Porgy and Steve and Bess

Stephen Sondheim famously did not like opera, or at least among those of us who followed him, he was famous for disliking opera.

But there were exceptions.

He did like Berg’s Wozzeck and Britten’s Peter Grimes, and most important of all, he loved Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

(Given that Sondheim often expressed his disdain for recitative, I would have liked to ask him about that because Porgy and Bess is filled with recitative, although granted it’s not secco such as is found in Mozart operas (that is, minimal melody, often settling on one note for many words, accompanied by harpsichord or piano). But I digress.)

Porgy and Steve and Bess

In fact, Sondheim loved Porgy and Bess so much that in 2011 when a new production was in the works for the commercial Broadway stage, he took umbrage at the attitude of its creators.

After an article appeared in the New York Times which stated that “the director Diane Paulus and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks have added new scenes, punched up some dialogue, invented biographical details and — most radically — added a more upbeat ending”, Sondheim dashed off a letter to the Times to express his chagrin.

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.

Well said! I’ve also been annoyed by institutions like the Met that bill it as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

He went on:

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.

Agreed! I just watched the San Francisco Opera production of Porgy and Bess, and I think it’s great just as DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin wrote it.

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?

Ouch!

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?

Hmmm. San Francisco had Porgy use a cane rather than the goat cart, and I didn’t mind that.

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.

Bravo, Mr. Sondheim!

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