THE LEADING MEN: Porgy and Bess Star Norm Lewis

News   THE LEADING MEN: Porgy and Bess Star Norm Lewis
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.

Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


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?
Norm Lewis: My earliest remembrance of it is just hearing the songs being played on the radio, or people singing them on television somewhere on variety shows and things like that — especially "Summertime," you know? "Summertime" was always a favorite and probably the most iconic song of all of them. Throughout the years — "I Love You, Porgy" and "I Got Plenty of Nothing," you would hear those randomly. I had heard of Porgy and Bess but never really saw it. I never even saw the movie. I know it was on television when I was growing up, but I never really sat down to watch 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.]

Lewis with Audra McDonald in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
photo by Michael J. Lutch

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?
NL: I didn't really go and look at the opera. Once I discovered that I was doing it, I wanted to start it fresh. My acting coach always says, "Everything is in the text. You can find it in the text." And I knew that they were going to try something new and innovative with this. I wanted to see what was going to go on — to try and bring what I could to it, with the discovery of what we were doing. I did go back and I read the book, which I had never heard of before — I never knew there was a [novel] called "Porgy," so that was great for me: To bring elements from the book to this piece was great.

Do you like to create or draw upon your character's "back-story" when crafting a performance?
NL: I do like back-story, yes. With most of the productions that I have seen — or even snippets of it, and the one that I was in — it seemed like Porgy was…a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but, in the book, he was actually kind of mean. He doesn't like children because they spit at him and tease him and things like that, so I wanted to bring those truthful elements to it. You know, it doesn't necessarily have to be stated, but it's my subtext. Even when I make my entrance: I come from begging and having worked so hard all day to try and come to this crap game. I brought in a lot of different little elements that were in the book.

Lewis as Porgy
photo by Michael J. Lutch

Is there a further explanation of Porgy's disability in the DuBose Heyward novel? Was it illness, injury, a birth defect?
NL: Well, I say in the show that I'm "crippled from birth." It's never been established — in the book or even in the opera — but we've added a line: "I'm crippled from birth." It could be polio, it could be…anything. But we wanted to give it a definite beginning — a genesis. And we didn't want him to just have "a bum leg." [In the original it's] him on his knees in this goat cart.

In the new production, Porgy walks with the aid of a cane, with twisted legs.
NL: With our version, it really does show his struggles…what he has to do and what he has to cope with, day by day. Even just going up a flight of stairs is a difficult task. And, also, it helps with Audra — or Bess, I should say — in developing our relationship, in the sense that she helps [Porgy] a lot of times.

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.
NL: Right.

[Spoiler alert!] Your Porgy gets braces for his legs. There is a medical hope. That's new to this production.
NL: Yes.

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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