ART's Production of 'Porgy and Bess' Receives 10 Tony Nominations

“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” an adaptation of the 1935 opera, scooped up ten Tony nominations last Tuesday, second only to “Once,” the musical version of the eponymous 2006 film.

The production, which premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge last September before moving to Broadway in January, was nominated for “Best Revival of a Musical.” Director Diane M. Paulus ’88, who serves as the Artistic Director for the ART, received a “Best Direction of a Musical” nomination.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” Paulus said. “When you work on a project, you’re never thinking about this moment, but when it happens it’s such a moment of recognition.”

In addition to those two nominations, the production received nods for four of its actors and its costumes, sound design, lighting design, and orchestrations.

“The recognition of the whole show—that was such an honor,” Paulus said. “The nominations are a great tribute to everyone involved.”

According to Paulus, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” diverges in both score and dialogue from the original opera, which featured music composed by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, and a libretto by Heyward, who based the work on his novel “Porgy.” Paulus collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Deirdre L. Murray on the adaptation.

“Our interests were to build a production that could stand side-by-side with the opera,” Paulus said.

These revisions, which were given the blessing of the estates of Gershwin and Heyward, were not welcomed by all. Hilton Als, who reviewed the ART’s production for The New Yorker, noted that the composer Stephen Sondheim expressed disapproval at the thought of revising the opera.

However, according to Paulus, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” allowed for greater exploration of the characters than had been seen before.

Though concerns about the depiction of African-Americans in “Porgy and Bess” have been raised since the work’s 1935 premiere, serious complaints surfaced during the 1960s, when some viewers argued that the opera’s broad, often simplified characterizations perpetuated racial stereotypes.

“[The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess] is a production that allowed for the strengthening of the arcs of the characters,” Paulus said.

Paulus emphasized the importance of the nominations not just for the production and the ART, but for the university as a whole. She noted that Harvard students were connected to the show in different ways, including enrolling in an English class on “Porgy and Bess” that she co-taught with Visual and Environmental Studies Professor Marjorie B. Garber last spring. According to Paulus, teaching the course “English 198: Porgy and Bess,” was important to how she approached the production. In addition, ten undergraduates worked on the show in the summer of 2011.

“It’s a moment of recognition for the arts at Harvard,” Paulus said. “It’s a real tribute to Drew Faust’s commitment to the arts here.”

—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu

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