Zinsser on Friday

Improving a Masterpiece

By William Zinsser | September 9, 2011


“I should like very much to talk with you,” George Gershwin wrote in 1932 to DuBose Heyward, co-author with his wife Dorothy Heyward of the Broadway play Porgy, about a community of Negroes in the Heywards’ hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. “In thinking of ideas for new compositions,” Gershwin wrote, “I come back to one I had several years ago—namely, PORGY—and the thought of setting it to music.” He asks Heyward to call him collect at Trafalgar 7-0727 in Manhattan.

It would be several years before legal details with the Theatre Guild fell into place and Gershwin could commit himself to the 11 months of composition and nine months of orchestration he would need to adapt Porgy into the folk opera Porgy and Bess. He welcomed Heyward as his librettist and co-lyricist, the other being his brother Ira Gershwin. Together the three men created a work that is the Mount Everest of the American musical theater, admired throughout the world for its beauty and dramatic power.

But now it turns out that Porgy and Bess needs improving. A new production, dubiously called The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ (what became of Heyward?), just opened at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It stars Audra McDonald as Bess and is Broadway-bound in December. The troupe’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, according to an interview in The New York Times, is attempting “to turn that heartbreaking 1935 opera into a commercial Broadway musical.” She and her writing collaborator, the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, “have also created scenes, invented biographical details … and added a more hopeful ending. … Ms. Paulus is assessing it virtually line by line to judge whether heightened musicality or newly punched-up dialogue works best—resulting in a kind of hybrid.”

I never thought I’d hear of anyone trying to heighten Gershwin’s musicality. Please, God, don’t let Ms. Paulus get her hands on La Boheme.

Porgy and Bess doesn’t need any punching-up. It strikes me as both arrogant and patronizing to try to popularize a show so scrupulously conceived as a unified work of art. For Gershwin the opera was a hugely ambitious achievement. His score is a marvel. Many of the songs are breathtakingly beautiful (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?”). Many are highly infectious (“I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing”), and “Summertime” is the classic American lullaby.

But Gershwin’s whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. With his densely textured scoring and often-violent undercurrent of rhythm and his connective use of Negro street cries, chants, and chorales, he aspired to capture the everyday life of a community of Gullah Negroes living in a place called Catfish Row.

To immerse himself in that culture Gershwin moved for the summer of 1934 into a shack on nearby Folly Island, where the people spoke the Gullah dialect and used forms of singing and storytelling that still existed in the African countries from which their ancestors were brought as slaves to work the cotton, rice, and indigo plantations.

“To George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration,” DuBose Heyward later recalled. “The Gullah Negro prides himself on what he calls ‘shouting,’ a complicated rhythmic pattern beaten out by the feet and the hands as an accompaniment of the spirituals. I shall never forget the night when, at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island, George started ‘shouting’ with them and eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’”

For the lyricists Heyward and Ira Gershwin it was an ideal pairing of two writers who loved the play of words, each bringing strengths to the task that the other didn’t possess. Heyward’s are the “poetic” songs like “Summertime,” rich in Southern imagery. Few American lyrics are so fondly remembered:

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.

Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.

Ira Gershwin couldn’t have written that lyric—he didn’t know anything about fish and cotton—and Heyward couldn’t have written “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Sportin’ Life’s sardonic reminder that the things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible aren’t necessarily to be believed. But mainly the lyrics were a collaboration, the novice Heyward grateful for Ira’s vast experience and skill, Ira grateful for Heyward’s knowledge of the Negro community and its vernacular. The result is a body of lyrics that are an ornament of American popular literature.

So don’t mess with it.

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