I was in New York earlier this week and on the one night I had free, I was hoping to go hear some jazz. The friends whom I was visiting suggested Porgy and Bess instead. It wasn’t my first choice, but I figured that since I sing a lot of Gershwin, it might be a good idea to hear songs like “Summertime” performed in their original context. I accepted their gracious invitation, but I have to admit that I went with a little hesitation – three hours listening to an opera from the 1930s?
The first two minutes of the show were a little confusing as the entire ensemble burst into song and I adjusted to the world and characters I saw unfolding before me on stage. By minute three, I was enthralled. I spent the next three hours at the edge of my seat. I was moved, amused, and simply spellbound by the magic that transformed these actors and singers into real life characters whose lives and love and raw emotion I was witnessing. Every moment of the performance – even the interaction I had with savvy audience members during the intermission – was riveting (maybe because they knew so much about the history of the show since 1935 but refused to tell me how it ended).
77 years after it first came to New York, Porgy and Bess was surprisingly relevant. We have to thank its director, Diane Paulus, for braving scathing criticism as she refreshed the score for a modern audience. It takes guts to mess with a classic. Steven Sondheim wrote a nasty letter to the NY Times in 2011 railing against the changes that Director Diane Paulus had made – editing, adding dialogue and character development to the original operatic score. He suggested, “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’ Porgy and Bess.’ And the hell with the real one.” Judging before the show had opened, he did leave the door open to the possibility that “perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will heave earned their arrogance.”
Well earn it they did with a 2012 Tony for best revival of a musical. Audra McDonald (she plays Bess) earned her fifth Tony as Best Actress. She was amazing, but so was every member of the ensemble. The acting was so good I forgot it was acting. The singing was inspiring. I got the insights into these Gershwin classics for which I was hoping. It's the best musical I've ever seen. Its energy and impact still lingers with me four days after being there. It closes today, but if it ever comes back, this is a show to experience.