When musical theatre icon (and recent Chicago Tribune Literary Prize honoree) Stephen Sondheim gets raged up, he knows exactly what to do: fire out a feisty letter to The New York Times.
Such is the case with his reaction to a recent New York Times article previewing the upcoming revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. In the letter, Sondheim blasts director Diane Paulus, star Audra McDonald and script writer Suzan-Lori Parks for the apparent “disdain” they show toward the original material.
An excerpt from Sondheim’s letter:
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.
Get it, girl!
(Despite the touches of cattiness, Sondhiem remains a level-headed guy throughout the letter, and uses this opportunity to remind readers that DuBose Heyward provided many of the lyrics for the folk opera — a point that’s often overlooked. He also did something similar last year by clarifying, via a letter to The New York Times, who actually did the original orchestrations for West Side Story. Hint: it wasn’t Bernstein.)
Now, I’m all for taking risks and re-examining classic material in a bold, new way. But when I read the preview article, this quote from Parks struck me:
“I feel this work more than anything is a romance, and so I wanted to flesh out the two main characters so they are not cardboard cut-out characters,” Ms. Parks said. “I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer” — Gershwin died in 1937, at the age of 38 — “he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including to the ending.”
Wow. Who says things like that? Always the eagle eye, Sondheim’s all over it:
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.
As for Porgy and Bess being a flawed show and, as Ms. McDonald argues, the character of Bess being nothing more than a one-dimensional plot device, I didn’t get that at all when I saw Court Theatre’s recent production of the opera. While the creative team, under the direction of Charlie Newell, made bold, daring choices, they kept the spirit of the piece intact, and even maintained the original ending (unlike the “happier” ending the new production is apparently implementing).
While Bess is a very, very flawed, and perhaps unlikeable character, she’s also very real.
Now, as Sondheim also notes, we can’t judge the show until we see it, and perhaps it will be brilliant in its own, revisionist way. I’m just thrown by the arrogance of the creative team to think they are doing us all a service by fixing this “flawed” show. After reading the preview article, a bitter taste lingered. So, thank you Mr. Sondheim for articulating these thoughts in your, well, articulate way.