One of my favorite classes this semester is called Survey of Theater & Drama. The class tracks the development of theater from ancient religious rituals to theater in the 21st Century. As part of the class, we are studying the origins of the American musical. One of the musicals that we are looking at is George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 musical Porgy and Bess.Originally conceived by George Gershwin as an “American folk opera,” Porgy and Bess has become a musical theater class. The musical tells the story of African-American life in the fictitious Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s. Since it’s premier in 1935, the musical has been controversial for its two-dimensional depiction of African-American life in the early 20th Century.
This January, a revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess—directed by Diane Paulus and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks—opened on Broadway. This revised production is noticeable for Paulus and Parks’ attempt to introduce the work to the newest generation of theatergoers by altering the opera’s plot, dialogue, and score. Paulus and Parks made these changes to make the characters more human and sympathetic to a modern audience. Instead of depicting the characters as caricatures, Norm Lewis (Porgy), Audra McDonald (Bess), and the rest of the cast played the story as a deeply felt human drama.
When my class learned that Porgy and Bess would be moving to Broadway, we knew we had to go. We asked our professor if we could take a field trip. Fortunately, our professor said yes and Yale was able to fully subsidize the cost of the tickets. As someone who enjoys theater, I was excited to see a live production of Porgy and Bess because it would enable me to include an analysis of the actor’s performances, the set design, the costume design, and the choreography in my class’ discussion on the musical’s book, score, and lyrics.
A week later, thirteen of us met up on Yale’s Old Campus and headed to the train station. Two hours later, we were in the middle of Times Square. As a native New York City, I often take the city for granted. Since several of my classmates had never been to New York City before, I was able to lead my friends through the tourist-filled streets. Exploring Times Square through the eyes of a tourist reminded me what I love about home. Given how easy it is to travel from New Haven to New York (train tickets are affordable and Yale provides a free shuttle that runs between campus and the train station), we decided to return in future weeks to explore the city again.
After spending some time in Times Square, we made our way to the theater. The show was absolutely incredible. All of the actors were so talented and the orchestra was spectacular. It’s one thing to read about a musical. It’s an entirely different thing to see it actually performed live—especially on Broadway! For example, many people are familiar with the song, “Summertime,” made popular by Ella Fitzgerald. Seeing the song performed in the context of Porgy and Bess, (where it originated), added new meaning to the words.
By midnight we were back on Yale’s campus. I couldn’t believe that within the span of eight hours I had traveled to New York City, explored Times Square, seen a Broadway show, and come back to campus. Although I have attended several other performances on Broadway in the past, I really enjoyed being able to share this experience with my classmates. On our way back to campus, we spent the entire train ride talking about our impressions of the show. Although we each held our own opinions about musical, we all agreed that we would always remember our experience of seeing Porgy and Bess together as Yalies.