This week has seen a minor tempest erupt over, of all things, Porgy and Bess
. Talk about a slow arts news week. In the story thus far, the New York Times
ran a feature story on an upcoming Broadway-bound revival of the work under the direction of Diane Paulus starring Audra McDonald with script-doctoring by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. All three were quoted in the original piece about their take on shortcomings with the opera and their combined plans to address some of these before their show opens out of town this fall. This report ended up setting off some heated responses
from none less than Broadway legend (in reputation if not ticket sales) Stephen Sondheim who questioned the creative team’s knowledge and assessment of the original work and what he interpreted as their dismissive tone in the piece. Well, far be it for me to question the composer of Bounce
, but I fail to see why anyone would think Porgy and Bess
doesn’t need some work.
Undoubtedly the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward wrote some quintessential American music for the show. The work survives and is frequently seen on musical theater and opera stages all over the world. But Sondheim’s assessment makes one wonder if he’s actually seen the show any time in the last forty years. Even with cuts, the show is a dirge. The narrative focus wanders too easily and despite his protests otherwise, the character development is more suggested than evidenced in the score. The ending is underdeveloped and despite the fact that “Lord, I’m on My Way” is a great song, it hardly provides a substantial enough ending to this very long haul that more or less peters out into nothing. Sondheim waxes nostalgic over “one of the most moving moments in musical theater history – Porgy’s demand, “Bring my goat!”” Maybe I’m patronizing the wrong theaters, but it seems to me that Mr. Sondheim may want to go out a bit more. I’m fairly certain that “Bring my goat!” shows up on just about no one’s list of the most moving moments of the musical theater. Perhaps on the favorite goat quote list, but let’s not get carried away, shall we. If you think my criticisms unfair, just look around you. How many opera fans do you known who’ll attest to how much they can’t wait to hear Porgy and Bess
again? The truth is that despite the opera’s historical significance and some lovely music, it’s not a show a lot of musical theater people are eager to see show up on a season prospectus—for a reason.
At the crux of Sondheim’s ill-advised tirade against this prospective Broadway revival is the contention that there is a “difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting” and that the first is permissible while the second is not. Of course, he fails to indicate exactly where that fine line is to be drawn. He alludes to Parks’ hubris in assuming that Gershwin would have wanted to make changes to his own score. He then wheels out the old bug-a-boo over what standard repertory operas might look like with a little reworking as if that’s supposed to strike fear into somebody’s heart. Most operatic works have been tinkered with to greater or lesser extents over the course of their lives, and most live on in versions not precisely imagined that way by their composers. So what? If the audience wants to see Paulus and Parks Porgy
revision, who cares? I think Parks, Paulus, et al., should go for broke. The more excavation that can be done, the better. Besides the show’s investors, who stands to lose anything? If Porgy and Bess
is half the opera Sondheim thinks it is, I’m sure it will survive whether or not this particular team rewrites huge sections of the piece for this particular production. Perhaps it will be stupid. Maybe the adaptors don’t trust the audience and will belittle them. But I think audiences are capable of making that decision on their own. And I doubt that George, Ira, or DuBose will have much if anything to say about it whether or not it does.