“Summertime and the living is easy…” That is, of course, the beginning of “Summertime,” the song which is the most recorded in Broadway history, Sumayya Ali told me. Porgy and Bess, the show it comes from, is stopping at the National Theatre as part of the tour of the recent Tony-winning (Best Revival of a Musical) Broadway production. When I asked Ali how she felt about opening the show with that famous song, she answered: “It’s an honor.” It should feel like pressure, but it doesn’t: “it’s liberating. I open my heart and tell the story.” It’s a lullaby, she told me, and she uses the song to “invite them [the audience] into the magical world of Catfish Row; invite them in, set them up with love and the warmth in your voice…then, get ready for the roller coaster.”
Porgy and Bess is not just any play, or musical, or opera. It’s replete with history. And Washington, DC played a part in that history. And Ali, who is returning to her hometown, is very aware of that history. In fact, she feels a very personal connection to it.
The history begins with George Gershwin and his musical ambitions. Though this greatest of early 20th Century American composers had ventured with great success into longer forms and into concert halls with his “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Concerto in F,” and the “An American in Paris” suite, his writing for theatre had mainly consisted of traditional “show tunes,” much more memorable than the shows they were in. By choosing a story set in an African-American enclave, he brought African-American influences, already felt in popular music, into the score of an opera, one of the most rarefied of art forms. Not incidentally, he also provided roles for classically trained African-American singers at a time when opportunities weren’t plentiful.
But fast forward several decades: “I was hired on opening night,” Ali told me. They needed another actor to “cover the principals.” In other words, someone to understudy Serena and Clara, among other roles. Oh, and Bess, too. Ali went in for the audition in the morning. Two hours later, she got the call offering her the job. That night, she watched the show, met its star, Audra McDonald, went to the opening night party, and, the next day, started rehearsal. She told me that those 24 hours could best be described as “surreal.” (The production had originated at New Haven’s American Repertory Theater; settling in for a months-long New York run would inevitably require some re-staffing.)
Two weeks later, Ali showed up at the theatre, all the actors in all the roles she covered were there, and she was dismissed. Then someone got sick halfway through Act One, Ali got a text, and five minutes later she was back at the theatre, readying herself to go on as the Strawberry Lady.
I saw the revival on Broadway and was deeply moved by the production and by McDonald’s luminous performance as Bess. She’s not on the tour (I guess she’s busy climbing every mountain, grin), but Ali and I spent a part of our conversation extolling the virtues of that magnificent talent. Ali told me that she had gone to college to study music and to grad school to study vocal performance. Since she has been working in theatre, she has felt a desire to go back for an advanced degree in theatre, in order to “feel really legit.” However, working with McDonald and, before that, with Tyne Daly, with whom Ali did Master Class here at The Kennedy Center in 2010…well, as she puts it, “I learned so much from the experience of working with them; they were my grad school.”
Describing what she learned from McDonald as “immeasurable,” Ali said that with McDonald, “there is no such thing as 100%, it’s 150. She’s always going deeper, finding new colors, richness, details.” When I asked which roles Ali went on for, her answer was an example of McDonald’s inspiring commitment. “That’s the only one I covered that I didn’t go on for. Bess.”
Connections to Duke Ellington School of the Arts
Ali was in Dallas when we spoke, the second stop (San Francisco was the first) on the tour, DC being the third. It was in DC where Ali went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts. And it is the support of the teachers and the Ellington community that she credits for her career. Without them, she “wouldn’t be singing today.” And it is one teacher in particular who provides a very special link to this play and to its history.
Todd Duncan was the original actor to play Porgy, in New York and on a national tour the following year. In 1936, during a stop in DC at the very same National Theatre where it opens this week, Duncan and others in the cast (including Anne Brown, Duncan’s Bess) refused to do the show because of the National’s policy of segregating races. The protesting performers were threatened with penalties. Compromises (integrating Wednesday matinees or the second half of the balcony) were offered by management and rejected. Eventually, the actors were successful and, for the first time in the life of that historic theater, its audiences were integrated, albeit only for the run of that show.
Duncan, in addition to his performing career, was a Howard University professor. One of his students, Samuel L.E. Bonds, went on to join the faculty at Ellington, where he founded the show choir. It’s also where he met and mentored Sumayya Ali. Ali called Bonds one of Duncan’s “star pupils” and an “amazing man.” It was through Bonds that Ali got her first exposure to Porgy and Bess. Bonds, she continued, was “proud of his teacher” and “for me to carry on this legacy is very special to me.” The history of Porgy and Bess in DC “runs so deep, to come back to the same theatre, seventy-odd years later, means a lot to me, I’m really excited.”
Ali described Bonds, now retired, as “a second father to me.” She talked about his importance to her career path. She did not come to Ellington as a singer; she played the violin. Bonds heard her singing in the hallway and helped change her musical emphasis. She described a turning point. The kids are “insanely talented in that school” and so it was very meaningful when, in “a roomful of people,” he announced that Ali “had the potential to be a world-class singer.” Before that, “I had never thought I could do this for a living.” Epiphany: “I can do this.” Corollary: “There’s no way I would be doing this without him.” Addendum: “He does it for so many students.”
Diane Paulus and the Broadway production
Okay. Long runs, national tours. How involved is the original creative team after something opens on Broadway? I mean, it would be impossible for, say, Hal Prince to have even met everyone who’s done Phantom during its 27 year (and still counting) run(s), let alone to have rehearsed them all. Ali assured me, convincingly, that director Diane Paulus has treated the tour “like we were debuting on Broadway.” All the team are “very involved,” and she cited the original conductor (Constantine Kitsopoulos) and Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who, along with Paulus and Diedre Murray, “reimagined” the material.
