August 30, 2012
Guests: Audra McDonald â David Alan Grier
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess" will have its final Broadway performance September 23rd. So with just a few weeks remaining, we're going to hear from Audra McDonald, who won a Tony for her performance as Bess. The production won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
The opera "Porgy and Bess" was written by George and Ira Gershwin and DeBose Hayward. Although it's an opera, it's given us songs that have become pop standards, like "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York," and "I Loves You, Porgy."
"Porgy and Bess" debuted on Broadway in 1935. It's set in a fictional, poor, African-American fishing community named Catfish Row on the South Carolina coast. Three characters disrupt the order of this hardworking community: Bess and her man, a stevedore named Crown; and Sportin' Life, a pimp and drug dealer.
When Crown kills a man in a fight and hides out from the law, Bess needs a man, so she takes up with Porgy, who is crippled and thinks of himself as less than a man. It's an act of convenience for her, but she falls in love with him. Here's the song in which they declare their love for each other, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." Singing with Audra McDonald is Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PORGY AND BESS")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BESS, YOU IS MY WOMAN NOW")
AUDRA MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) Porgy, I's yo' woman now, I is, I is. An' I ain't never goin' nowhere 'less you shares the fun. Dere's no wrinkle on my brow, nohow, 'cause I ain't goin'. You hear me sayin', if you ain' goin', wid you I'm stayin'. Porgy, I's yo' woman now. I's yours forever, mornin' time an' evenin' time, summer time an' winter time.
NORM LEWIS: (As Porgy) (Singing) Mornin' time an' evenin' time an' summer time an' winter time. Bess, you got yo' man.
AUDRA MCDONALD AND NORM LEWIS: (As Bess and Porgy) (Singing) (Unintelligible).
MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) Mornin' time an' evenin' time, summer time an' winter time.
LEWIS: (As Porgy) (Singing) Mornin' time an' evenin' time an' summer time an' winter time.
GROSS: Audra McDonald, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your performance. It's such a magnificent score. I know so many of the songs as pop songs. It's really so wonderful to hear them performed in the context of the opera. Would you just tell us, like, your personal history of "Porgy and Bess," what this opera, what the songs from it mean in your musical and personal autobiography?
MCDONALD: Well, Terry, my experience with "Porgy and Bess" goes back to when I was a child, and my parents had the Leontyne Price-William Warfield record, with Leontyne being very sassy on the cover in her red dress. And I listened to that a lot. And they also had the Houston Grand Opera recording with Clamma Dale and Donnie Ray Albert.
And then I went to Julliard, and while I was studying there, I was very depressed because I was studying classically, classic voice, and I was missing Broadway and thinking that's what I wanted to do, I wanted to do musical theater, but here I was studying classically and feeling like I was missing something.
And then I happened upon the Glyndebourne production of "Porgy and Bess" that had just been released, the recording has just been released with Cynthia Haymon as Bess. And I listened to it incessantly. I memorized it from top to bottom and thought wow, well, if I have to sing opera, here's one I'd love to sing, and here's a role I'd love to play.
And I had a friend who was in that particular recording, in that production and on the recording, and he was a teacher's assistant at Julliard in my ear-training class, and he was married to Cynthia Haymon. And I asked - he played Mingo.
And I asked him about it, and he told me all about working with Simon Rattle and how incredible the experience was. I said: What about Bess? And he said: It's a voice-killer. He said it's a very difficult role and a voice-killer. And I remember hearing that, just going whoa.
GROSS: Is he right? Is it a voice-killer?
MCDONALD: It's pretty close. It's very difficult. There's very few quiet moments for Bess. They're all very big, very emotional and very rangy, and to commit to that night after night after night is very difficult.
GROSS: Can you just give us an example of one of the twists in one of the songs that makes it so difficult?
MCDONALD: As a good example, I would use "What You Want With Bess," where she's singing with Crown, and she's on Kittiwah Island, and she's trying to get away from him so she can catch that boat and get back to Catfish Row. And she's struggling to get him off of her, and she has been singing in her middle voice, like...
