NEW YORK — David Alan Grier has a gentle message for anyone who is getting all hot and bothered thinking that he's helping ruin an American masterpiece.
"Relax. Let it go," he says. "We're not killing it. We're just doing our version."
The actor and comedian is currently starring as Sporting Life in a reworked version of the Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" on Broadway following a controversial out-of-town tryout this fall near Boston.
The creative team, with the blessing of the creators' estates, condensed the four-hour opera into a two-and-one-half-hour musical, eliminated a lot of the repetitiveness and tried to deepen the characters. Their effort generated headlines when purists including Stephen Sondheim complained that a musical treasure was being corrupted.
"We just want people to be propelled by the story and the music," Grier says. "It's not like we made a deal with the estate to destroy all previous versions and burn down all the opera houses. They will continue to do it and it will continue to live and be interpreted. That's what keeps classical works like this alive."
It's the fifth time on Broadway for this Yale School of Drama graduate best known for his scathing wit and his four seasons aboard the groundbreaking sketch comedy TV show "In Living Color."
The 55-year-old didn't expect to return to Broadway so soon after appearing in David Mamet's "Race" in 2010, but he had never been in "Porgy and Bess" and thought the new version was going to be "historic."
He emailed the American Repertory Theater's Diane Paulus, who was directing the adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deidre L. Murray. Grier, who knew Paulus from a workshop of her "Best of Both Worlds," wanted to play Sporting Life, the drug-pusher and pimp portrayed in the original Broadway production by Cab Calloway and in the film version by Sammy Davis Jr.
Grier impressed the team by holding his own alongside lead actors Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, and singing two songs: the funny, upbeat "It Ain't Necessarily So" and the teasing, seductive "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon."
"I would sit in the back the theater with my musical director and my choreographer. He'd start singing and we'd all look at each other and our jaws would drop. It's a performance that's blossomed," says Paulus.
"He's been the most incredible company member for this show. He's cracked a joke at every perfect and imperfect moment and made us all laugh. He's a famous name and yet he's right there in the trenches with everyone like the way Audra and Norm are."
To get into character, Grier learned all he could about the 1930s in South Carolina, went back to the original notes left by the show's creators, listened to Ella Fitzgerald scat and watched documentaries of pimps. He also drew on his roots growing up in Detroit and watching pimps decked out in colorful clothes stroll down 12th Street.
"It was like an urban ballet," he says.
The controversy over the show didn't scare him off: It made him even more excited. The show moved over the winter from the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass, to Broadway's Richard Rogers Theatre, opening in January to generally positive reviews.
"I don't want to be in a production that everyone says, 'Did you open? Did you close? Oh, I didn't see it. Good thing you did it just the way it's always been done,'" Grier says. "No, I want to be in a production that's exciting and gets people talking."
Grier laughs that when "Porgy and Bess" first opened in 1935, opera buffs were incensed by what some considered a crass monstrosity: George Gershwin wasn't considered a bona fide opera writer, the show's melting of jazz and blues into a classical European art form was highly unusual, and few thought black singers could fully succeed at singing opera. Over the years, though, it became an opera masterpiece.
"So when we open, now there are all these opera purists who say, 'Oh no, it's nothing BUT grand opera. You have to do it ONLY the way grand opera must be done,'" he says. "The exciting thing is everyone feels they own it."
Grier, who lives in Los Angeles, has found time to see as much Broadway as he can, including "Venus in Fur" and "Jerusalem." At "Follies," he was happy to see other people dance. "It was so great to sit in the audience and not be performing," he says, laughing. "I was going, 'Wow, that was a big number! I bet they're tired now.'"
As for reviews, he doesn't sweat them. He recalls the reaction his Broadway debut got in 1981 when he played Jackie Robinson in "The First." One reviewer said Grier was perfect in the role. Another said he was terrible.
"So I had them framed right next to each other on my wall and above my bed because that sums it up — one terrible, one perfect," he says. "My shoulders are broad. This is the career I've chosen. You are judged publicly."