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Laurelton woman shares in ‘Porgy and Bess’ Tony award

TimesLedger Newspapers

It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy for one Laurelton musician whose adaptation of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” is enjoying a run on Broadway by winning the coveted Tony Award for the best revival of a musical.

Diedre Murray got a call about two years ago from longtime collaborator and director Diane Paulas, who was assembling a creative team to revive the great American folk opera as a theater piece to debut at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

An accomplished classical cellist and jazz musician, Murray had only once before arranged a musical score, and she prepared herself for the task of transforming the 4 1/2-hour opera to a two-hour-and-15-minute musical by immersing herself in recordings.

“Before I sat down with the score, I listened to as many versions as I could — jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong,” she said.

Murray grew up in a musical family, although her introduction to the Gershwins’ masterpiece, first performed in 1935, came through the popular music of her time.

“My first memory of ‘I Love You Porgy’ was from Nina Simone, not the opera,” she said. “I heard all those hit songs first, well before I got acquainted with opera.”

Set in downtrodden South Carolina in the early 1920s, the piece tells the story of a disabled black beggar named Porgy and his attempts to win the heart of Bess, who is troubled by her violent lover, Crown.

It was unique for its time in that it featured an all-black cast.

“The genius of George Gershwin was, I think, he was very revolutionary,” Murray said. “I always thought ‘Porgy and Bess’ was like a valentine to African Americans from a 1930s perspective. We were never depicted like that, our wants and our desires, and of course he was not African American.”

Murray said one of the challenges of the adaptation was to make it so that the singers could perform night after night. An opera has a run of about four performances, but a musical is performed eight times a week for an indefinite run.

“There’s a lot more singing, so I had to make it more doable, to change the ranges people sing in,” she said.

“Porgy and Bess” opened in Cambridge, Mass., in August 2011, and made its way to the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway in January.

TimesLedger Newspapers theater critic Ron Hellman said it was one of the best musicals he has seen on Broadway in some time.

“Audrey McDonald is playing Bess and she’s terrific. It’s all done very well,” he said. “And there’s certainly great music you’re not going to get to see on Broadway very often.”

On Sunday evening, the piece beat out “Evita,” “Follies” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” to win Best Revival of a Musical at the Tony Awards.

Murray said she was delighted with the results.

“I’m overwhelmed with happiness when I see all these people pouring their hearts out. Audra is one of the great singers of our time, and David Allan Greer is funny as hell.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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