(Singing) Now and forever, he can't live without me, he would die without me. Crown, won't you let me go?
And it's fairly loud, but it's in a duet moment. And then after all of that struggle, at the very, very end of the duet, she has to hit her highest, hardest moment. And there's been so much physical struggle that has happened up and to that point that by the time you get to that moment, for me I feel like I have run a marathon, and that's when I have to hit my highest, you know, longest sustained note, and it about kills me every night.
And I always wonder am I going to get there, am I going to hit some note a fourth lower? I never know. It makes the moment exciting for me because it's a challenge.
GROSS: Have you ever missed that note in a performance?
MCDONALD: Oh yes, it happens. Doing a Broadway show eight times a week, everything happens.
MCDONALD: And yes, I have missed the note. I've gone too high.
MCDONALD: And I've not gone high enough. And then on other nights, I actually hit the note.
GROSS: Well, you know, I love that song, and I love the performance of the song on the new cast recording. And, you know, it's interesting because this has become one of my favorite songs from the show, again this is a duet between you and Crown, and Crown is the man you've been with for several years at this point, and he's this, like, really hulking kind of guy.
I mean, he's a big man, a really strong man and a very tough man. And I think it's probably fair to say your character's been a prostitute over the years, and she's kind of getting older and feeling kind of used up. And so she's - she at this point wants to get back to Porgy, but Crown, who has committed murder and is hiding out from the law, wants Bess to come back with him, with Crown.
So your character Bess is trying to get away from Crown. He's trying to grab her. And eventually you give in.
MCDONALD: Bess gives in for a couple of reasons. Of course there is a huge sexual attraction to Crown. There has been from the beginning. And also, Crown is someone who has, you know, for better or for worse taken care of her. But she spends the entire scene trying to get away from him. The whole song is saying won't you let me go, I belong to Porgy now, I'm for him.
And physically, and just through argument, she's been trying to get away from him, and she finally just gives in because she's fought him off. She realizes the boat has left without her, and she's given up basically. So she just succumbs out of hopelessness, actually.
GROSS: OK, so let's hear an excerpt that will include the ending of "What You Want With Bess," and this is my guest Audra McDonald, and Phillip Boykin is Crown from the new Broadway cast recording of "Porgy and Bess."
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PORGY AND BESS")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT YOU WANT WITH BESS")
MCDONALD: (As Bess) Crown, let me go. You can get plenty of other women.
PHILLIP BOYKIN: (As Crown) (Singing) What I want with other women? I got a woman, and that's you, see.
MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) What you want with Bess? She getting old now. It takes a fine young gal for to satisfy Crown. Look at this chest, and look at these arms you got. You know how it always been with me, dese five years I been yo' woman.
(As Bess) (Singing) You could kick me in the street, and when you wanted me back, you could whistle, and dere I was, back again, lickin' yo' hand. There's plenty better lookin' gal than Bess.
BOYKIN: (As Crown) (Singing) What I want with other women? I got a woman, and that is you, Bess.
AUDRA MCDONALD AND PHILLIP BOYKIN: (As Bess and Crown) (Singing) (unintelligible).
MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) What you want with Bess? Let me go, Crown, the boat.
BOYKIN: (As Crown) You ain't goin' nowhere.
MCDONALD: (As Bess) Get your hands off me. Get your hands off me.
BOYKIN: (As Crown) Come on, Bess. Bess.
GROSS: That's my guest Audra McDonald as Bess with Phillip Boykin as Crown in the new Broadway cast recording of "Porgy and Bess."
You know what I often wonder? Like when you're singing, you know, at full throttle in a duet, like you do with "What You Want With Bess" in "Porgy and Bess," and you and Crown are singing opposite each other, I just think, like, the airwaves must be pulsing so much because you're very physically close together, and you're both singing full-out, heavy volume, and, you know, it fills the theater.
Can you, like, physically feel each other's voices?
