Sondheim gets his rant on in response to revamped ‘Porgy and Bess’

Sondheim: perplexed (Photo credit: Ron Sachs)

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.

17 thoughts on “Sondheim gets his rant on in response to revamped ‘Porgy and Bess’

  1. Also having seen the production at Court, I can’t agree with Sondheim here. (And that kills me!) I never found Bess’ behavior credible, and it meant that, despite a superb production, I was only emotionally moved at scattered points. I welcome a production that could do a better job at showcasing a score that is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of American music.

    1. I get what you’re saying, but consider this: just watch any episode of “Intervention” to see how drug addiction can made “good” people act in horrible, inconsistent and selfish ways — even when they know their actions are horrible and selfish. They can’t stop themselves.

      To me, Bess is an addict — she’s addicted to “bad boys” and “happy dust.” But deep down, she’s a good person — Porgy helps her see that. However, her addictions overrule her better judgement, which makes it all the more tragic and, I guess, real.

      1. Bob–I absolutely agree that that’s what Bess’ character is supposed to be: a woman who’s been abused by life and the drugs she takes, who makes decisions that hurt her and keep her from saving herself. But for me, that character doesn’t have dimension onstage. I can intellectually understand it, but I don’t think it’s well-dramatized. I’m apparently in the minority on this one, though.

        And I want to point out that Court’s production had no goat, and it didn’t seem to detract.

        1. I would argue that then Audra would have had a challenge to bring dimensionality to the part – which I fully believe she is more than capable of (anybody who can make that annoyingly shrill one-dimensional man-hunter in Carousel into a fully-fleshed Tony-worthy character should be able to turn Bess into a woman seething with an inner life)

  2. First, I’ve never seen Porgy and Bess. (Although I do have a ticket to see this production at the American Repertory Theater later this month.) So most of Sondheim’s criticism went way over my head. I mean, “Bring my goat!” is one of the most moving moments in musical theatre history?!

    I thought it was unseemly for someone of Sondheim’s stature to call out the largely African-American cast and creative team as “arrogant” before even the first preview. He didn’t even acknowledge the very real discomfort that some black performers and theatergoers have felt about the material. The DuBose and Heyward estates were very upfront with The New York Times about wanting a version of Porgy and Bess that will draw large numbers of African-Americans.

    I especially feel bad for Audra McDonald, who has been a fierce advocate for gay rights and for marriage equality. When she speaks, as an African-American woman, about racism, she deserves to be taken seriously.

    And just playing devil’s advocate, if you’re going to say that a work is sacrosanct, that it can never be altered or reinterpreted, well, isn’t that how a lot of people feel about the Bible?

    1. I had the most brilliant reply, and then wordpress ate it. So bear with me as I try to recreate it with minimal time…

      Reinterpret is one thing. Court Theatre did this with their production of P&B. They brought new dimension to the piece through acting, direction, setting and music arrangement. As far as I know, minimal changes were made to the book.

      But what’s going on here sounds like some major rewriting. I mean, a happy ending? Yikes. There comes a point where you have to find a balance between revising a piece and maintaing its integrity.

      That said, I’m all for changing things up and taking risks — under the approval of the original creators or estate. And it sounds like the estate has approved these changes, as surprising as some of them sound. So good luck to them. I hope I get to see it!

      What gets my goat (speaking of goats …) is how Parks reveals that her changes are probably what Gershwin would have wanted anyway. To take your Bible reference a step further, she’s acting like the Pope and she has a divine connection to the original creator. And THAT is arrogant.

      One final thought: if Paulus, McDonald, Parks and others are so uncomfortable with P&B as written, why do it? Why not create a new show inspired by the opera that tells the story the way they want to tell it? I mean, that’s the beauty of art — you have the ability to create and challenge ideas.

      1. I think it’s worth remembering that the Gershwin estates and the Heyward estates offered the impetus for this production, and they have been involved in the process. I can’t say that they know what George, Ira, Dubose, and Dorothy wished, but I ‘m more likely to think they know than, say, I do. Or Stephen Sondheim.

        1. That just means that they have as much a financial stake in the matter as they do a ‘preservation’ one – remember all the horrible Rodgers and Hammerstein ‘revisals’ (from “Flower Drum Song” to the…shudder…animated “King and I”) that were authorized by the R&H Estate/Foundation.

      2. Well that’s a good point – why don’t they just create something new? I think (not wanting to presume!) that there’s still a lot of love for this piece despite the ambivalence. In the Boston Globe article, Audra McDonald says she’s sung songs from Porgy and Bess in concert but she shied away from playing the role onstage until now.

  3. I can’t help but feel that Sondheim, now in his 80s, imagines a future in which directors and producers decide to revise his works to make them more appealling to a wider audience. And people asserting that Sondheim would have wanted them to do it!

    1. You mean like John Doyle and Tim Burton? ;)

      I wish this Sondheim had shown up when both of those directors wanted to mess up his properties. But that said, his very valid point is that it’s one thing for a director to approach a work by a still living author and make changes that are approved by him/her. It’s quite another to make changes to a piece by a long dead creative team. And it’s an even bigger thing to completely re-write something and swear that it was the author’s original intent, as if she had a Ouija board and was getting re-writes from the Great Beyond.

      To call it “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” when one’s fingerprints are all over the production smacks of…a desire for cold, calculated cash versus anything else (Gershwin = name brand)

      Personally, I always found RENT to be flawed in the same manner Parks et al consider P&B – Mimi’s character in particular (she changes personalities between scenes throughout the show – it’s as if all the interesting stuff in her life is happening off-stage and we never get to see it) and I do think Larson would have tinkered and fixed. Yet this show is being revived without changes (darn it).

    2. Great point. I’d hope that whomever is appointed with protecting the Sondheim estate has the wherewithal to maintain the integrity of his works, and that Sondheim clearly states what “integrity” means. And this brings up a bigger question: what’s the driving force behind these estates? Do they have guiding principles, etc.?

      1. I’m so glad we’re having this discussion because it raises so many interesting issues, like the one you mentioned. I mean, it touches on race in America and whether an artist’s original intent should be honored, and whether a work can be revised when times change. I’d much rather discuss this than go on and on about Spider-Man!

  4. Just a note, I believe that the title “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” is mandated by the estate, and was used at Court Theater as well.

    1. Ugh…you would think it should be called The Gershwins and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess”…as if we would get confused and think it was the Ricky Ian Gordon’s Porgy and Bess or something…

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