Creative Team Behind Broadway’s New Porgy and Bess Talks With Students in Arts Initiative Forum
by Wilson Valentin
March 15, 2012
Watch video of the event at Miller Theatre. (44:43)
Diane Paulus (SOA'97), half the creative team behind The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, has a new appreciation for the old adage “be careful what you wish for.”
Last summer, her collaboration with the writer Suzan-Lori Parks on a musical adaptation of the American folk opera, currently playing to packed houses on Broadway, became a point of contention for the theater community. The controversy erupted as the two women prepared for an initial run at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where Paulus is artistic director.
The peril of reworking the revered classic reached its apex when Stephen Sondheim, the acclaimed lyricist and composer of Gypsy,West Side Story and more than a dozen other musicals, denounced the creative team in an open letter to The New York Times, deploring their plans to change the title, trim the length and give the characters back stories.
“It was always my mantra, ‘I don’t want to be on the arts page. I want to be on the front page!’” joked Paulus. “I guess be careful what you ask for. It became a flash point for a discussion of what we’re talking about. What’s sacred in art? What’s not to be touched?”
Of the firestorm, Parks said, “There was never a moment where I thought, “‘Ooohhh, I don’t think I’m allowed to touch that.’”
The two women, who are used to being behind the scenes, were on stage together at Miller Theatre on March 9. The Arts Initiative, whose mission is to make the arts an engaging and meaningful part of life at Columbia, invited the team to talk about the project in a conversation moderated by Melissa Smey, executive director of the Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre at Columbia University.
Paulus, director of the 2009 Tony-winning Hair revival, and Parks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama, for Topdog/Underdog in 2002, had never worked together before, but were fans of each others’ work.
When the Gershwin estate enlisted Paulus to create an adaptation of Porgy and Bess that would attract modern audiences, it offered the ideal opportunity to collaborate.
Paulus is known for taking familiar material and creating innovative productions that appeal to both theater connoisseurs and mainstream audiences. She staged the popular Donkey Show, an interactive disco version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and fused opera and stargazing in a production at the Hayden Planetarium.
Parks creates, in the words of Paulus, “very, very intense plays,” including two that reimagined The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne, once as a homeless woman living under a bridge with her five children and again, in a play that casts Hester as an abortionist branded with an “A.”
“We got on the phone and Diane said, ‘They’ve asked me to bring a writer on board because there are things that they want developed and changed… and are you interested?’” Parks recalled. “And I said, ‘How many writers are you talking to?’ ‘Only you,’ she replied. And I said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’”
That phone call was in the spring of 2009. What followed was a process of working with the opera measure by measure in an effort to keep what was sacred and discover where it could change.
Despite the controversy, the initial run was a gift. “It kept evolving. That was the beauty of having a chance to work on it in Cambridge,” said Paulus.
One of the most important changes was the idea of making the by-now-familiar characters fully human, with nuanced desires and motivations.
Paulus recalled a recent performance in which Audra McDonald, the beautiful drug-addicted Bess, found new ways to physically express her character while Phillip Boykin, who plays her former lover, the violent and possessive Crown, interprets his lines so his character is no longer portrayed as all bad. “Any good actor is going to continue to work,” she said. And Porgy, the noble, disabled beggar, is shown as a person with real accomplishments – and sexual desires.
“As an African American I’m used to wanting everyone to be people,” said Parks. “Some folks don’t get it unless they see themselves on stage, but I’m also proud that people who came to the show, whatever their ethnic background, whatever their race … they’re going, ‘Yeah, this moves me.’”
The conversation at Miller came to a close with Paulus and Parks giving advice on the act of creation. Parks believes artists need to trust their creative voice and learn to develop it as they would a muscle. “Start now. Or last week,” she joked. “Listen to your inner voice. Listen to others, but know what their agendas are.”
Paulus agreed but added that artists must be “really clear on what’s your interest – what are you doing it for?” She also believes artists must be able to see their work objectively. “How can you see without desire, see what you created?” she said.
Up next for Paulus is a revival of Pippin and a show with Cirque du Soleil. Parks, when asked what she’s working on, answered softly, “Writing,” and then she smiled. “I’m just writing.”
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in an extended run through Sept. 30.
Columbia University mourns the death of Robert Belknap, professor emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages, who died March 17. An expert in Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky, he also taught Literature Humanities in the Core Curriculum for 50 years and influenced generations of Columbia students. For more information, please visit this page.
Mary Bassett, associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, was named New York City’s commissioner of health.
University Professor Ronald Breslow won the 2014 American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the AIC’s highest award.