Q&A: Tony Nominee Diane Paulus on “Porgy and Bess” and Breaking Through Boundaries

Q&A: Tony Nominee Diane Paulus on “Porgy and Bess” and Breaking Through Boundaries
"When we were doing 'The Donkey Show' down on Ludlow Street, people would ask us, 'Would you ever consider Broadway?' and I said, 'We’ll go anywhere'": Paulus
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Director Diane Paulus loves a storm. A tempest figures prominently in “Amaluna,” her new Cirque du Soleil show in Montreal. And it is a hurricane which brings an ill wind to Catfish Row in her Broadway revival of “The Gershwins’ 'Porgy and Bess.'” While “Amaluna” (partly based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) received mixed notices,  Paulus’s revival of the Gershwin folk opera has been showered with Tony nominations, including ones for her as Best Director, for the show as Best Revival, and Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis for their performances in the starring roles.

Paulus, a New York City native and Harvard graduate, is herself a whirlwind; she also serves as the artistic director of Boston’s prestigious American Repertory Theatre. That theater is very much in the news these days, having not only originated the revival of “Porgy  and Bess,” but also having hosted the pre-Broadway engagement of the new musical “Once,” which has also been recognized with numerous Tony nominations.  In December, Paulus's revival of Stephen Schwartz's “Pippin” will open at A.R.T. The musical will be followed in February by a  revival of Tennessee Williams's “The Glass Menagerie,” to be directed by John Tiffany, the widely-acclaimed British artist behind the success of “Once” and “Black Watch.” If all goes well, both productions will be Broadway-bound.   

Star-crossed love is something of a specialty of Paulus’s. She came onto on the scene with “The Donkey Show,” a disco-inspired re-telling of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that ran downtown for years. Long a veteran of experimental, operatic, and regional productions — often in collaboration with her husband Randy Weiner — she emerged onto the Great White Way with a Tony-winning hit revival of “Hair,” which she has now followed with “Porgy and Bess.”

Her fascination with tragic love notwithstanding, she is a product of what she describes as a most “miraculous” relationship. Her father, Laurence Paulus, a producer for CBS, was a just a “jovial GI” when he met and married her mother Teruko Uchida in American-occupied, post-World War II Japan. “It’s one of those stories of two people from opposite sides of the planet meeting each other and, against all odds, making it work,” she says, recalling that her mother left behind her disapproving family in Japan to come to America. Paulus spoke of how that seminal event may have influenced her work, especially in an opera like “Porgy and Bess,” which features another unlikely pairing.

You’ve often mentioned that an audience’s connection with the work is as important to you as the art that goes into it. In what way do you think the audience connects with this “Porgy and Bess”?
My interest was in creating a story that got you in your gut. We know the music will move us because the score is so gorgeous, but I knew the raw material was there to create a high-stakes drama in terms of the action of the show. To make that love story as real and powerful as possible you had to really get inside these two human beings, this most unlikely couple, the hottest girl on the block getting together with the beggar cripple.

And how do you do that?
It was all part of casting Audra and Norm and working with their very detailed investigation into the characters. While on the surface [Porgy and Bess] may be on the opposite ends of the spectrum, they’re absolutely mirroring each other in terms of having the courage to see each other, lending each other self-esteem for the first time in their respective lives. It is the most powerful and courageous thing a couple can do, to be that vulnerable. As an audience, we can relate to that because that’s what we want in our own lives.

Audra McDonald gives what can be described as a raw and “ugly” performance.
No question. We talked a lot about that, Audra and I. Bess is complicated, she’s struggling. And the audience loves her struggle. But it’s not an easy one, and [it is] full of foibles. Audra was very particular about the addiction. It was a real study for her. “Where am I in my addiction?” “How many days has it been?” “What does it mean not to have had happy dust in months and here [Sportin’ Life] is and he has a vial within two feet of me?” And one of my favorite moments is when she has happy dust in her hand, and Porgy calls her over and wipes the happy dust from her hand and they launch into “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” We all crave the courage to see and be seen with grace and without judgment. These two characters have lived all their lives with labels: she’s “the liquor-guzzling whore” and he’s just “the cripple.” And their ability to look beyond the labels is profound.

And yet there appears to be an emphasis on Porgy not just as crippled but as a gambler in your version.
The line before Porgy enters is, “Here comes the old craps shark now. Now we’ll have a game.” Suzan Lori-Parks [who revised the libretto] and I would always talk about this. He’s a gambler and, in fact, a good one.  The stakes go up when Porgy enters the game. And that’s true of his relationship with Bess.

Do you think you’re drawn to the gamble that is love because of the way your parents met?
I have never thought of that parallel until now. My father was directing shows for the Army entertainment corps and my mother had just lost everything. Her mother and several members of the family had died, they had lost all their money, Japan was decimated. And here comes this jovial GI, fourteen years older, and my mother said that he made her smile for the first time in years. It’s not really a “Madame Butterfly” story. My mother’s family was in the import-export business and her father had been to America many times, she’d gone to a Quaker school in Tokyo. She spoke perfect English. But theirs was a forbidden love. There were anti-fraternization rules and they had a love shack that was raided by the army, their tomato plants were smashed and, of course, she could never bring this American home to her family in the aftermath of the war. They were a most unlikely couple.

Did the Uchida family ever come around?
In the next generation, yes. My mother left Japan, came to New York and none of her family recognized the marriage. But then when her sisters’ kids started intermarrying — a Jewish girl, a Southern belle, an Irish man — the family started to come around. And all because of the success of my parents’ marriage.

In what way does your Japanese ancestry influence your work?
Certainly in the aesthetics that my mother, who was a designer, imbued in me. When I was a child, she’d give me buttons and pieces of fabric and tell me to create a collage. She died in 1995, when I was in graduate school, but I feel like I carry her dignity, her grace, her stoicism. We grew up surrounded by Japanese masks on the wall, art, gorgeous dishes of every shape, color, and size at the breakfast table.  It was certainly part of our life.

Coming as you do from the experimental world, did you ever look down your nose on Broadway and the Tonys?
Oh, God, my father was a CBS TV producer and the network was broadcasting the Tonys so, no, they were always a big event in our house. Broadway in and of itself is not selling out.  It just allows you to reach many more people. When we were doing “The Donkey Show” down on Ludlow Street,  people would ask us, “Would you ever consider Broadway?” and I said, “We’ll go anywhere.” And I still feel that way. 

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