Porgy and Bess and Sondheim, Oh My

Don't you just love it when someone with far more clout than you beats you to your own response? On the one hand, it adds credibility to your argument. On the other hand, it looks like you're copying them. All I can say is that I've planned on writing about the updated--with backstories and happier ending--Porgy and Bess that will be transferring to Broadway this season since I read the New York Times article on Sunday about all the changes. If you believe director Diane Paulus, Porgy and Bess is an ill-developed period piece that doesn't reflect the true vision of George and Ira Gershwin, the original composer and lyricist*. Paulus, the director who pulled together the wonderful Hair revival and tried to revive The Capeman last summer, is "assessing it virtually line by line to judge when heightened musicality or newly punched-up dialogue works best — resulting in a kind of hybrid."** So what does that actually mean? Paulus thinks Porgy & Bess is an opera that needs to be changed for a commercial Broadway run. She's changing the style of dialog and even adding backstory and a happier ending.

In the opera you don’t really get to know many of the characters as people, especially and most problematically Bess, who goes back and forth from Crown’s woman to Porgy’s woman while also addicted to drugs...I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires having your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.

::record scratch:: Say what?Porgy and Bess has poorly developed characters? Since when? Is this a new development? Has Carmen Sandiego stolen the original book, forcing Paulus to adapt a new one? What is going on here?

Audra McDonald is not helping the case, either.

I imagine Gershwin purists will have their arrows in their bows, ready to shoot...But the opera will always exist to be performed. What we wanted to do was a new conception that tries to deal with the holes and issues in the story that would be very, very obvious to a musical-theater audience.

Plot holes? Issues? In Porgy and Bess? Have we all slipped into The Twilight Zone without even getting an introductory voice over by Rod Serling?

The only part of this I don't have a problem with is the idea of "a new conception." I love people adapting old works into something new. I'd love to see more people experiment with ideas like Carmen Jones--the Hammerstein/Bizet musical adaptation of the opera Carmen--or Two Gentlemen of Verona--the Guare/Shapiro/MacDermot rock musical adapted from the Shakespeare play. That's great. It's part of the joy of working with public domain works. Though Porgy and Bess is not public domain in the United States (and will not be until 2030 or so), Paulus and company went through the necessary legal loopholes to create their vision.

So if I don't object to a new adaptation of Porgy and Bess (which, by the way, I do consider musical theater, not opera, and I'm not the only one; hard music alone does not an opera make), what do I object to? Two big issues: a more hopeful ending and the title.

First, Paulus claims Porgy and Bess has the makings of a great love story (as if it isn't already) but needs a more hopeful ending. I don't understand that. What part of this show requires a neat and tidy ending. The leading man is a cripple who traditionally rides around in a goat cart. The leading lady is a drug addict torn between two men. This is sounding a lot like those misguided productions of Romeo & Juliet where the director insists on the dead couple walking up a brightly lit staircase to heaven so the audience gets a happy ending. Are we that dumb as a culture that the powerful original ending of this show isn't good or clear enough anymore?

Second, the show is not being called Porgy and Bess. It is being called The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. I wasn't aware that George and Ira Gershwin had risen from the grave to express their original intentions for the piece to Paulus and her crew. I didn't know that the always planned on this show being a by the numbers book musical with song and dance and an upbeat ending. I trust that if they wanted those things, they would have worked with original book writer DuBose Heyward to do that with the show.

This isn't a matter of preserving a piece like an artifact at a museum; it's a matter of respect and clarity. This is not The Gershwins' vision of Porgy and Bess. It's disrespectful to claim it is. Paulus is not the first person to try and adapt the show into a more modern musical. She's just the first one presumptuous enough to suggest by re-titling it that this is the real version of the show. Go ahead and make this a happy-go-lucky love story. You got the rights to adapt the show; do what you want. Don't go around claiming that this is the actual vision of the show's composer/half of its lyricists. And unless you've eliminated every lyric Heyward contributed to the show through historical research, your title is even more misleading. Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward worked together on the lyrics. Why isn't this The Heyward and Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a long rebuttal to this New York Times article that was published yesterday. He is far more eloquent than I am.

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...[snip]

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?...[snip]

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.

So I'm not the only fuddy duddy objecting to the way Paulus and McDonald are attacking the original show. It's hubris. I was looking forward to a new Broadway production of Porgy and Bess starring some very talented singing actors. Now I'm not sure. Pride comes before the fall and--to mix metaphors--it looks like Diane Paulus is soaring high on wings of wax. How long before they melt all over her vision and she once again blames the source material?

The sad part is that a certain type of theater goer will not know anything was changed. They'll genuinely believe that this is the real version of the show and nothing has been changed from the original production. They'll think the love story is dreamy and will embrace a more upbeat and concrete ending. It's "adapt Wicked for the children" all over again only with a piece worth getting upset about.

Thoughts? Am I just a Gershwin purist who hates change? Before you say that, I am currently working on a musical adaptation of Northanger Abbey that transposes the Gothic cliches Jane Austen lampoons into the stagnant conventions of musical theater. I love change that doesn't pretend to be the real authentic thing. What say you? Sound off.

*And what of the majority share lyricist DuBose Heyward? Doesn't he count for something? **All quotes about or from Paulus or Audra McDonald come from the first New York Times article.