Porgy Begins Anew

The A.R.T. takes on the play more known about than actually known.

porgy and bess

Photo by Payam Studios

These days, the musical Porgy and Bess is more known about than known. Filled as it is with classic songs like “Summertime,” it has had two big problems: First, it’s a hybrid of jazz musical and lyric opera, aimed at neither audience per se. Second, as a saga about southern blacks written by a quartet of whites in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s long been controversial. But with a new revival — previews begin on August 17 — the American Repertory Theater hopes to change all that.

The estates of composers George and Ira Gershwin and writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward solved the first problem by tapping A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus to shift Porgy toward the theater and away from the opera house. As for the dated libretto, Paulus hired Pulitzer Prize–winning African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to flesh out the stock characters.

“Rather than the operatic epic that washes over you musically,” Paulus says, “we’ve created a version that’s intimate and focuses on theatrical storytelling.”

The spotlight will be on Paulus as much as the actors — the A.R.T. hired her in 2008 to grab national attention by developing projects like this. And with a cast packed with Broadway stars, this is her highest-profile effort yet. Paulus says she’s proud to be doing Porgy, which premiered here at the Colonial Theatre in 1935. “We’re reclaiming the history of this work in this city,” she says. “The next chapter is returning it to Boston and having the eyes of the country watch us.”