MCDONALD: Absolutely. Not only that, it's a strange sensation because your head is filled with so much sound, and there's so much sound - I mean, for me when I'm singing with Phillip it's because he's got such a big, ginormous, rich voice. This is going to not make sense, but I can't hear. It all becomes sensation. Like I physically cannot actually hear what's going on. It becomes just what's the sensation in my body and around me.
But because of all that sound, and then the blood is pumping, and you're, you know, you feel the sound vibrating, a normal sense of hearing kind of goes out the window, and it becomes more about sensation.
GROSS: My guest is Audra McDonald. She won a Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Audra McDonald. She won a Tony for her performance as Bess in "Porgy and Bess." Now, in our previous interview, which was recorded I think around 2000....
MCDONALD: Oh, it's been that long?
GROSS: Yeah, too long. So you were saying that when you really young, you wanted to audition for "Showboat," and your parents said to you no, the characters in that are stereotypical African-Americans. The songs are very nice, but you shouldn't be a part of that production.
GROSS: And so you didn't audition. And it is a great show, I think.
MCDONALD: It's a beautiful show, absolutely.
GROSS: Yeah, with magnificent songs. But anyways, you know, I understand what they meant by that. Did you have any of that feeling at all about "Porgy and Bess," or are you, like, completely - obviously the show means so much to you and always has. Any reservations at all about the way the characters in it are portrayed?
MCDONALD: Well of course, and I'm not the first person to say this that, you know, regardless of the fact that DuBose Heyward - and he did do something incredibly revolutionary by portraying, especially at that time, when the novel was written, these characters in a way that was considered incredibly humane and three-dimensional and, you know, really trying to be an insider's look at this life and not just having African-Americans as an outsider that comes into, you know, a story that's based on Caucasian people, just as servants or whatnot.
He really tried to get into their mindset and their daily lives and their hopes and their dreams, and so that was an incredible feat at that time period. But it was still written at a time where blacks and whites were not commingling. It wasn't even legal.
So even though he researched as much as he possibly could, there were still just some aspects that he couldn't possibly know. He didn't live it, and it wasn't a time when blacks and whites could commingle so he could really experience it.
But people through the history of this piece have come down on both sides saying, you know, this is stereotypical, and this is archetypes. Sidney Poitier had an issue with having to do this, to play Porgy in the movie. Famous social historians have talked about it, Harold Cruse.
Grace Bumbry, who was the first person to sing Bess at the Met, when the Met finally did "Porgy and Bess" in, I think, 1985, with Simon Estes, and she had issues with it, as well.
So yes, I saw that there were issues that I had concerns with, but at the same time, I thought there was a lot to work with and help sort of fill in, I guess, to make these characters as human as possible and not just stereotypes. And for me, the manna was going back to the novel.
I found so much information about Bess that was left out of the opera...
GROSS: Yeah, we should explain that DuBose Heyward wrote a novel called "Porgy" that - and then did a play called "Porgy" and then...
MCDONALD: Yes because of his wife Dorothy. Dorothy was the one who pushed him to turn it into a play, and she co-wrote the play with him. And the play was very successful, and then George Gershwin got a hold of the play and the book and said I want to do this.
But a lot of stuff was left out of the opera that was - a lot of historical information about these particularly characters, you know, that I thought was incredibly useful. It was actually very helpful to go back to the novel.
GROSS: So give us an example of something that you thought that was maybe a little problematic or stereotyped or, you know, not fully formed in the opera that you feel you were able to bring something to and be more expansive about because you read the novel so many times and got to know Bess as she was described in the novel.
MCDONALD: Bess just kind of pops on the scene, and we know very little about her history. We know very little about Crown's history. But in the novel, DuBose Heyward gives us a lot more sort of clues into Bess, for example that she has a scar, this ugly scar on her left cheek.
When we first see her, she - I don't know the exact quote, but it's something about, you know, the eyes of utter degradation, the acid of utter degradation was in her face. Throughout the novel, we find out that she's been struggling with her, you know, addiction to happy dust for a while. In the novel, she gets into a fistfight with the women of Catfish Row because she gets high on happy dust.
