Suzan-Lori Parks' Porgy and Bess

Interview

Friday, January 13, 2012

Porgy and Bess was groundbreaking: an opera about poor African-Americans in South Carolina, starring a cripple, a tramp, and a drug dealer. This weekend a new production opens on Broadway entitled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, but it’s not the one George and Ira presented in 1935. Audiences will get new dialogue, back stories, and orchestrations courtesy of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, director Diane Paulus, and musical director Deirdre Murray.

Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was approached by the Gershwins’ estates to turn the opera into a musical. “Right away it was very clear that these people who were singing these songs of love and passion, triumph and failure,” she tells Kurt Andersen, “they deserve a story that is equal to it.” She saw her job as not to rewrite but to fill in. “Dramaturgically, there are some holes in it,” she explains. “We just added a bridge — it’s a bridge not just to fill in a gap, but to provide Porgy and Bess, and the whole community actually with a strong story arc.”

Even before the show opened, traditionalists were distressed. Stephen Sondheim wrote a fiery letter to the New York Times blasting the production, in particular its title: “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’s Porgy and Bess. And the hell with the real one.”

Suzan-Lori Parks (Stephanie Diani)Suzan-Lori Parks (Stephanie Diani)

Parks stands by her changes and the title. “It’s as if the Gershwin Estate has a brownstone, they invited me to do some work on their brownstone. It's their brownstone. ... End of conversation." 

Parks remembers the first time she saw Porgy and Bess: she was in 2nd grade and she caught the 1959 movie on “the late late late late late late late show. And five minutes of it and I just was like ‘Oh, I don’t think so.'” She remembers, “It looked like one of those movies where they didn't quite get to know us like I knew us.”

But those inaccuracies do not amount to racism, Parks thinks: “A lot of people hear ‘Suzan-Lori Parks is working on [the new production],’ or ‘a black woman is working on it’ … She’ll find it racist,’” she says, frustrated. “And me, I’m sitting here as a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Macarthur ‘genius’ writer. I look at it, yes, as a black woman, but also as a writer.”

>> Have you seen The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Tell us what you thought in a comment below.

