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Stage Dive: On Sondheim's Reservations about the New Porgy and Bess

Sondheim, at a less cranky moment.

Summertime! When plenty of nothing is happening in the theater itself but theaterfolk are spoiling for a fight in the wings. This week, we finally got ourselves a real, world-class donnybrook between titans (as opposed to inconsequential slap-boxing fought by giggling proxies): After reading a New York Times account of the “new” Porgy and Bess (radically revised by director Diane Paulus and playwright-librettist Suzan Lori-Parks) opening on Broadway in early 2012 with many redactions and additions — including, most notoriously, a happy ending — Stephen Sondheim was moved to Sond off as only he can. The godhead of musical theater generally takes a hands-off approach to other living artists, but he was moved to speak by the on-the-record “arrogance” of Paulus and Co., who, according to Sondheim, “confidently claim that they know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.”

Sondheim, needless to say, doesn’t see Porgy as so dreadfully flawed: He considers it not just a great American folk-opera curio, but the font of all Broadway, its rootstock and fundament — the Lucy of emotionally sophisticated, dramatically cogent musical storytelling, way, way, way ahead of its time. He’s also a big booster of original lyricist-librettist DuBose Heyward, on whose novel and play the show is based, who seems to be bearing the brunt of the rewrites. (Needless to say, no one’s talking about rewriting George Gershwin’s score.) He bristles at the suggestion that Heyward wrote a dud character in Bess, Porgy’s drug-addicted beloved. “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?” (By theater standards, ladies and germs, this is a drive-by.)

Sondheim also sees conspiracy in the show’s new supertitle: It’s billed as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, although Sondheim has long maintained that Heyward is solely responsible for the show’s lyrical greatness: “The contributions of Ira Gershwin alone are easily distinguishable by their firmly traditional, generalized stance,” he wrote in Finishing the Hat, his 2010 concordance and hadith. Heyward’s words, on the other hand, he calls “the high water mark in musical theater.” (“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.”)

You know Sondheim’s mad at you when he hits you on a semiotic level. “[Paulus] 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.” When Audra McDonald offers that Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character,” Steve pounces: “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.” Ka-boom! Take that, lazy colloquial tics! (Thank God the Times tends to weed direct quotations of their extraneous “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows,” or there’d be nothing left of Paulus or McDonald but smoldering, deconstructed phonemes.)

All ringside handicapping aside, is Sondheim’s preemptive Sweeney Todd job on the Paulus project justified? Or is this just another case of an aging emperor putting his boot on the neck of the next generation? Personally, I’m thrilled at the prospect of a reinvigorated Porgy — and simultaneously dubious at the idea of “fixing” any work of art, however outmoded its content or style seems to be. (No one’s forgotten the flap over the bowdlerized Huckleberry Finn.) The Times piece that touched Sondheim’s nerve makes only passing reference to Porgy’s still-clicking-hot racial radioactivity. It’s a story of “black life” penned by a white Southerner, scored by a New York Jewish composer, written in dialect (cartoonish, by today’s standards) and containing strong whiffs of well-intentioned paternalism, tourism, and exoticism. This isn’t much discussed by the Times or Sondheim, but it might help explain the apologetic posture Paulus and her collaborators strike on Porgy’s behalf. I suspect there’s some coded politics in play, as the creative team is walking a tightrope: They don’t want to suggest the original show was offensive — or, worse, irrelevant — because that would raise the question Why stage it at all? At the same time, they want to signal their willingness to make the piece compatible with today’s sensibilities. By attacking the alleged thinness of the story and characters — by attempting to transform “archetypes” into “full-blooded characters” — they’re really promising to bring humanity to characters many feel were originally denied it, not by conspiracy or malice but by the de facto limitations of the show’s original authors, white men writing in 1935.

Now, does the fact that a masterpiece is vaguely racist give one carte blanche to rewrite it? Even to tag on a “happy ending”? I have serious doubts about that last bit, but honestly, who knows? Depends if it’s any good, this new material. I don’t like the pat language of “correction” any more than Sondheim does — Shakespeare, “corrected” by the Victorians, became pretty godawful boring, after all. But Shakespeare outlived the Victorians, just as Porgy will outlive Diane Paulus, Suzan Lori-Parks, and Stephen Sondheim. And if the Paulus edit does become the new norm, eclipsing the original, you’d better believe someone will exhume the “authentic” version in 10, 20, 50 years, and exalt it as the True Cross. As a wise man once wrote,

Stop worrying if your vision is new.
Let others make that decision ...
they usually do!
You keep moving on ...

Photo: Michael Stewart/Getty Images