Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus, and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray are about to give "Porgy and Bess" a 21st-century update. Their musical-theater reinterpretation of the opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward is slated to open the American Repertory Theaterís 2011-12 season next September.
" 'Porgy and Bess' has this incredible place in our lives as a classic opera now," Paulus said. "The idea here was to give it a life on a musical stage."
With a cast of classically trained black singers, "Porgy and Bess" was a groundbreaking work when it premiered Sept. 30, 1935, at Boston's Colonial Theatre before opening on Broadway that October. It has been revived six times on the Great White Way, most recently in 1983. But Paulus, who saw her first production of "Porgy and Bess" at the New York City Opera, said most people experience it at the opera house.
What she wants, she said, is to introduce it to contemporary theatergoers. That, she explained, means taking it out of the operatic form and cutting the score so that itís not four hours long -- an editing task something like what she accomplished last summer with her concert version of Paul Simonís ĎĎThe Capemaníí in New York. It will also mean more fully developing the characters, but whether new music will be part of the equation is yet to be seen, Paulus said.
Paulus has worked with Murray on various projects since 1999 -- including "Best of Both Worlds," which the ART staged last season -- but this will be her first time working with Parks, a former MacArthur fellow whose plays include "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World" and the Pulitzer-winning "Topdog/Underdog." Paulus, who conceived the project, said she chose Parks for her "intellectual rigor" and "dramatic sophistication," as well as the musicality of her writing. "We shook hands pretty quickly," Paulus said.
The production, with choreography by Ronald K. Brown, has the blessing of the Gershwin Trust as well as the Heyward Trust. It also has producing partners, Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, who happen to be longtime Broadway veterans and were among the myriad producers of Paulusís Tony-winning Broadway production of "Hair."
"That the project might have a future life in New York is very clear to us," Paulus said. But, she added, "One can never predict that."
-- LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
(From left: Suzan-Lori Parks, Diane Paulus, and Diedre Murray.)