About the author:
Nikki Renée Daniels, a talented vet of eight Broadway musicals (including Aida, Anything Goes, Promises, Promises, Les Miserables and Nine), is back on the Rialto as luminous young mother Clara in Diane Paulus' hit revival of Porgy and Bess. Daniels is no stranger to the role, having played Clara in a 2002 New York City Opera production of the Gershwin classic. In a show filled with gorgeous songs, Daniels performs the one most familiar to audiences: the beloved opening ballad “Summertime.” Below, the actress discusses the pressures of singing a song that showstopping divas as varied as Fantasia, Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday have tackled, and what it means to her to be part of the Broadway return of Porgy and Bess.
When I got the call from my agent, telling me that I had been cast as Clara in the American Repertory Theater’s production of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess I cried. Literally—on the phone with my agent, tears of joy ran down my face as I screamed “Yes! Yes! Yes!” You see, I’ve had a pretty long history with the song “Summertime,” and the idea that I would get to sing it in this production and share the stage with Audra McDonald was more than my heart could take.
“Summertime” has always been very special to me. It was one of the first songs I learned when I started taking voice lessons. I sang it in my music class, I sang it for vocal competitions all throughout high school—I even sang it for my college auditions. One of my first jobs after college was playing Clara in the “C” cast of the New York City Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. There, they triple cast all of the principal roles, and we weren’t even doing eight shows a week! It was an amazing experience, and it was my first time being introduced to the opera as a whole. I was blown away by the beauty of the score and by the voices around me. The run was only a few weeks long, but I cherished every second.
Working on this production has really been a life-changing experience. Of course, we have the utmost respect for the opera, and it will always be done around the world. But our task was to really bring DuBose Heyward’s story forth, and to place more emphasis on the dramatic action of the piece. To that end, we tried a lot of different versions of “Summertime.”
Between the ART production and the Broadway production, I have sung the song in four different keys! Diane wanted to make sure that we got the introduction to the show right. We had live babies in the ART production, so we started out with a much lower key for the song. It felt very intimate in that key, and it was also easier to get through it if the baby decided to put his hand in my mouth, or throw up on me—both situations happened more than a few times! We don’t have live babies in the Broadway production, but the experience of working with them onstage was invaluable to me. Although the version we do in the show now is very different from what we did at ART, I find that I’m able to incorporate all of that work into this one. I’m glad we explored it so much throughout this process—the finished product seems to serve the show well.
Of course, there is a lot of pressure to get it right! Diane and I tried to give the song as much meaning as we could—we didn’t want it to just be a simple lullaby. We really wanted to infuse it with Clara and Jake’s hope for the future. “Summertime” is one of Gershwin’s most famous songs, the one that every audience member knows. It is no small feat to walk out onstage and begin the show with this song. I have been known to suffer from stage fright, so I really have to breathe deep before I start it every night. I just try to put all of the nerves aside and truly live in the world of Saturday night on Catfish Row. When I’m able to do that, it’s an amazing feeling. I’ve been singing “Summertime” for a long time, but to get to do it on Broadway every night is a dream come true.