Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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I Loves You Porgy

August 11, 2011


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.


I find Porgy and Bess to be terribly dull in between the hit tunes. It's dated and much too long. I've sat through it a couple of times and refuse to go again. Maybe this revival will help. I just don't think the original is stage worthy anymore.

I love Sondheim, but I'm tired of people criticizing things before they have seen or experienced them.
As you mention, most operatic works have been tinkered with, so the changes in and of themselves become a matter of taste. If Paulus and Parks want to tinker and the Gershwin and Heyward estates allowed them to do so, they have the right to see how many people will pay to see their version.

My issue is the title: "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."

Given their edits and amendments, that could be the biggest bit of hubris the creative team demonstrated.
Sondheim is writing from the perspective of someone who loves the opera (he's mentioned his admiration before) and clearly you're coming from a different perspective. Of course you're fine with changing Porgy, if it bores you. My feeling is closer to the Sondheim side; I find it very effective and moving in performance (and because it sold out I didn't even get to hear what was apparently a dazzling production in San Francisco a few years ago). I'm not saying it shouldn't be touched (in fact, it has been many times over the years, often to soften the dialect or replace racist terms) and in fact when I first heard about this revision I was very excited, based on my admiration for Parks and McDonald. But then I read what changes they had in mind: further backstory? (Spelling out the obvious isn't going to streamline anything.) A more upbeat ending? (That mystifies me. The existing ending is already about as upbeat as you can be.)

I don't really disagree with your general point (works can be updated/revised), but Sondheim was specific about what he objected to both in the tone of the revisers and in their suggested changes, both of which made him think they didn't understand or appeciate the work they were proposing to change. His points made me much less interested in seeing this revision. I think he's not just an old man resisting change, and I think it's not just respect for his body of work (including Bounce) that should lead people to listen to what he says.

And actually there are still people claiming to speak for George and Ira at least (which may be the heart of the problem) and I think Sondheim is justified in thinking that someone in that position should protect the work, however imperfect, of the artists they're supposed to represent. Again, not a problem if the work is in the public domain, but it's not.

I think you're making it sound like a cut-and-dried case, and I'm not sure it is.
The San Francisco Opera production was indeed dazzling. My husband, who hadn't seen the opera before, enjoyed it tremendously. Several critics mentioned problems with the opera itself, while praising this production, but we enjoyed it from beginning to end. Perhaps uniformly splendid performers and fluent direction made the difference between this and other productions.
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