She gets thrown into jail. While she's in jail, they say that they've seen her before in that jail, the white cops, like we've seen her before. It's hard to tell with these women, but we're pretty sure we've seen her before. A lot of these things, for me it was just, like oh, well, that's a bit of a background.
We see that she's very haughty in her carriage even though she's a dog in the way she's treated. There's still a haughtiness to her carriage. So all of that just gave teeny, tiny little clues, you know.
GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned the scar on her face because as I recall, I saw the opening night of the previews in Boston, and then I saw it on Broadway about, I don't know, a few weeks after it opened. And I didn't remember seeing a scar in Boston; I did remember seeing it on Broadway, but I think I only saw it, like in the first act. Did it fall off one night?
MCDONALD: Oh, that's interesting. No, no, it's a solution. No.
GROSS: Did it heal? OK...
MCDONALD: It's a solution that you wipe on your face that then dries and grabs your skin and pulls it together. So it looks like your skin has been indented and cut. So it's - we experimented with different placement in Cambridge, and we found that in Cambridge, we were placing it in a place that was too in line with my cheekbones. So it just looked like, you know, like I had really great cheekbones or something.
MCDONALD: So we had to change the placement to make sure that it read more as a scar. And throughout the show, I start out very heavily made-up, and I take lots of my make-up off as the show goes along. So maybe it starts to look a little lighter because the rouge comes off, the heavy eye make-up comes off. So by the end, Bess has no makeup on at all, not even any lipstick.
She goes - as she's sort of transforming into, you know, a softer woman, she loses all that harshness.
GROSS: Ah, OK.
MCDONALD: The solution is really hard on my skin. So I have to keep switching it. So people who have seen the show a couple times say wait a minute. It's like the hump. What hump? That hump was on the other side. The scar keeps kind of switching cheeks.
GROSS: We'll hear more from Audra McDonald in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Audra McDonald. She won her fifth Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." Her other Tonys were for her performances in "Carousel," "Ragtime," "Master Class" and "A Raisin in the Sun." "Porgy and Bess'" closing performance is September 23rd.
Let's hear another song from the new cast recording of "Porgy and Bess." And this time, I think we should hear, like, what's probably the most famous song as a pop song with a life independent from the opera or show, and that's "Summertime."
Now, "Summertime" is first sung by the character of Clara, but you get to reprise it later in the show. And you sing it quite beautifully. And as we'll hear, in this production, there's an accordion behind you, which I think is very effective.
GROSS: This show - this song has been sung so many, so many, so many, so many times...
MCDONALD: Yes. Yes. It's I think it's the...
GROSS: ...in every context imaginable.
MCDONALD: It's the most-covered song, I think...
GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.
MCDONALD: ...American song we have.
GROSS: And I'm sure you want to bring something fresh to it when you're singing it, you know, in this production. How did you approach the song so that...
GROSS: ...you know, seriously, so that...
MCDONALD: No. No. No. I'm laughing because, yes, I did want to bring something fresh to it. But in terms of, like, being another very difficult moment for me, I've been doing an entire night of heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, hard, hard, hard, full-throttle singing. And then the last, sort of, melody that I have to sing in the show after an entire night screaming and being raped and being kicked and beaten and all this stuff is "Summertime," and it's a lullaby and it's high and it has to be quiet and pretty and sung to a baby. And it freaks me out every night, because like, oh, after all this I've got to sound high and pretty and fresh...
MCDONALD: And I'm always, you know, right before the moment, holding onto that baby, going OK, I know you're just a doll, but help me.
MCDONALD: But yeah, you know, it's - I love it because, you know, it's a moment, it's a happy moment for Bess. It's a tentative happy moment for Bess, where she's embracing motherhood. She now has this child. She really feels like she's going to be able to have the happy ending. She thinks Crown is dead. She...
GROSS: And it's another woman's child, another woman who has died. Yeah.
