The newly configured and newly-named production of “George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” which opened on January 11 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, is directed by Diane Paulus. Paulus, 45 years old, a New Yorker, and a graduate of Harvard with a Masters Degree from Columbia, was nominated for a Tony Award for her rousing direction of the revival of “Hair,” which won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Paulus met her husband at Harvard where she was named artistic director of Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre in 2008. Asked by American Theatre magazine for her vision of the next twenty-five years, she said she believed in making the theater experience more interactive and making theater content more open to the audience.
In 2011, she staged a production of “Porgy and Bess” there, installing many changes to the score and action. There were those who objected to these changes. Although he had not seen the production, the Composer and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote a blistering letter to The New York Times excoriating Paulus for changing Gershwin’s good work. Early reviews of the show were mixed. Audra McDonald, four-time Tony and Outer Critics award winner, was praised, as she always is, in her role as Bess. The intimacy and believability of the production brought admiration from some whereas others found the production static, without grandeur.
One of the changes is that Porgy, played by Norm Lewis, now uses a cane instead pushing along on his knees on a goat-drawn cart. This is not the only time this technique has been chosen. Dan Acoin in the Boston Globe says that in Trevor Nunn’s 1987 production of “Porgy and Bess” at Glyndenbourne Festival Opera-- recorded for TV in 1993--Porgy relied on a pair of canes. (In some ways, this is a relief, because in previous productions, publicity focused on the physical agony of the man playing the role.)
In 1942, Cheryl Crawford produced a greatly cut version of the opera; the orchestra was reduced, the cast was halved and many recitatives were reduced to spoken dialogue. In a shocking chapter: On March 27, 1943, the opera had its European premiere at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. It was performed by an all-white cast in blackface during the Nazi occupation. After 22 performances, the Nazis closed down the production.
A 1952 production starred two great singers: a young Leontyne Price and William Warfield, who married while on the European tour. In 1955, the author Truman Capote traveled with the cast and crew to Moscow and wrote about it in his book “The Muses Are Heard.”
In 1976, my family and I saw the new staging produced by the Houston Grand Opera at the Uris Theatre—now the Gershwin Theatre. Uncut, it was magnificent!