ON THE RECORD: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

By Steven Suskin
07 Oct 2012

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column discusses the new Broadway cast recording of Porgy and Bess starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis.

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I loves you Porgy, and I has since first hearing the old Decca recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess — featuring members of the original 1935 Broadway cast — back when I was 10 in the mid-1960s. (Everyone else was listening to the Beatles, I was listening to the “Rhapsody in Blue” and Porgy.) The eagle-eyed reader will note that I say "Gershwin's Porgy and Bess"; I might just as easily call it George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, or the Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess. Which brings us to The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in January and has recently arrived on CD from our friends at PS Classics.

Audiences, critics, and assorted Broadway types were of two minds — at least two minds — about the recent revival, or adaptation, or whatever you wish to call it. The easy answer is, there is no easy answer. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess enjoyed a considerable degree of success from audiences, critics, and enough Tony Award voters to earn its many producers those spinning medallions (the 2012 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical). Theatergoers who loved this production are sure to love the resulting CD. Those who don't, along with diehard Gershwin traditionalists, might have a more checkered response.



The production had Audra McDonald singing Bess; even people who didn't buy The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess were likely to appreciate McDonald. Despite her Best Actress Tony Award win last June, I, myself, look forward to the day when she steps onto the stage at Carnegie or some such hall with a full orchestra to sing Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. For real.

That said, the new CD carefully and effectively recreates the revival, with Ms. McDonald joined by Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Phillip Boykin, Nikki Renee Daniels and Joshua Henry. What was heard in the theatre is a rough adaptation of the score for Porgy and Bess, but a good deal of the flavor and power of George's work was diminished. There are cases, of course, where a new set of arrangers and orchestrators can enhance what some lucky tunesmith plunked out on the old upright 80 years ago. But this ain't one of them. The problem is not that they had the nerve to change Gershwin; it's that the changes weaken the work, occasionally running roughshod over what I — at least — consider to be the composer's intentions.

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis
photo by Michael J. Lutch

Yes, you can do that if you wish; but it defeats the purpose if the results are inferior to the original. While the orchestrators have not done George any favors, the severe damage comes in the arrangements. The problem is not so much the number of instruments playing the score; it's the notes the orchestrators have been given by the arrangers. But that's another discussion, for another time and place.

Before we move on, let us say a word about director Diane Paulus. The director of the recent successful revival of Hair and the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, Paulus has been criticized for her cavalier treatment of Porgy and Bess (in general) and George Gershwin (specifically). And not all that fairly. The impression is that Paulus sat down and said, "somebody's gotta fix Porgy and Bess and I'm the one who knows how," and then talked the heirs into allowing it. My understanding, though, is that it was the heirs who went looking for someone to create a new version of Porgy and Bess. (They previously authorized a musically-diminished attempt, by Trevor Nunn no less, in London in 2006. That didn't work, either.) In this case, the heirs found Broadway producers willing to undertake the task; the producers, in turn, went and enlisted Paulus. So this was not the case of a director foisting her vision on an acknowledged and beloved classic; Paulus was asked by the people who — by right of inheritance — presently control the property, and she took up the challenge.

There has also been criticism — some of it directed at Paulus — about the title change from Porgy and Bess to, officially, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. The current version was, according to the billing page, "by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin." (The billing went on to add additional credits of "musical book adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks" and "musical score adapted by Diedre L. Murray," which for the purposes of this discussion are beside the point.) The original billing, worked out by the authors themselves back in 1935, was "music by George Gershwin; libretto by DuBose Heyward; lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin." Heyward's wife Dorothy seems never heretofore to have been deemed an author of Porgy and Bess; she was co-author — with her husband — of the 1927 play version, which they adapted from DuBose's 1925 novel.

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