MCDONALD: It's another woman's child who has died. But that woman has handed that child to Bess and said you take care of my baby until I get back - actually, a side note. This is something that we borrowed from the novel, as well. So in the opera, of course, we hear Bess, take care of my baby for me till I get back. In the novel, a couple of days, I think, after the storm, where the young lady is lost and Bess now has the baby, some of the other ladies of Catfish Row try and come and take the baby from Bess.
And Bess says to them: Has Clara come back from the dead? No, she hasn't. What were her last words? Her last words were for me to take care of this baby. So until she comes back from the dead and says someone else take care of this baby, this baby belongs to me.
We thought that was a really powerful thing. And so Suzan-Lori Parks added that to our show, which is not - those words, or that scene, is not in the opera, but we thought that was a very powerful and an important thing to add, to see that, you know, Bess says no, no, no. This is mine - which I think really shows that she wants this and she's going to hold onto this.
So "Summertime," for me, is knowing that she's got to quiet this baby and trying to bond with this baby and making sure that Porgy feels a part of this family, and just really trying to create her little family now. She's got this family for the first time in her life. It's something safe and warm, and that's kind of how I'm approaching the song when I sing it to the baby.
GROSS: So is it - was...
MCDONALD: And it all goes to hell.
MCDONALD: Crown comes back. It all goes to hell.
GROSS: Was it easier to sing "Summertime" on the cast recording, because it's not the end of a really long, hard night of singing?
MCDONALD: No, because we did it after the end of a very long, hard night of recording the album. We recorded the album in two days, so...
GROSS: Oh, gosh. OK.
MCDONALD: But, you know, in some sense, yes, it was, because I could just stand there in the booth and focus, you know, in my mind and stand still and not have to worry about, you know, anything else but the moment. And I could do three or four or five or six or 5,000 takes until I got it right.
GROSS: OK. So here's Audra McDonald singing "Summertime" from the new cast recording of the Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")
MCDONALD: (as Bess) (Singing) Summertime, and the livin' is easy. Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-lookin'. So hush, little baby. Don't you cry. Don't you cry.
GROSS: That's Audra McDonald on the new cast recording of "Porgy and Bess," from the new Broadway production.
So after the show opened, you were on "The Colbert Report."
GROSS: And you sang a duet of "Porgy and Bess" with Stephen Colbert.
GROSS: And I'm just going to play a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")
STEPHEN COLBERT: (Singing) One of these mornings, you're going to rise up singing.
MCDONALD: (Singing) Ooh.
COLBERT: (Singing) Then you'll spread your wings...
MCDONALD: (Singing) Spread your wings.
COLBERT: (Singing) ...and you'll take to the sky.
MCDONALD: (Singing) Ooh.
COLBERT: (Singing) But until that morning...
MCDONALD: (Singing) Tell your story, whitey.
COLBERT: (Singing) ...there's nothing can harm you.
STEPHEN COLBERT AND AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Ooh, with daddy and mama standing by. Oh, standing by.
COLBERT: Audra McDonald...
GROSS: OK. So that's Audra McDonald and Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report." That was so much fun. So how did you and Stephen Colbert work out how you were going to do "Summertime"?
MCDONALD: Well, it was not planned. That's the funny thing. I went in to do a sound check. And it was on my day off, so it was a Monday, and I was feeling a little exhausted after singing eight shows and knowing that I had to come in and sing "Summertime" on TV in a pretty dress. And I love "The Colbert Report." I love Stephen Colbert, and I watch "The Colbert Report" religiously.
So, in the sound check, you know, I was singing. And then he came in during the sound check and he listened, and then he was very complimentary afterwards. And I just said, man, I wish you'd sing this with me. Come on. He was, like, what? I was like come on. He was like, uh - because he kind of started singing along a little bit as a joke. I was, like, seriously. You want to sing this with me?
He was, like, well, what would I do? So I was, like, you will? You will? So I said, will you just come in and sing? He's like all right, all right. So he's talking to the pianist like, OK, tell me what to sing. Tell me what to sing. And so it just kind of happened on the fly in the sound check, and then he said, OK. I'll do it.
