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Diane Paulus Takes On Porgy & Bess

The visionary director discusses her Broadway-bound version of the classic opera starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis.

By Boston
Diane Paulus
(© Dario Acosta)
Diane Paulus
(© Dario Acosta)
Diane Paulus is one of the theater and opera world's most visionary directors, as has been evidenced by such productions as The Donkey Show and the current, Tony Award-winning production of Hair now back on Broadway. She's kicking off her second season as artistic director of American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts this week with The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess, a revised version of the classic opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, which will transfer to Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre on December 17. TheaterMania recently spoke to Paulus about this much-anticipated (and currently controversial) project.

THEATERMANIA: How did you get involved with this? Have you always been a big fan of the opera?
DIANE PAULUS: Before I started on this, I had only seen one production of it -- at New York City Opera. Right after we opened Hair, our producer, Jeffrey Richards, came to me and said what about working on Porgy and Bess, and I said that sounds good, and started looking into it. When I followed up, I discovered the Gershwin and Heyward families were interested in finding a writer and director to bring it to the musical stage, and that really caught my attention. You don't usually hear that when you're discussing an opera.

TM: Why did you think of Suzan-Lori Parks to write the book?
DP: We've never worked together, but she came to see Hair a lot at the Public, and I knew her work. So I wrote her, and we talked, and we reread the original script. We both thought it was very significant that the Gershwin and Heyward estates were interested in bringing this show to the next generation. But it's not about making it "modern" or doing a hip-hop version. It's still the 1930s, it's still Charleston. We're just trying to realize the original intention of Heyward's novel, which inspired the opera, and finding the heartbeat of what interested him and the Gershwins to write this work.

TM: Still, you are making a lot of changes to the original script, aren't you?
DB: Our goal was to find ways to make the opera viable for the musical stage. The opera will forever be the opera, but opera will always have a limited audience. Musical theater has different rules and we want to embrace them. In this case, Suzan-Lori and I felt there needed to be a closer focus on the characters and some strengthening of the narrative, especially if you want modern audiences to stay involved for almost three hours. Suzan-Lori really gets her head inside every one of the characters.

TM: What does that mean specifically in terms of the title characters?
DP: With Porgy and Bess, we reexamined the arc for both characters. You have this crippled man and this woman -- this liquor-guzzling slut as she's called in the libretto. How and why do they fall in love? They're an unusual couple. Porgy is lonely; he believes being a cripple is his burden, and that's how the community views him. That's also why he can use a cane in this production and not be in the goat cart -- it's all about his perception. And Bess has been with Crown, who is the powerful guy, for five years; in fact, I think Suzan-Lori is a bigger advocate for Crown than anyone else. So, to us, the show is really about the power of love to transform Porgy and Bess, and how hard it is for both of them to change in order to be together.

TM: What was the casting process like?
DP: It took me over a year to cast this. This score is full of jewels; I found it shocking how many hits are in the show. So I knew I needed amazing singers, but I also needed performers who could bring these characters to life, who could act the dialogue, and who could handle the intense movement of our choreographer, Ronald K. Brown. So eventually we ended up with a real cross-section of musical theater people and opera singers. For example, we knew we wanted to do something different with Sportin' Life. The character is so smart and ironic and sharp, but we did not want some song and dance guy. We wanted someone to turn him into the complex, dangerous character we thought he was. And David Alan Grier has definitely brought his actor chops to the part. In fact, the process of really redeveloping these characters truly began once I had these actors in place.

Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in rehearsal forThe Gershwin's Porgy & Bess
(© Anastasia Korotich)
Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in rehearsal for
The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess
(© Anastasia Korotich)
TM: Did you immediately want Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis for the leads?
DP: I've always thought Audra had a date with Bess, and I was hoping it would be this one. This is my first time working with Audra, and she is an unbelievable artist and actor. She has a truth meter I've never seen before. Every moment, even if it's just singing a high B, has to be truthful or she won't do it. That's thrilling to me. I've known the gorgeous Norm Lewis for many years, and I believe this role is hitting him at the exact right moment in his career. He has got the layers to nail the part; he's ready to physically and psychologically immerse himself in it; and, of course, he has the voice to sing it. I don't think he could have played Porgy at 25. But this is the perfect role for him right now.

TM: How do you feel the show fits into A.R.T.'s mission?
DP: A.R.T is dedicated to exploring the American canon, and how can you not look at great musical theater as part of that canon! And what I really love is the opportunity to create a whole dialogue around this piece and to allow the building of community through our programs. I really feel like what I've discovered by working on Porgy & Bess is that this show, like Hair, is an integral part of our culture and an important chapter in American social and political history. For example, I'm hoping people will learn more about the first Porgy, Todd Duncan. When he went to Washington, D.C. in 1936, he actually desegregated the National Theatre by performing there.

TM: You don't have a long time between the end of the A.R.T. run and the beginning of the Broadway run -- a little over two months. Is that going to be enough?
DP: I'm looking at this run as a six-week preview period. We'll get to look at the show every day through its entire run, and make changes during it as well as in our Broadway rehearsals. And then we just hope for the best!


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