It is Paulus (who just won a Tony for directing the revival of Pippin, still running on Broadway) about whom she particularly effused. Paulus, Ali told me, is hands on, is very specific, and is attentive to nuance. “God is in the details,” she quotes Paulus as saying frequently. She is “really, truly gifted.” With her, you never forget that the work is “sacred.” When receiving notes from her, Ali would wonder, “How do you know that about me,” so keen are Paulus’ perceptions. Her “heart is so pure,” she is so “honest,” she “cares about the story so much.”
Ali described Paulus as being interested in “spiritual growth, not just artistic” growth or achievement. “I can’t even explain the experience of working with her, I wish all actors could have an experience like that with directors.” As an actor, “you can’t see yourself,” she explained, so you are very dependent on the eye of your director. She then described how Paulus will “just sit back with this eye and watch how things become organic and truthful.”
As an example, Ali cited a rehearsal in which Paulus worked with her for half an hour on one moment, “how to build it up and make it organic.” As another example, she described a memorable note she received from Paulus: “Sometimes you just have to be and that’s enough. Be still.”
Paulus’ approach to Porgy and Bess did, however, create some controversy. The show was re-tooled a bit in hopes of placing it squarely in the category of theatre. Since its debut, it has straddled, uncomfortably at times, the worlds of theatre and opera. It was also rechristened The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. That rechristening was among the complaints Stephen Sondheim made in response to a pre-opening interview by Paulus and Parks in The New York Times. Sondheim felt that the vital contributions of DuBose Heyward were devalued by attributing the piece so prominently to the Geshwins. Heyward wrote the libretto, the lyrics in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, and the novel on which it is all based. Of course, there’s no Heyward Theatre on Broadway, but there is a Gershwin Theatre; Heyward doesn’t have the name recognition to rival that of his collaborators.
But Sondheim’s biggest gripes were with some tinkering with the original, the most radical of which (a contemplated ending that is more upbeat) was dropped before opening, and also with the tone of that Times interview, which he interpreted as Paulus and Parks speaking as if they were coming in to “fix” something Sondheim didn’t consider broken. The controversy blew over, the Broadway run was successful, and now that the show is on the road, Ali isn’t covering roles anymore, she’s opening the show and singing its most recognizable song.
Ali’s Broadway debut was in the production of Ragtime that began at the Kennedy Center before transferring to the Great White Way. “I transferred with it,” is the way she described her relocation, as she is now based in NYC. “I’m looking at her now,” she told me, when I asked if her daughter, who turns three on Dec. 22, was traveling with her. Of the roles she’s played/covered in Porgy and Bess, which is Ali’s favorite? That’s like “picking between children,” she told me, before choosing Bess. “She’s a survivor; she wants to be a better person.” The play demonstrates “how love can bring out the best in all of us,” how “we can change as people, the power of our being able to transform.” We are all guilty, she said, of making judgments: Bess is a drug addict and has been in abusive relationships, but we come to see who “she truly is under it all” and how she can “survive in spite of it.” And Bess finds “beauty in a crippled man.” It’s a “beautiful story.”
It’s so strange, in our time, when adolescence seems to last into one’s forties, to think how accomplished George Gershwin was during an appallingly short life that ended at 37. How enduring this gorgeous score is, how powerful the emotions it provokes in all who hear it, how inspiring a story that animates not only the joy, but the sorrow, of our world. S’wonderful.
Clara, the role Ali is playing now, is “a good woman as well” and, from the palpable enthusiasm Ali expresses when she talks about it, it’s clear that it is very satisfying for her to be doing that part, in that play, in this town. However, Ali is young, Porgy and Bess is enduring, there might well be a Bess, I venture to predict, in her future. “One of these days, you’re gonna rise up singing…”
The national Broadway tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opens at the National Theatre on Christmas Day, December 25th for 8 performances, closing December 29, 2013. Details and tickets
Post Script: On a break from the tour, Ali did a one-night performance of an evening of scenes from Nkeiru Okoye’s folk opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, co-produced with American Opera Projects. AOP develops contemporary opera work; if you saw Paul’s Case at UrbanArias last Spring, for instance, you saw something that had been developed by AOP. As it happens, I’m close to AOP’s General Director, Charles Jarden, who described Ali, in an e-mail, as “a force of nature on stage…you have to watch her through the whole performance playing Harriet Tubman, but here is a link to one of the final moments.” So, courtesy of AOP, here’s a taste of our homegrown talent, in a somewhat different vein:
One last post script: The efforts by Duncan et al in 1936 didn’t last, and material provided by current management of the National Theatre reports that follow-up efforts led by First Lady of the American Theatre Helen Hayes and Richard L. Coe, long-time drama critic at The Washington Post, resulted not in a policy of integrated audiences, but in the closing of the theatre by a resistant management based in New York. (It showed movies for about five years while it was dark for live performance. It’s where my Dad saw Sunset Boulevard.) It reopened with Ethel Merman (Call Me Madam) in 1952, and later that year, another production of Porgy And Bess played to an integrated audience, its memorable cast led by William Warfield (Joe in the 1951 film of Showboat) and the renowned diva Leontyne Price in the title roles, with the legendary Cab Calloway playing Sportin’ Life (and getting billed significantly more prominently than Price!).