But the whole tell your story, whitey, that just kind of came out in the moment in the interview, because you don't really do a pre-interview with Steve, you know. You just start the interview. And so in the interview he had said to me, in talking about what's politically correct, he's like, you know, making a joke about saying, you know, we don't like to be called that.
You can call us - I can't remember what he said - or white or whitey, but that's what we like to call each other. You can't call me whitey, but, whatever. So then I just ran with it and said it when we were singing.
GROSS: Well, that was very funny.
MCDONALD: He's such a fantastic man.
GROSS: That was very, very funny.
MCDONALD: It was so much fun. Yeah, it was fun.
GROSS: Audra McDonald. She won a Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." Our interview was recorded last May.
Coming up, David Alan Grier talks about playing Sporting Life in "Porgy and Bess." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: The final performance of "Porgy and Bess" is September 23rd. So before time runs out, we're listening back to interviews with a couple of the stars. David Alan Grier was nominated for a Tony for his performance as the drug dealer and pimp Sporting Life. He gets to sing two of the songs that have become pop standards. "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" and "It Ain't Necessarily So."
David Alan Grier first became known for his work on the sketch comedy TV show "In Living Color." He got his start on Broadway in a musical about Jackie Robinson, which got him his first Tony nomination. The second was for his performance in the David Mamet play "Race."
Here's Grier as Sporting Life trying to convince Bess to come with him to New York and leave Catfish Row and Porgy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S A BOAT THAT'S LEAVING SOON FOR NEW YORK")
DAVID ALAN GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York. Come wid me, dat's where you belong, sister. You an' me kin live dat high life in New York. Come wid me, dere you can't go wrong, sister. I'll buy you de swellest mansion up on upper Fifth Avenue. And through Harlem you'll go struttin', you'll go astruttin', an' dere'll be nuttin' too good for you.
(as Sporting Life) (Singing) You'll dress the rich in silks and satins, just like the Paris styles. And all the blues you'll be forgettin', you'll be forgettin', there'll be no frettin', just nothin' but smiles. Come along wid me, dat's de place, don't be a fool, come along, come along.
(as Sporting Life) (Singing) There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York. Come with me, dat's where you belong, sister. That's where you belong. Come on, Bess.
GROSS: David Alan Grier, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
GRIER: Thank you.
GROSS: Really loved your performance on the show.
GRIER: Thank you.
GROSS: You know, I interviewed Audra McDonald recently about playing Bess, and she said that, you know, she always loved the song "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" as a song, just an independent song, and always though oh, it's about this guy who's inviting a woman to go to New York and lead a more glamorous life. He wants to buy her things. Isn't that great?
But hearing it in the show, you know, this guy is really trying to seduce her into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. He wants to be her pimp and control her. Did the meaning of the song change for you when you joined the cast and started singing the song?
GRIER: Absolutely. My relationship to "Porgy and Bess," coming into this production, was one of I've never seen the opera. I have sketches of the movie in my head. So remembering those patches of the movie as a child, I thought happy dust was like fairy dust, you know, like is a magician, Sporting Life, is he - you know, what exactly is he doing, because I was too young to really understand who and what this man was, this character was.
GROSS: What meaning did "Porgy and Bess" have for you when you were growing up? How aware of it were you?
GRIER: You know, this whole production has been so strange. You know, I was talking to my brother, my older brother about "Porgy and Bess" when we first started. We did a workshop in New York, and he said, well, you know dad was obsessed with "Porgy and Bess," and I'm like what?
I'm the youngest of three kids. So I'm 55 now, which means when the movie came out, I was really little. I was like, what, three years old. So I had - that's what I mean, I don't have any memory of it. I've never seen the opera. And he goes oh, yeah, dad loves - I'm like: Why would he be obsessed with "Porgy and Bess"?
And he goes: Well - you know, my father contracted polio on a troop train in Korea. He's a retired psychiatrist. And all of a sudden, it's like this huge thing appears to me, and I go, well, of course. Now I understand. He's seen all these productions of "Porgy and Bess." And we started corresponding by email, and he ultimately came to the show, which was boom, this was him.
