On September 30, 1935 the Colonial Theater in Boston staged the first-ever production of George Gershwin’s classic American opera “Porgy and Bess.” In the brief run at the Colonial, Gershwin and the two librettists, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Hayward, made drastic cuts to the original work in preparation for the show’s Broadway premiere. 76 years later, “Porgy and Bess” has returned to the Boston area, again in preparation for a Broadway run. Once again, the work on display now is radically different from the original.
This adaptation is billed as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and is directed by Diane Paulus ’88, the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). The production seeks to reappraise the opera for modern times. By far the most controversial change is a wholesale rewriting of the ending, in which it turns out that our leading man, newly outfitted with a cane and two functioning legs, might just land the leading babe.
Stephen Sondheim, the Zeus of musical theater who wrote classics such as “Into The Woods” and “Sweeney Todd” as well as lyrics for “West Side Story,” struck at Paulus’ production with a lighting bolt. In an open letter to the New York Times, Sondheim claimed that Paulus did not understand the basic ideas behind characterization in the opera and condescended to her audience.
For theater to remain vital, producers and directors have to find a way of attracting new and younger audiences. One of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal is adapting older works to make them more relevant for contemporary viewers. But what is at stake in an act of reinterpretation?
It is no real surprise that this debate is happening over a revival of “Porgy.” When the opera opened 80 years ago, it was a radical statement on racial politics. A Jewish composer had given African-Americans the right to portray their struggles on a stage in front of the white majority. “Gershwin was writing an opera for black singers [who had] almost nowhere else to turn, at least in terms of mainstream visibility,” says musicologist and Harvard Professor Carol J. Oja. It would take almost a generation for African-Americans to perform another work in a major U.S. opera house. “At the Metropolitan Opera, the first time an African-American singer was on the stage was 1955. The first black person to perform with the New York City Opera was in 1945,” says Oja. Otherwise, African-Americans were still portrayed in blackface.
Paulus is not attempting to challenge prejudice. In this sense, the play’s topical impetus has changed as racial views have evolved over time. The new conception is apolitical, and seeks to find timeless subjects in Gershwin’s opera. For example, the characters have been partially re-written to give them a backstory. Bess, once a plotline prop to facilitate the conflict between the main male characters, has been fleshed out beyond recognition. “Her quest is to humanize the former classics, and she gets a lot of flak for that,” says Hilton Als, the theater critic for The New Yorker who also teaches at Wellesley University. Paulus’ interest in humanization, however, amounts to bodily reinvention, closer to a new creation than a subtle touch-up.
Paulus has devoted her career to this philosophy of updating theater, which she has held since her youth. Born into an affluent New York City family, she was surrounded by art since birth. While an undergraduate at Harvard, she realized that the theater was a way of combining her passions for pubic service and art. In an interview given to the Boston Globe in 2008, she said that during the summer of her freshman year she addressed a meeting of the Coalition for the Homeless in Boston as an intern for then–city councilor Ruth Messinger. She realized that instead of being a politician, she would much rather forge connections with real people on the ground. “Politics to a degree is about legislation, administration. You can’t be there in the trenches. I had this epiphany that I like the interaction with people. I wanted to make things happen at a grassroots level.” As such, her career as a theatre director has been marked by a populist streak.
After earning her Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University in Theatre Direction, Paulus co-founded the New York–based theater group Project 400. “The impetus for founding Project 400 was to make theater that was popular but also classic,” says Anna Foss Wilson, an actress and director who studied at Columbia with Paulus and was a founding member of Project 400. The group distinguished itself by a commitment to collaboration and adaptation. “We would create a show, and during the beginning of the rehearsal process I would be asked to bring a complete character to rehearsal,” recalls Foss Wilson, laughing. “Diane would interview me in character, and that would go into the final script.” The play itself was mutable, a fluid text that could be shaped not just by the author but also by the production process itself.
Since then Paulus’ rise in the theater world has been meteoric. After almost 10 years of work with Project 400 on the fringe of the theater scene, she began directing shows on Broadway and at major opera houses around the world. Her resume includes the recent revival of the musical “Hair,” a smash hit both on Broadway and in London’s West End, as well as a production of “Kiss Me Kate” at The Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York. Paulus also conceived and directed “The Donkey Show,” which had a seven-year run in New York before it came to the A.R.T. at Club OBERON in Cambridge.
Her productions of ”Hair” and “The Donkey Show” both emphasized audience participation. For her, the theater is an arena for the interaction between art and the audience. Visceral connection is prioritized over conceptual premise. “Our work came from a desire to not cage people in their theater seats,” says Foss Wilson. “In a sense we wanted to free the audience.” In “The Donkey Show,” this liberation was achieved by literally mixing the audience in with the actors; in “Hair,” which was staged in older theaters with a much more traditional layout, the process was reversed. During one number cast members literally climb on the seats, directly on top of the audience members. Instead of instilling a contemplative detachment in the audience’s experience of a play, Paulus’ casts come to them. The audience is part of the stage itself.
For theater to be populist, it helps to make headlines. “It is a dream come true to make an old distinguished white guy angry,” says Anna Foss Wilson about Stephen Sondheim’s open letter. “The controversy is going to make more people want to see the show.”
Until her decision to change the ending of “Porgy,” Paulus had never gone so far as to change the plot of a classic work. “Some works audiences don’t mind people tinkering with,” says David Cote, a theater critic for Time Out New York, “but this is different because the production is changing the text, and this raises some heckles.” Stephen Sondheim, for his part, raised the concern at the end of his letter. “In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’ nor even ‘The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.’ Advertise it honestly as ‘Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.’ And the hell with the real one.”