Since its premiere in 1935, “Porgy and Bess” has become America’s most famous opera, even as it attracted criticism often polarized along racial lines.
Its songs, such as “Summertime” and “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” have become part of the soul of American culture, while its simple, uneducated black characters have given some prominent African-American artists pause. Jazz great Duke Ellington found the story about folks on Catfish Row inauthentic. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry criticized it for trafficking in stereotypes.
So it was not surprising that as a new version was taking shape in 2011, one designed to introduce it to new audiences, the show would kick up controversy. What was surprising was the source. Even before “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” had gone into previews in Boston before going on to Broadway and a national tour that lands at the Ordway on Tuesday, eminent musical-theater composer Stephen Sondheim lashed out at the proposed updates.
The controversy was good for business. “Porgy and Bess” was nominated for 10 Tonys and won two — one for supernatural Broadway talent Audra McDonald and the other for best revival of a musical. The show ran longer on Broadway than did any previous versions of “Porgy.”
But the criticism by Sondheim stung, especially because he had not seen the show but had just read about the intentions of the creative team, spearheaded by Tony-winning director Diane Paulus and Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.
“This show has run parallel with America’s feelings about race in the 20th century,” said Paulus in a phone interview from Cambridge, Mass., where she’s artistic director of the American Repertory Theater. She co-created and directed “Amaluna” for Cirque du Soleil, and won a Tony last year for her direction of “Pippin.”
“Porgy and Bess” “was done with the best of intentions, enlightened even, though you don’t hear anyone saying, ‘Bess, you’s my woman now,’ ” said Paulus.
The musical is set in Catfish Row, a slum in Charleston, S.C. Disabled beggar Porgy falls in love with Bess, an addict who is abused by her lover and her dealer. In the end, the title characters’ love for each other transforms them and their community.
The changes that Sondheim objected to — including cutting the show from four-plus to two-plus hours and replacing the opera’s recitative with a book adapted by Parks — were approved by the estates of composer George Gershwin and his brother, Ira, who wrote the show’s lyrics, and by original author DuBose Heyward.
“One of Suzan-Lori’s first ideas was to basically convert the text to standard English, so that when you read it on the page in Gullah, it’s not so remote,” said Paulus. “It became ‘I got plenty of nothing’ rather than nuttin’. So you could see the movement of it.”
That does not mean that dialect was removed. Black vernacular speech is still present in the show. In fact, the idiom, rendered by an outsider, has always has been a contentious element of “Porgy and Bess.”
The opera was based on a 1927 play adapted by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, from Heyward’s 1925 novel. Heyward was a privileged white man who traced his lineage to Thomas Heyward, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was sympathetic to the causes of African-Americans, even though he did not fully understand the culture.
Part of the inherent conflict in updating the show is how to make it more “authentic,” something that changes with each generation. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown, whose company, Evidence, has performed at the Ordway, said that was easy. He visited the Sea Islands from which the denizens of “Porgy” are drawn to study the ring shouts and other dances for the show. “You ground it in that soil, in that culture, and it flows naturally,” he said.
The characters’ movements extend their emotional lives, whether in open-armed joy or closed fear, whether elevated or close to the ground.
The cast of the show that plays the Ordway is led by Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, opposite Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy. Paulus praised the cast as top-notch, describing Moran as “a pure singer who can sing anything in any octave with sheer beauty and force and musicality.”
Moran, who has performed at Walker Art Center with jazz-pianist husband Jason Moran, said she was surprised at the power of love and addiction her character deals with.
Bess teaches a lesson that applies broadly, Moran said. When the community gathers in a ring, and they’re shouting and dancing, “she’s on the outside,” said Moran. “She has to claim her space inside the ring. Nobody else can do it for her. They can pull her in, but in the end, she has to feel that she wants to be there, and to stay.”
That message is just one of the things that contemporary audiences glean, Paulus said.
“At its heart, this is a story of survival based on the power of love,” she said. “Because of love, Porgy and Bess are able to see each other without all the baggage that others see. Bess is labeled as the liquor-guzzling slut. Porgy is the cripple. But they get together and give each other this unbelievable gift as seeing each other as unlabeled. That’s a great lesson for all of us today.”