In a lot of ways, to have this opera depict this man suffering from polio on the stage, a lot of - in a lot of ways, this was him, this was an aspect of him that he saw, and it became infused with so much more to me.
GROSS: So you're saying that your father, who had polio, related to Porgy because Porgy is crippled?
GROSS: Porgy didn't have polio. Like, he was...
GRIER: No, but I mean, it's - you know, it's not like it was his story.
GROSS: Right, just wanted to make that clear, yeah.
GROSS: So you didn't even make that connection until your brother told you after you started to work on "Porgy and Bess"?
GRIER: No, because I didn't remember. I didn't remember. Yeah, I was a little kid. I did not remember. But my brother is older, and he goes: Oh, yeah, when the movie came out, daddy came, you know, home - and through our correspondences, he talked about all these other productions that he'd seen, the opera and now who's playing Bess and how are we doing it differently.
I mean, he was all involved. But it also helped us all because, you know, as a child, I never saw my father as anything other than a normal and vital man. You know, he had a severe limp because he caught polio, contracted it on one side. He was in an iron lung.
He was in crutches, in a wheelchair, and he basically came finally, with this brace which is the exactly like the brace that Porgy wears at the very end when he saves up his money, and he finally gets this brace for his leg to help him walk.
That's what my father - that's what I played with as a kid. I played with his brace in the house, you know, when I was growing up.
GROSS: Was it a relief to know that your father loved "Porgy and Bess"? And here's why I ask: Your father is the co-author of a very important, widely read book called "Black Rage," which was published in 1968, and it's all about all of the issues like, you know, slavery, oppression, discrimination that held back and pushed down African-Americans and what the source of that day's anger was.
And some people see "Porgy and Bess" as being stereotyped. Some people see it as being this, like, extraordinary achievement that gave both a Broadway stage and an opera stage to African-Americans who would have never gotten such fantastic roles before.
GROSS: So did you know how your father - like in those two...
GRIER: I didn't. I didn't know all of that because that was a conversation - that was the exact conversation when he finally was able, he was well enough to travel to see the production. We went out for lunch, and I said exactly that: I didn't know your relationship to "Porgy and Bess," if you felt it was racist, or if you felt this was a great American opera, blah, blah, blah.
And he looked at me like I was crazy, and he was like this is, you know, America's greatest opera. Are you kidding me? From my research, when Gershwin first brought this piece to his African-American cast, which he himself insisted only be played by African-American artists - why do I bring this up? Because there's a very famous story. Al Jolson really wanted to play Porgy in blackface, and...
GROSS: I was so amazed when I heard that.
GRIER: Well, there you go.
GROSS: Just thinking what that would have been like, how bizarre that would have been.
GRIER: Right. Well, so...
GROSS: How wrong that would have been.
GRIER: Right. I mean, we're getting into a lot of the controversy of our production. As soon as Gershwin brought this to this group of African-American artists, the original company got together with him and said look, we have to cut out these racial epithets. They are offensive to us, and we, as artists, will not do this.
So the piece has always evolved and changed. It changed from there, and then this company said we will not play in segregated houses. So as they went from Boston to Washington and started that original tour, the company was like unless you desegregate the house, meaning everyone sits together, it's not going to be done. So there is a lot of history surrounding this piece that's very interesting to me.
Quick story. My father has been very ill.
GROSS: I'm sorry.
GRIER: He's not able to travel to see "Race" which I know he would've loved. Why? Because I was a screaming black man. He would've loved it. He finally came to see "Porgy and Bess" and I asked Audra and Norm to come out. As they came out, my father grabbed Audra's hand and just began to weep.
Members of the company that I'd asked came out and surrounded him and hugged him and he kept telling Audra, you have made my life so rich. So it was a wonderful, wonderful moment and I'm so glad that he got a chance to see "Porgy and Bess."
GROSS: God, that is really moving.
GRIER: Oh, it was - it was great. It was great.
