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Stephen Sondheim Is Not Having The New Porgy & Bess Remake

We saw Sondheim On Sondheim last year and, in his video clips, the openly gay musical-theater mastermind came off as amiable, introspective and self-deprecating.

Not so much in a letter he wrote that ran yesterday in The New York Times, regarding the announced re-mounting of Porgy & Bess. In it, he questions everything from the name of the show to director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks‘ plans to expand and revamp the show, which is coming to Broadway this winter with leads Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald. And don’t get him started on the new, upbeat ending.

The article by Mr. Healy about the coming revival of “Porgy and Bess” is dismaying on many levels. To begin with, the title of the show is now “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” I assume that’s in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart “Porgy and Bess” that was coming to town. But what happened to DuBose Heyward? Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone (“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now”) or co-written with Ira Gershwin (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”). If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed of themselves. If it’s the producers’ idea, it’s just dumb.

Oh, don’t worry—Sondheim’s just getting started:

Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.

What Ms. Paulus wants, and has ordered, are back stories for the characters. For example she (or, rather, Ms. Parks) is supplying Porgy with dialogue that will explain how he became crippled. She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings. It makes you speculate about what would happen if she ever got her hands on “Tosca” and ‘Don Giovanni.” How would we get to know them? Ms. Paulus would probably want to add an aria or two to explain how Tosca got to be a star, and she would certainly want some additional material about Don Giovanni’s unhappy childhood to explain what made him such an unconscionable lecher.

Then there is Ms. Paulus’s condescension toward the audience. She says, “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.” I don’t know what she’s sorry about, but I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers. If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to “excavate” the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not Heyward’s?

She is joined heartily in this sentiment by Ms. McDonald, who says that Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Often? Meaning sometimes she’s full-blooded and other times not? She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly, as she was by, among others, Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say, “The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we’re bringing to life.” Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in “Porgy and Bess” that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?

Among the ways in which Ms. Parks defends the excavation work is this: “I wanted to flesh out the two main characters so that they are not cardboard cutout characters” and goes on to say, “I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including the ending.”

It’s reassuring that Ms. Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him, and that she thinks he would have taken one of the most moving moments in musical theater history — Porgy’s demand, “Bring my goat!” — and thrown it out. Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane. So now he can demand, “Bring my cane!” Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.

Or perhaps in order to have her happy ending, she’ll have Bess turn around when she gets as far as Philadelphia and return to Catfish Row in time for the finale, thus saving Porgy the trouble of his heroic journey to New York. It will kill “I’m on My Way,” but who cares?

Snap! Check out the full letter here. It’s really a great read.

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  • Michael in Toronto

    You tell ’em, Stephen.

    Such arrogance on the part of those two.

  • russ

    I enjoyed Sondheim’s letter quite a lot and I don’t disagree with anything he said.
    There is hubris in some of the comments made by Paulus et al in justifying the
    changes they’ve made to Porgy and Bess.
    That said, I thought Paulus’s updating of Hair was great. I’m looking forward to this
    new production.

  • dk

    This piece should not be touched. If she wants to tell a similar story, write a sequel. Or a prequel. Or how about a totally original story? Like Sondheim said, they wouldn’t think of touching a Wagner or Verdi piece, and this is no different. And shame on Audra McDonald.. Ms. Price and Ms. Dale didn’t break those barriers for her to bash such an iconic character. One of so few AA female characters that have literally built careers.

  • milhouse

    And the dummying down of theatre continues, now with an American classic.

  • R.A,

    I can’t help but feel sorry for McDonald, a remarkable singer who holds herself to very high standards.

    What are the chances that a few words in a puff piece would bring Zeus himself down from Mount Olympus!

  • bobp

    I’m surprised they didn’t go for changing Porgy & Bess to Fred & Wilma Flintstone. Their characters have been pretty well fleshed out. But I guess they’d have to do it in blackface.

    Some things should be left alone and appreciated for just what they are.

  • MikeE

    What an amusing coincidence!
    I just spent an enlightening afternoon and evening in the company of a wonderful conductor from out west, and two fellow composers and opera afficionados. And the topic of this absolutely preposterous and ridiculous “reimagining” of “Porgy and Bess” was a large part of our conversation.

    Whoda thunk that Queerty would actually bring up something of real cultural relevance.

    By the way, the four of us agreed with maestro Sondheim. This production of Gershwin’s opera is a travesty.

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  • alan Balehead

    And while we`re at lets make the Mona Lisa smile right or cover up Michanagelo`s David…Hopefully this controversy will make the Samuel Goldwyn Film become available already!!!

  • Queer Supremacist

    @alan Balehead: I heard the Gershwin estate got the rights back, and they hate it because it made some structural changes, reasons that now seem hypocritical if they’re allowing this. I also heard it needs to be restored but no one wants to foot the bill. I’ve never seen it but it was shot in 65mm so a Blu-Ray release should look and sound amazing.

    Meanwhile, that criminally bad animated version of The King and I is still allowed to exist.

  • donatella

    Aw, poor little white folks, don’t have their emasculated, castrated black image anymore.

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