Monday, February 13, 2012

Porgy and Bess

Since it premiered in New York in 1935, Porgy and Bess has been dogged by nagging questions: Is this an opera, or a musical? Is this show respectful, or racist? More recently, there have been even more questions and controversies: Is this show worth reviving? If so, how? Should it be staged in its original--and thus, presumably, "authentic"--state, or can we tweak some of its more outdated aspects? Perhaps most importantly, what does Stephen Sondheim think about all of this?

Full disclosure: As much as I love him, I don't care what Sondheim thinks about Porgy and Bess. I like to think that Gershwin had benevolent, and not racist, intentions in researching, writing, and staging it. As to whether it's an opera or a musical, Porgy strikes me as being about as comfortably everything as its composer was. Gershwin was a master of Tin Pan Alley, the concert hall, and the after-hours jam session, so why should it be surprising that Porgy shows up in repertory at opera companies and occasionally gets revived on Broadway, or that many of its songs have become standards covered by singers in every genre you can think of? Gershwin was brilliant; his show has a gorgeous, memorable, hugely adaptable score; enough, already.

What surprises me, though, is that amid all the controversy about Porgy and Bess, there is so very little bitching about the book, which, when you get right down to it, is just not as good as the score. The music in Porgy absolutely soars, seguing seamlessly from one genre to another and back again. Church-house moans become piercing arias; work-songs become big, Broadway show-stoppers. The music is timeless. The book, however, is very much a product of the 1930s. It reflects the comparatively sketchy character development, lack of cohesiveness, and emphasis less on motivation than on song and dance that was typical of the burgeoning musical in its pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein days. Hence, Porgy is a benevolent sap; Bess is a broken, coke-snorting slut. They get together because they are both, in their own ways, desperate. Bess would like to change her ways; she slowly becomes accepted by the community and even gets a shot at child-rearing, which by 1930s standards is, I guess, supposed to be about as legitimizing and fulfilling as it can possibly get for a woman. Yet for all her attempts at decency, Bess is a total disaster. Porgy puts up with her, helps her, saves her, and defends her over and over and over again until the final curtain, which implies that nothing is ever going to change. The end.

Another full disclosure, here: I have very little patience for this type of premise, so really, this might be entirely my problem. Romeo and Juliet is my least-favorite Shakespeare play, I absolutely loathed Jules et Jim, and I haven't fallen for any "will-they-or-won't they" TV premise since, oh, the Maddie and David plot trajectory on "Moonlighting." And through the years, I've had many people react vociferously to my dislike of such pieces--especially Jules et Jim, which is apparently a masterpiece that I just need to view through different eyes, or something. Perhaps this, then, is the test: If you love Jules, you might totally go wild for Porgy. If you are as tepid as I am about that sort of thing, maybe think about catching another show, instead.

The current production of Porgy and Bess aims to update the book, at least a little bit: some of the libretto was rewritten as dialogue by Suzan Lori Parks, and Diane Paulus worked with the cast to add depth to the characters and to make the show more appealing to new, young audiences. Porgy no longer sits pathetically in a goat cart, but instead hobbles around, just as pathetically, on a mangled leg. While the intentions may have been good, and while I am certainly happy to have seen the show, Porgy and Bess still leaves me cold: despite the changes to the book, the characters still strike me as about as one-dimensional as they always have been. Not only is there Unruly and Wild Bess and Endlessly Patient, Almost Irritatingly Virtuous Porgy, but there is also the Brutish, Dangerous, Magnetic Ex Boyfriend; the Tisking, Devout Matriarchs of Catfish Row; and the Sneering, Godless Drug Dealer. What motivates any of them? Where did they come from, what do they think, and why do they make the choices that they make? Dunno. Is there actually any heat, any real passion, between Porgy and Bess? Or is this a connection that has been made entirely as the result of convenience? If there is, in fact, true attraction, I just can't see it. And if this is all about convenience, then who the hell cares?

I do not think that my reservations are the fault of this particular production, which was rock-solid in a number of ways. The look of the show is warm, earthy, and inviting; the sound is, typically, gorgeous. My theater-going companion did not like some of the performers and hated the choreography, but I did not agree with her; I thought the various ingredients were all top-notch. The actors, too, did a fine job with what they have to work with. Audra McDonald is typically bionic, the supporting cast is strong, and on the night I saw the show, Norm Lewis struggled admirably through the first act with an almost completely blown-out voice; he was replaced in act II by Nathaniel Stampley, who was in great voice and made the transition gracefully. And David Alan Grier, who tore the roof off as Sporting Life, is the newest addition to my list of people I would pay to watch read the phone book.

But still, and for all the talent, Porgy and Bess is just not my cup of tea. Its score has blood, gore, and guts that somehow never extend to its characters.


JC said...

Sondheim's letter commented little on Porgy and Bess itself, but on the artistic direction and comments of the creative team itself. So your comment "I don't care what Sondheim thinks about Porgy and Bess" really doesn't make much sense.

lizwollman said...

Ok, then. "I don't care what Sondheim thinks about this particular production of Porgy and Bess, or about the artistic direction and comments by the creative team spearheading this particular production."