GROSS: My guest is David Alan Grier. He plays Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess" which ends its Broadway run September 23rd. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with David Alan Grier. He plays Sportin' Life in the Broadway production of the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." OK, so you're not an opera singer, but in "Porgy and Bess," the character of Sporting Life is usually, not always, but often not an opera singer. He's been played by Cab Calloway, by John Bubbles, by Sammy Davis. Did you feel like you were up for, you know, a singing role?
I know your first role on Broadway was in a musical about Jackie Robinson, with you in the leading role, but I presume it's been a while since you sang seriously on stage?
GRIER: You've got to sing, I mean, you know. Diane put me in the room. I sat - Phillip Boykin would sit behind me, and he would sing my parts. We started with the most difficult, "Killing of Robbins," which is just so vocally and musically challenging. I was totally lost, but he said look, you can do this. It's fine. It's wonderful. It was very challenging, but you just jump in. They cast me. Someone believed in me.
GROSS: Wait, the killing of - I'm trying to remember what you sing there.
GRIER: Well, "The Killing of Robbins" is when Crown comes in, in the very beginning of the opera, and he kills Robbins. You know, there's a crap game and then a fight.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right. Right.
GRIER: Well, vocally, there's all this counterpoint, point, counterpoint, you wait 12 bars on the flatted fifth, David you come in, you hold this note once, you go out, you count another seven measures, you come in - oh. You know, all these vocal things. It was overwhelming. It was overwhelming. It was overwhelming.
But so we're all working on this stuff, and we work for a few weeks, we put it together, and it's so intricate. Funny, at the end of the day, Diane goes look, we're going to clear this up. And she cut my parts. It was in the staging, and I very gallantly said if you insist, I will adhere to your artistic choice.
But inside I was like thank God, I don't have to sit there and count. But I'm telling you, it was like, you know, one, two, three, four, five, oh.
GRIER: Kill him.
GRIER: (Singing) Is he dead? Oh, Crown is very drunk. He's very, very, very drunk, oh. You know, so - and running around the stage. I never got the part right, and I would stand behind Mingo, and he would - if he turned his face right, I could copy off of him like a kid in school. I could see where we were supposed to come in because his part was the same as mine. It was very - yeah, it was wild. It was wild. But we got through.
GROSS: Well, let's hear something that you are in. Let's hear one of the most famous songs from the show, "It Ain't Necessarily So," which is Sporting Life's song, and set the scene for us. This takes place at a picnic on a little island that all the people from this little fishing village are there. Bess is there. Porgy has stayed home. And you're kind of like preaching a sermon, and it's a pretty religious community. So set the scene for this song.
GRIER: All right, well, part of - you know, on the picnic, it's very pivotal for Bess because she is being integrated and accepted into this community, a formerly scorned woman. The women of the community have invited her out, and they're embracing her. You know, we're with Porgy now, you are one of us.
As in every community, there is a very religious person there who's admonishing everyone don't drink, don't gamble, you should all be in church. You remember that, you know, this is how we're supposed to live as good Christians. And what motivates the song is Sporting Life making fun of her, making fun of Serena, like yeah, right, that's not the way it is, it's not, this is garbage.
GROSS: OK, so we're going to hear this. It starts with Serena, and then, you know, Sporting Life comes in right after. David Alan Grier, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
GRIER: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")
BRYONHA MARIE PARHAM: (as Serena) Remember children, at the end of the day, like the Bible say, you reap just what you sow.
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) You reap just what you sow?
PARHAM: (as Serena) That's right.
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) Hmm. It ain't necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. The things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Won't you tell us more?
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) Now, little David was small but, oh my.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (singing) Little David was small but, oh my.
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) He fought big Goliath, who laid down and dieth, it ain't necessarily so. Wadoo!
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Wadoo!
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) A zing-bang-diddy.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) A zing-bang-diddy.
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) Who-do-la-wad-op.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Who-do-la-wad-op.
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) Scatty wah.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Scatty wah.
GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) Oh, yeah. It ain't necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so...
GROSS: That's David Alan Grier from the cast recording of the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." Our interview was recorded in May. The final Broadway performance of "Porgy and Bess" is September 23rd. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.