Director Diane Paulus assembled a first-rate team — including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie-winning composer Diedre L. Murray — to rethink the classic for modern audiences. This new vision, officially titled The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, before settling on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
In anticipation of its Jan. 12 opening, Playbill enlisted the help of Paulus to interview her leading lady, four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, about the decision to finally take a leap of faith and "jump off the cliff."
Diane Paulus: Porgy and Bess is unquestionably a 20th-century masterwork. What is your history with this work?
Audra McDonald: There are a lot of different layers to my history. My parents had the record in their collection when I was growing up — the one with Leontyne Price and William Warfield. Then my mom had the Michael Tilson Thomas and Sarah Vaughan "Gershwin" album that they did together.... It was on a cassette tape. And I heard Sarah Vaughan sing "My Man's Gone Now" and it knocked my socks off. I remember being 12 and 13 — DP: — and gutted.
AM: Yes! Completely gutted by it. Also freaked out by the fact that Sarah Vaughan has this humongous range. You know, she's thought of as a jazz singer but she could have been an opera singer. Then I was at Juilliard and a bunch of us [voice students] got invited to one of the final dress rehearsals for the Porgy and Bess production at the Met.... It was one of the first times while I was at Juilliard where I thought, "I can do this." Then [Trevor Nunn's] Glyndebourne [Festival] production came out with Cynthia Haymon and Willard White. I fell in love with it. I had every single solitary note of the score memorized.
|photo by Michael Lutch|
DP: So you've had a date with Bess your whole life, yes?
AM: I guess I have. I thought, "OK, when I'm old enough to understand what Bess goes through and old enough to attempt to sing it, hopefully it will come into my life." There were other times where it would kind of be on the periphery of my life but for some reason it wouldn't work out.
When we had that first conversation I was still like, "Oh, it's kind of floating around my life again but I don't know if this is it." And then all the pieces just fell together. It was like the universe said, "Alright, this is your time to play Bess. Good luck."
DP: What have you found is the most challenging aspect of the role?
AM: Bess doesn't have many quiet moments in the show. They are all pretty big and bombastic. I think there's one moment where you have me crossing the stage where I'm just getting some water. [Laughs.] I think that's the only moment in the show where —
DP: You get to sleep a little.
AM: Well, yeah, but I'm in a coma! [Laughs.]
DP: What would you say are some of the joyful things you've felt doing this role?
AM: When she [starts] to recognize that there's another life that she can have, that she can almost touch. There's a blossoming that happens with Bess. I think she gets younger.
DP: Porgy, too.
AM: I think they both get younger as their love starts to blossom. Those are joyous moments. And you know, being on stage with Norm...
|photo by Michael Lutch|
DP: Let's talk about Norm Lewis. How is your Porgy?
AM: My Porgy is incredible. I found when we were in Cambridge, Norm and I would walk home from the theatre every night together...and as the show went along, we were stopping more and more along the street because Norm makes friends wherever he goes! He's like Norm from "Cheers"; everybody loves him. But on top of that he is so open, and the voice is so beautiful.
DP: How about that other man in your life, David Alan Grier? You know what he said about you? He said, "I love working with Audra because it's never the same every night so she keeps me on my toes."
AM: [Laughs.] We keep each other on each other's toes, I think. I didn't know David going into this experience. I knew he was this incredibly funny comedian and improv guy. I was so blown away by his talent, by the danger he presents as Sporting Life.
DP: You've spent four years on "Private Practice" — TV land. How does it feel to be back in the theatre?
AM: I had no idea what it was like to do a long-term character in a show like that. I'd always been afraid of working on camera and so I thought this would be a good experience to get used to the camera being in your face. You learn that — four years, 12 to 15 hours a day on set. So it was a lovely experience but all the commuting just got to me, it was just too much for my daughter.
DP: That's pretty serious commuting.
AM: L.A. to New York twice a week for four years was a lot. I was missing my daughter and the theatre. And you came into my life and said, "Hey, you want to come home? We've got something for you to do."
DP: "I have welcome arms for you. Jump off the cliff with me now!"
AM: I remember being at JFK on the phone with you going through an airport line to L.A. and I was saying, "OK, I think I'm going to jump."
View Part 1 of the expanded conversation between Paulus and McDonald here: