history. But you can't look at that without looking at the time period in which the show was written. To understand what the impulse was."

In fact, when Porgy arrived in Washington, DC, in 1936 at the totally segregated National Theatre — no blacks allowed — the cast, led by Todd Duncan, the original Porgy, refused to perform unless blacks were permitted in the audience. And for the show's brief run, the National Theatre was totally integrated.

Ruby Elzy in the original Porgy and Bess
photo by Carl van Vechten
"That was as much a part of the history of Porgy and Bess as the show itself," Paulus says. "It was a stunning example of social change. There's a larger context to the show, and we're hoping that by our doing it now we'll be able to look back and reflect on the whole history of the show in its time, how the show reflected in many ways American social history."

"I know that Diedre and Suzan-Lori say there's no question in their minds this show was born of love for black people. What might feel to some as racist, they consider a 'shortcoming of understanding.' That's a beautiful way to put it."

Merv Rothstein's work is often seen in the pages of Playbill magazine and on Playbill.com. He pens the monthly A Life in the Theatre column.