A revamped Porgy and Bess will open on Broadway Thursday, surrounded by controversy over its interpretation of the classic show.
George and Ira Gershwin’s musical adaptation of the black folk story first hit the stage in 1935. It was the first opera to feature an entire cast of classically-trained black singers. Its most famous song is “Summertime.” At the time of its debut, the dialect throughout the opera caused claims of stereotyping of blacks by the Gershwins. Duke Ellington said at the time, “The times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.”
The version set to debut this week features Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy. It was adapted for modern audiences by Dierdre L. Murray and Suzan-Lori Parks, Pulitzer Prize winner for her play Topdog/Underdog.
“I wanted to flesh out some of the characters,” said Parks in a Black Enterprise magazine interview. “I have added some words; I have added some scenes (some of the original opera’s scenes were too stereotypical). Every word that you hear has been checked by me.”
Composer Stephen Sondheim objected to the idea of changing Porgy during the summer. In an open letter to the New York Times, he wrote, ”[Parks] fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings.”
The opera has been trimmed in half and includes updates, including a reconciliation scene at the end. Reportedly, the townspeople of Porgy and Bess’ Gullah town, Catfish Row, are also no longer depicted as superstitious. Bess’s character has been changed as well, no longer partaking in drugs in a pivotal scene.
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