December 10, 2019

‘Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ bringing plenty of updates to L.A.

Springtime, and the music is changing at the Ahmanson. This month will see the departure of Barry Manilow’s lushly scored and heavily Jewish “Harmony” from the Center Theatre Group’s biggest venue, and the arrival of a decidedly more classic production, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” In many ways it’s a fitting transition, the new-school Jewish popular-music composer giving way to his old-school influences — heck, Manilow once played a show called “Barry Manilow at the Gershwin.” But as Ira Gershwin’s nephew, and the trustee of his estate, tells it, this is anything but your grandma’s “Porgy and Bess.”

Michael Strunsky was never a musician. “I can’t play the piano — God, I wish I could,” he said in a recent phone call from his home in San Francisco. But he always knew that music would play a special role in his life. Ira Gershwin, like his brother, George, never had any children, and so Strunsky, the son of Ira’s wife Lenore’s brother, was in many ways the closest thing Ira had to a son.  

As Strunsky tells it, his relationship with Ira often had less to do with music and more to do with things like politics, and even the race track. “The thing we did together very often was go to the horse races on Saturday afternoon, which he loved,” Strunsky said. “Ira was, by his very nature, very shy. He loved to be in a room crowded with people and sit in a corner and watch and listen.”

Ira was never religious, according to Strunsky, but he was thoroughly aware of his Jewishness. “Michael Tilson Thomas tells me that his grandfather told him that Ira was bar-mitzvahed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that George was bar-mitzvahed,” Strunsky said. “They both certainly identified themselves as Jews, but I do know that Ira, in all of the years that I’d known him, never went to temple.” But Ira confronted his Judaism in other ways, seeking out Jewish composers who’d fled Europe during the Holocaust, like Kurt Weill, for collaborations. And George clearly knew his way around Jewish music — “It Ain’t Necessarily So” contains strong echoes of a Torah blessing.

It wasn’t until Ira’s death in 1983 that music began to take on a much bigger role in Strunsky’s life.  He’d been a businessman for most of his 50 years, constructing large commercial properties as a general contractor in San Francisco, but when his uncle died, his aunt Lenore found herself increasingly unable to take on the affairs of the lucrative estate. Strunsky became the co-trustee, and then the sole trustee upon Lenore’s death in 1991. And so, for the past 20-plus years, a life that was once about construction has become a life about music and, most important, lyrics.

“As we get further and further from the time these guys lived and worked, there’s a natural forgetfulness in the population,” Strunsky said. “What I do … is to keep it [the music] alive, and the way we do that mostly is by finding ways to present the music in Broadway shows.”

The idea to bring to Broadway a reimagined “Porgy and Bess,” based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel “Porgy” and written as an opera in 1934, first came about in the early 1990s, according to Strunsky. He was working on a project with British director Trevor Nunn, and the two began talking about the piece, which tells the story of the fictional denizens of Catfish Row, an African-American neighborhood in 1920s Charleston, S.C. Although it took more than a decade for Nunn’s and Strunsky’s plan to come to fruition, the show eventually opened in 2006 at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End. Although it was a critical success, the show didn’t do as well at the box office. “The British really didn’t understand the black experience,” said Strunsky, “so it didn’t do too well commercially, but it taught us a lot.”

Strunsky felt that the show needed a new book. Director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks came on board to hammer out what became a controversial new version of the show. No less a musical authority than Stephen Sondheim was highly critical of Paulus’ and Parks’ changes. “To begin with, the title of the show is now ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’ ” Sondheim wrote to The New York Times. “I assume that’s in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart ‘Porgy and Bess’ that was coming to town. But what happened to DuBose Heyward? Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone (‘Summertime,’ ‘My Man’s Gone Now’) or co-written with Ira Gershwin (‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’). If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Despite Sondheim’s vigorous objection, and grumblings from some others, the show opened on Broadway in 2012 with Audra McDonald as Bess. It had been trimmed from the opera’s near three-and-a-half-hour running time, to a leanrt two hours and 40 minutes, and several scenes had been reworked. The reimagined version won the Tony Award for best revival of a musical and also snagged McDonald a Tony for her performance in the lead role. (Alicia Hall Moran stars as Bess in the Ahmanson Theatre production.)

Strunsky is proud of the newly redone work. “We’re doing it because this marvelous music, trapped in an opera, is played in big opera houses, usually seven performances in a city, and done usually as opera is, financed by generous donations and extremely high ticket prices. This is the kind of show that brings in American audiences. This is a piece of Americana.”

Strunsky is also heartened by what he sees as a growing acceptance by the African-American community of the show, which in the past has been accused of racism. “ ‘Porgy and Bess’ [has] two murders and a drug addiction … and the feeling among the black community in those days was that ‘Porgy and Bess’ was presenting the black community as immoral. … It’s only really been in the last 15, 20 years that the black community has more and more embraced this.”  

Strunsky also believes the reimagined show is more sensitive to the black experience in America, making it more acceptable to the black community. “In the opera, Porgy is asked by the policeman to identify Crown at the police station after Crown is killed, and Porgy objects to doing it, but the police insist, and they take him off. Then, [when] they bring him back onstage, Porgy brings with him gifts for some of the residents of Catfish Row. In our production, Porgy is dragged to the police station and then dragged back and thrown into Catfish Row by the police. Now, you know as well as I do, that’s what would have happened in 1930. … He wouldn’t have come back in a jovial mood with a red dress for Bess, a harmonica for Scipio, and a hat for Maria. That would not have happened in 1930,” Strunsky explained.

For his part, Strunsky is thrilled to see the show come to Los Angeles. “It’s a much more exciting theatrical piece than the opera. The opera is an exercise in marvelous voices and marvelous music.” The new version, Strunsky hopes, will be less of an exercise and more of a joy for those who come to see it.

 “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on April 23 and runs through June 1. For tickets and more information, visit this story at