Ethics Hero and Artistic Champion: Stephen Sondheim, Defending “Porgy and Bess”

Steve has your back, George.

I read with horror last week that the Gershwin estate, lured by the temptation of an increased revenue stream from the works of their more talented forebears, have agreed to allow director Diane Paulus and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to mess with ( that is, “improve”) “Porgy and Bess,” the classic 1935 opera that is one of the towering works in the history of American musical theater. This is, of course, vandalism in the name of ego and commerce, and a full-fledged assault on the masterpiece of not one but four great artists: the Gershwins, George and Ira, and the Heywards, Dorothy and DuBose, who wrote the novel and the play the opera was based on.  It is also stunning disrespect and abuse of power, with the living director and adapter wielding the power of celebrity and influence, and the dead artists retaining no power at all (being dead), having unwisely entrusted the protection of their legacies to greedy and tasteless relatives all too willing to sell out their kin for thirty pieces of silver.  Now, as the New York Times reported, the creators of the New Improved Porgy and Bess are readying new scenes, jazzed up dialogue, back-stories for the characters and an upbeat ending.    

This, as you might imagine, struck to the core of my work as an ethicist and in my position as the co-founder and artistic director of a  professional theater devoted to classic 20th Century stage works. I began to prepare a post on the rape of “Porgy and Bess,” but was distracted by other matters, and didn’t get the piece finished.

That was lucky. I should have remembered that Stephen Sondheim, the only musical theater artist alive who can claim the right to be mentioned in the same breath as George Gershwin, had extolled “Porgy and Bess” as the very greatest American musical in his autobiographical work, “Finishing the Hat.”  Needless to say, Sondheim is an authority on these matters, and also an artist who can appreciate what Paulus and Parks are doing to his colleague, peer and fellow geniuses, the Gershwins. On top of that, he has the wit and rhetorical skills to defend the rights of artists and dissect the rationalizations of vandals like few others.

And he did. John Glass of Drama Urge kindly alerted me that Sondheim has written a letter to the New York Times explaining…not arguing, because there is no argument…why the new “Porgy and Bess” is wrong.  Here it is; you just can’t do it better than this:

“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. More dismaying is the disdain that Diane Paulus, Audra McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself.

“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?

“Ms. McDonald immediately dismisses any possible criticism by labeling anyone who might have objections to what Ms. Paulus and her colleagues are doing as “Gershwin purists” — clearly a group, all of whom think alike, and we all know what a “purist” is, don’t we? An inflexible, academic reactionary fuddy-duddy who lacks the imagination to see beyond the author’s intentions, who doesn’t recognize all “the holes and issues” that Ms. Paulus and Ms. McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks do. Never fear, though. They confidently claim that they know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.

“I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting. Nor am I judging this production in advance, only the attitude of its creators toward the piece and the audience. Perhaps it will be wonderful. Certainly I can think of no better Porgy than Norm Lewis nor a better Bess than Audra McDonald, whose voice is one of the glories of the American theater. Perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will have earned their arrogance.

“Which brings me back to my opening point. In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” nor even “The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.” Advertise it honestly as “Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.” And the hell with the real one.”

11 thoughts on “Ethics Hero and Artistic Champion: Stephen Sondheim, Defending “Porgy and Bess”

  1. Jack- I remember seeing the movie version of “Porgy & Bess” when it first came out. I was a child then and I haven’t seen it since, but I remember it vividly. I also remember how, at the end- when Porgy sets off from Charleston for New York, singing “I’m On My Way”- there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen. And this was in Beaumont TX during the segregation era! It was a remarkable achievement in motion pictures in a time when such achievements were much more commonplace. I can only assume that the reason it hasn’t been run on TV since then is because it’s “controversial”! Every once in a while, I still recall the scenes and songs spontaneously. I’d like to see this nearly forgotten classic again. What I WOULDN’T want to see is some politically correct adaptation or remake by people unfit to step into the shoes of the original makers. If I had the power, I think I’d put the entire film industry on an enforced 10 year hiatus and hope that, at the end of that time, something similar to the pre-Valenti era would arise to take its place. Quality over “correctness”.

    • The ending of “Porgy” got to me when I saw it, even at the age of 10. Tyrone Guthrie started the trend away from the goat cart when he had Porgy actually starting toe WALK to New York on his crippled legs, replacing futile and moving with impossible and silly.

      • There’s the part where Porgy asks his friends where New York is, revealing that he has no concept of the world beyond South Carolina. Even to us kids, the monumental task of such a journey was evident. BUT… you came away with the deep impression that- somehow- he’d make it. That’s what brought tears to our eyes. Heck, I’m tearing up now just writing this!

    • I think the creative team is in trouble. Sondheim carries real weight on Broadway and in artistic circles—if he says this is defacing the work, people will listen. A letter to the editor that actually does something! When was the last time THAT happened?

  2. Pingback: Ethics Hero and Artistic Champion: Stephen Sondheim, Defending … « Ethics Find

  3. There are a few constants in the industry: the bad guy always gets the coolest hat (OK, Indiana Jones is an exception, but seriously–who has a cooler hat than Darth Vader?), the murderer on a tv whodunnit is the best known guest star, and any title including the name of the original author(s) will have nothing to do with the original source (Cf., “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”). I take the claim that this is “The Gershwins’…” as fair warning that it would send Ira and George screaming into the night.

  4. Leave P&G alone! The last time I saw this grand opera (we can argue semantics, but I say capital-O Opera) was a couple years ago on the stage of the Los Angeles Opera. Not “improved”, but still had people weepng and cheering.

    Some decades ago I had the good fortune to be in Charleston, and visit the site of Catfish Row (it has a bronze plaque now

    I will never get to play Porgy (wrong ethnicity, tho I have my Equity card), still, in my private moments I hold forth with one of American opera’s greatest arias, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”.

    Leave P&G alone!

  5. I think Porgy and Bess has opened itself up to this type of treatment form the beginning. The 1942 revival drastically changed the structure of the original 1935 Broadway performance, making it more Broadway musical then the 1935 opera. Even the original 1935 had drastic cuts, although by Gershwin himself, that were not restored until 1976 when the Houston Opera performed the complete version for the first time. And Paulus and Parks are the not the first to present “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess”. The great Trevor Nunn presented a version called that also. I didn’t see Sondhiem going after him when he did it.

    I think when talking about Porgy and Bess there has to be a distinction. There is the Broadway musical version and the operatic version. The Broadway version has from the beginning been reformed and manipulated to bring in a larger commercial audience. The operatic version has been performed for people who want to see it in its original vision and grandeur. I believe you can have both. And another thing has to be said. If the family and owners of the copyright are giving their permission who is Sondheim to deny them the income that comes from having it performed?

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