Audra McDonald: Shaping 'Bess' On Broadway The actress plays Bess in the Broadway musical Porgy and Bess. The show, which won two Tony Awards, closes next month.
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Audra McDonald: Shaping 'Bess' On Broadway

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Audra McDonald: Shaping 'Bess' On Broadway

Audra McDonald: Shaping 'Bess' On Broadway

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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.



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."



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.


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.


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.


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: 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: 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."


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.




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.

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