Have you seen The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Tell us what you thought in a comment below.Porgy and Bess was groundbreaking: an opera about poor African-Americans in South Carolina, starring a cripple, a tramp, and a drug dealer.  This weekend a new production opens on Broadway entitled The Gerschwins’ Porgy and Bess, but it’s not the one George and Ira presented in 1935.  Audiences will get new dialogue, back stories, and orchestrations courtesy of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, director Diane Paulus, and musical director Deirdre Murray.
Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was approached by the Gershwins’ estates to turn the opera into a musical. “Right away it was very clear that these people who were singing these songs of love and passion, triumph and failure,” she tells Kurt Andersen, “[and] they deserve a story that is equal to it.” Her job was not to rewrite but to fill in.  “Dramaturgically, there are some holes in it,” she explains. “We just added a bridge – it’s a bridge not just to fill in a gap, but to provide Porgy and Bess, and the whole community actually with a strong story arc.”
Even before the show opened, traditionalists were distressed.  Stephen Sondheim wrote a fiery letter to the New York Times blasting the production, in particular its title: “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’s Porgy and Bess.  And the hell with the real one.”
Parks stands by her changes and the right to make them. “It’s as if the Gershwin Estate has a brownstone, they invited me to do some work on their brownstone.  It's their brownstone. ... End of conversation."  
Parks remembers the first time she saw Porgy and Bess: she was in 2nd grade and she caught the 1959 movie on “the late late late late late late late show.  And five minutes of it and I just was like ‘Oh, I don’t think so.” She remembers, “It looked like one of those movies where they didn't quite get to know us like I knew us.” 
But those inaccuracies do not amount to racism, Parks thinks: “A lot of people hear ‘Suzan-Lori Parks is working on [the new production],’ or ‘a black woman is working on it’ … She’ll find it racist,’” she says, frustrated.  “And me, I’m sitting here as a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Macarthur ‘genius’ writer.  I look at it, yes, as a black woman, but also as a writer.”
Have you seen The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Tell us what you thought in a comment below.
Porgy and Bess was groundbreaking: an opera about poor African-Americans in South Carolina, starring a cripple, a tramp, and a drug dealer.  This weekend a new production opens on Broadway entitled The Gerschwins’ Porgy and Bess, but it’s not the one George and Ira presented in 1935.  Audiences will get new dialogue, back stories, and orchestrations courtesy of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, director Diane Paulus, and musical director Deirdre Murray.
Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was approached by the Gershwins’ estates to turn the opera into a musical. “Right away it was very clear that these people who were singing these songs of love and passion, triumph and failure,” she tells Kurt Andersen, “[and] they deserve a story that is equal to it.” Her job was not to rewrite but to fill in.  “Dramaturgically, there are some holes in it,” she explains. “We just added a bridge – it’s a bridge not just to fill in a gap, but to provide Porgy and Bess, and the whole community actually with a strong story arc.”
Even before the show opened, traditionalists were distressed.  Stephen Sondheim wrote a fiery letter to the New York Times blasting the production, in particular its title: “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’s Porgy and Bess.  And the hell with the real one.”
Parks stands by her changes and the right to make them. “It’s as if the Gershwin Estate has a brownstone, they invited me to do some work on their brownstone.  It's their brownstone. ... End of conversation."  
Parks remembers the first time she saw Porgy and Bess: she was in 2nd grade and she caught the 1959 movie on “the late late late late late late late show.  And five minutes of it and I just was like ‘Oh, I don’t think so.” She remembers, “It looked like one of those movies where they didn't quite get to know us like I knew us.” 
But those inaccuracies do not amount to racism, Parks thinks: “A lot of people hear ‘Suzan-Lori Parks is working on [the new production],’ or ‘a black woman is working on it’ … She’ll find it racist,’” she says, frustrated.  “And me, I’m sitting here as a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Macarthur ‘genius’ writer.  I look at it, yes, as a black woman, but also as a writer.”
Have you seen The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Tell us what you thought in a comment below.Porgy and Bess was groundbreaking: an opera about poor African-Americans in South Carolina, starring a cripple, a tramp, and a drug dealer.  This weekend a new production opens on Broadway entitled The Gerschwins’ Porgy and Bess, but it’s not the one George and Ira presented in 1935.  Audiences will get new dialogue, back stories, and orchestrations courtesy of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, director Diane Paulus, and musical director Deirdre Murray.
Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was approached by the Gershwins’ estates to turn the opera into a musical. “Right away it was very clear that these people who were singing these songs of love and passion, triumph and failure,” she tells Kurt Andersen, “[and] they deserve a story that is equal to it.” Her job was not to rewrite but to fill in.  “Dramaturgically, there are some holes in it,” she explains. “We just added a bridge – it’s a bridge not just to fill in a gap, but to provide Porgy and Bess, and the whole community actually with a strong story arc.”
Even before the show opened, traditionalists were distressed.  Stephen Sondheim wrote a fiery letter to the New York Times blasting the production, in particular its title: “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’s Porgy and Bess.  And the hell with the real one.”
Parks stands by her changes and the right to make them. “It’s as if the Gershwin Estate has a brownstone, they invited me to do some work on their brownstone.  It's their brownstone. ... End of conversation."  
Parks remembers the first time she saw Porgy and Bess: she was in 2nd grade and she caught the 1959 movie on “the late late late late late late late show.  And five minutes of it and I just was like ‘Oh, I don’t think so.” She remembers, “It looked like one of those movies where they didn't quite get to know us like I knew us.” 
But those inaccuracies do not amount to racism, Parks thinks: “A lot of people hear ‘Suzan-Lori Parks is working on [the new production],’ or ‘a black woman is working on it’ … She’ll find it racist,’” she says, frustrated.  “And me, I’m sitting here as a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Macarthur ‘genius’ writer.  I look at it, yes, as a black woman, but also as a writer.”
Have you seen The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Tell us what you thought in a comment below.Porgy and Bess was groundbreaking: an opera about poor African-Americans in South Carolina, starring a cripple, a tramp, and a drug dealer.  This weekend a new production opens on Broadway entitled The Gerschwins’ Porgy and Bess, but it’s not the one George and Ira presented in 1935.  Audiences will get new dialogue, back stories, and orchestrations courtesy of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, director Diane Paulus, and musical director Deirdre Murray.
Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was approached by the Gershwins’ estates to turn the opera into a musical. “Right away it was very clear that these people who were singing these songs of love and passion, triumph and failure,” she tells Kurt Andersen, “[and] they deserve a story that is equal to it.” Her job was not to rewrite but to fill in.  “Dramaturgically, there are some holes in it,” she explains. “We just added a bridge – it’s a bridge not just to fill in a gap, but to provide Porgy and Bess, and the whole community actually with a strong story arc.”
Even before the show opened, traditionalists were distressed.  Stephen Sondheim wrote a fiery letter to the New York Times blasting the production, in particular its title: “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’s Porgy and Bess.  And the hell with the real one.”
Parks stands by her changes and the right to make them. “It’s as if the Gershwin Estate has a brownstone, they invited me to do some work on their brownstone.  It's their brownstone. ... End of conversation."  
Parks remembers the first time she saw Porgy and Bess: she was in 2nd grade and she caught the 1959 movie on “the late late late late late late late show.  And five minutes of it and I just was like ‘Oh, I don’t think so.” She remembers, “It looked like one of those movies where they didn't quite get to know us like I knew us.” 
But those inaccuracies do not amount to racism, Parks thinks: “A lot of people hear ‘Suzan-Lori Parks is working on [the new production],’ or ‘a black woman is working on it’ … She’ll find it racist,’” she says, frustrated.  “And me, I’m sitting here as a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Macarthur ‘genius’ writer.  I look at it, yes, as a black woman, but also as a writer.”
Have you seen The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Tell us what you thought in a comment b


