Can Diane Paulus Save Porgy and Bess?

Wait, what? A theater post on a Monday? Yes, folks, we're going to try stirring things up at Sketchy Details with some media integration. Let's see how it goes with flying free again. It seems every single time the creative team of Porgy and Bess open their mouths, they're drawing more attention to how flawed they think the Gershwin/Gershwin/Heyward show is. Last Sunday, Paulus' interview about her new adaptation garnered a horrible response, including my own. It felt like unbridled hubris. Who comes out of the gates before anyone has seen a production and says that they know better than the original? A fool blinded by her own ambition or a poor communicator. Neither option bodes well for a new take on Porgy and Bess.

You would think that the team learned their lesson about discussing radical changes, like adding backstory and a more hopeful ending. Their official press statement in response to Stephen Sondheim's scathing commentary suggested as much.

The entire creative team and cast have the most enormous love and respect for ‘Porgy and Bess,’ and we are grateful for the support and encouragement we have received from the Gershwin and Heyward Estates for this production.

Now that's how you make a controversy go away.

What do you mean they're all still issuing statements to the press? It's partially true. Since the show opens in Boston at the American Repertory Theater in a few weeks, a lot of information the creative team gave the theater and reporters is just now coming out. Take, for example, music adapter Deidre Murphy's explanation of why she's changing "Summertime" in the ART's guide to The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess:

At the beginning of the show, Clara is singing “Summertime” to her baby. But when I listened to it, I asked myself, “Why is she singing so high? That would wake the baby up. It has to be a lullaby.” So I took the whole thing down. And then I decided that I wanted to use an accordion, because whenever I hear an accordion it always transports me someplace else—a folkloric place that doesn’t have machines. So the show now opens with Clara singing “Summertime” as a duet with the accordion.

Cue animated Scanners gif.

Is she, as the musical adapter--the driving force for musical change in this production--, actually daring to say that "Summertime" isn't a lullaby because it's too high? That anyone singing that high would wake the baby? It's a musical. Your realism complaint in a musical is that the lullaby is too high? At a point in the show where Clara is clearly singing the song to her baby as a lullaby? Meaning the audience will accept that this song is for her child. Your realism complaint isn't that everyone is breaking into song throughout their daily lives instead of just talking through their issues? This, to me, is the most offensive thing released about this production so far. I'm waiting for the announcement of leggy blonde chorus girls and a kick-line to close out Act I.

So what, if anything, can director Diane Paulus do to stop this show from going under before it even opens? What steps can she take to rebuild faith in the theater community that she is not just fooling around? Cause we all know what happens when the theater community turns on you. Right, Julie Taymor?

The first thing she can do is tell everyone involved in the show to stop talking about the show. Period. End of discussion. Let the audience and critics tell the world about the specific changes. Who knows? Maybe mezzo-belting-range version of "Summertime" with a squeaky accordion in the background will be the best stage rendition the world has ever known? We don't know yet how these changes work in context.

Too bad she's also responding more. This time, however, she's doing the second thing I would say to save the show: actually show respect to the source material. What say you, Diane Paulus?

This is a masterpiece...Not only musically, but in its bones. It's great theatre. Great emotion and power.

Amazing. Outspoken respect for the source material. I'm feeling a little better already. She's still saying things like she needed to bring a writer on to "strengthen the work theatrically." And you know what? She has to at this point.

The third point is to be consistent in statements. The cat's out of the bag that Paulus, et al, believe the show is horribly dated and inaccessible to a wide audience. You can't just take that back after one of theater's most respected living composer's reads you the riot act. What you can do is soften the message just a bit and find a way to say it that doesn't seem insane.

The fourth point--the biggest one--is to actually focus on getting this show ready. Forget what people like me are writing about it at this point. We don't know nearly as much as Paulus does. We can only respond to what she gives us. We haven't heard one note of new musical arrangements or seen one scene of the production. We know three very specific details--"Summertime"'s new musical setting, Porgy is walking with a cane, and the new explanation of Porgy's condition.

Paulus has come forth with the first changed line. I'm going to tell you right away I'm not a fan.

For example, it's not clear in the opera why Porgy is a cripple. There's one line, 'God made me to be lonely.' He's displayed in a cart, and there's no real explanation of why he is that way. When you look at the source material in the novel, it's clear he was born this way. We added four words — 'I'm crippled from birth.' It's not an accident in which something happened to him as an adult. A handful of words give a specificity to his character.

What part of "God made me to be lonely" is vague and unclear in the context of a clearly crippled man discussing his love life? You learn quite clearly that Porgy is forced to adopt his crutch--whatever it is in that production--through some twist of fate and can't get away from it. "I'm crippled from birth" is awfully direct for the context of this show. How much book had to change to be able to get away with blunt lines like that for the dumber theater audience? And are we really at a point in theater that if we don't explain every detail like a Victorian Realist novel that the audience will hate it? If you draw attention to backstories to this level of detail, you're likely to create conflicts later on. What if you say "crippled from birth" in one scene and then "God did this" in another? Some people will focus on the shifted language rather than the story and be mentally checked out the rest of the night.

Regardless, Paulus needs to put her creative energy right now on directing this show. This is the fourth element of saving the show: focus on making the show work. Not on PR spin, not on press releases: on the actual product. Prove the critics wrong. Make us all understand that your vision is amazing and eye-opening and exactly what a modern audience needs for Porgy and Bess. Then you might be justified for these bizarre comments to the press.

I do hope that all professional theater productions succeed. They employ so many people onstage and behind the scenes. They bring joy to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. They are contributing to a field I love and I have immense respect for that. It's just so hard to get behind a show where the creative team makes such a terrible first impression.

What do you think? Can anything save the reputation of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at this point? Do you still want to see the production? Sound off below.

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