Video: "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," performed by Norm Lewis and Audra Macdonald

    Music Playlist
  1. Summertime
    Artist: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
    Album: Porgy and Bess
    Label: Sony Music Entertainment
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Summertime
    Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
    Album: Pure Ella
    Label: Verve
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Love
    Artist: Air
    Album: Love 2
    Label: Astralwerks
    Purchase: Amazon
  4. Summertime
    Artist: Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass
    Album: Porgy and Bess
    Label: Ojc
    Purchase: Amazon

Produced by:

Jenny Lawton and Sharon Mashihi

Comments [9]

RGrant from NYC

Saw the performance today. A fantastic drama, rich with acting, singing and dancing talent. The stage setting was minimal yet the lighting and the movement transformed each act remarkably. I loved the choreography,and the characters were all believable. Highly recommended. Yes, indeed.

Jan. 29 2012 07:56 PM
Josh from NYC

The song after the interview is "Love" from Air's 2009 album "Love 2"

Jan. 19 2012 10:37 AM
DIANA CRAMER from Syracuse, NY

I had the great pleasure of attending this new production of Porgy and Bess on the first night of previews. Since childhood I have known and loved many of the songs, but am not an opera lover so would probably never attend the full length opera, parts of which I saw on tv as a child. Parks' interpretation was just perfect for a life long theater lover like me. I was particularly interested in seeing it as I have met her lovely mother who lives in my city, Syracuse, NY.

The show (despite the rude folks sitting next to me who ate candy from crinkly bags throughout most of the show, ignoring the angry glances of those around them....even on Broadway some people are clueless about theater etiquette!) was so beautifully staged, the singing and acting so powerful that it took my breath away. The performances by Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis especially brought me to tears. If I have any complaint at all it is the decision not to include children in the cast (besides the one infant in arms). It felt very unrealistic that there were no children living in the town of Catfish Row.

By the way, after seeing Parks' show I picked up a library copy of a video recording of a performance of the show that was staged in London in 1992, directed by Trevor Nunn....It was interesting to note that the title on the dvd cover is: "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess"!

Thanks so much for the great interview with Parks and for asking for our feedback!

Jan. 18 2012 10:25 AM
john

I was deeply moved by the production. It's beautifully staged, acted and sung. I have never seen the opera, but for me this was an inspired theatrical evening and I'm definitely glad I saw it. Bravo to Ms. Parks.

Jan. 15 2012 09:49 PM
S. Miller from Great Neck, NY

WE LOVED IT! Took our 15 yr old grandson to a preview matinee as a Christmas present. He plays Gershwin tunes on his trumpet and was wowed by the music and so were we...thought Suzan-Lori Parks' production intimate, inspiring, & filled with emotional depth! A++

Jan. 15 2012 04:18 PM
Dianne McKinnon from Wyckoff, NJ

I saw Porgy and Bess in preview and loved it. I sometimes consider myself a purist, but this was a wonderful production - not 'dumbed down' at all. I was totally drawn into the music and the drama and was moved to tears twice. My only question was why no one came back for Bess at the picnic - why would they leave her there? No matter what the critics wrote, I highly recommend it!

Jan. 15 2012 12:20 PM
Susan from Philadelphia, PA

Suzan-Lori Parks compared the Gershwins writing about poor Southern Blacks to if she had written about poor Jews in the tenements of the Lower East Side. I would say go ahead and write that play or novel. I would be interested in her take on it. Sometimes it is good to hear what an outsider has to say.

Jan. 15 2012 09:35 AM
Marion Oxenhorn

My husband and I saw this production of Porgy and Bess a few weeks ago and absolutely loved it. Despite the many valid criticisms, none of it ultimately matters. It is a thrilling theatrical experience! Not to be missed.

Jan. 14 2012 06:08 PM
Mike P. from New York, NY

Great interview. Does anyone know the name of the song immediately following the close of the interview with Ms. Parks? Really good stuff.

Jan. 14 2012 04:51 PM

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