On 5 November 2010, the American Repertory Theater announced the “re-imagination” of the classic 1935 Gershwin-Heyward musical, Porgy and Bess. I didn't offer an opinion on the project at that time, though I reported the announcement to interested friends and colleagues, but I'll confess now that I had trepidations about fixing something that didn't seem broke to me. My feeling was—and is—that the original is a masterpiece as it is and I don't see any need to fix it. I figured we'd see when the reviews came out in September 2011—I guessed the New York Times would cover the Cambridge opening even though it was due in New York on 17 December (for a 12 January 2012 opening)—how well playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, composer Diedre Murray, and director (and ART artistic director) Diane Paulus succeeded, but the impulse seemed both misguided and unnecessary—an exercise in, as Stephen Sondheim puts it, arrogance.
Some time ago I ran an article on ROT confessing to being a Broadway Baby (22 September 2010), having been introduced to the Broadway musical when I was very young. I've had a special attachment to the genre ever since, especially the classics and great oldies. The ones that were before my time—like South Pacific, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, and others—were introduced to me through my father's cast album collection (which I now have), and Porgy and Bess was one of those. I have no objectivity, no distance when it comes to those old-time shows (most of which I only saw on film in my pre-teen years, as I did the 1959 release of P&B). They're all just wonderful, and the whole idea of bowdlerizing is anathema to me, painful to contemplate. In fact, when I read that Parks was doing this rewrite, I felt a little the way I felt about Julie Taymor's work on Spider-Man: Parks was indulging her own ego because of her recently attained status as a star in her field. I hoped she wouldn't take the fall Taymor took, but I never cared about Spider-Man, whereas I do have feelings about Porgy and Bess. Though I wish Parks and the others success, I do wish they'd chosen some other project to redo and left Porgy and Bess alone.
Adaptations, as experience has proven, can yield really good theater. In 1983, Peter Brook stripped Carmen down to what he called the essentials (80 minutes); it was well received by theater critics but less so by opera and music reviewers. (He did that again with Mozart’s Magic Flute in 2010.) Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and their collaborators, reconceived Romeo and Juliet and we got West Side Story, one of the greatest musicals of all time. Of course, Lerner and Loewe adapted Pygmalion and gave us My Fair Lady—and so on and so on. Almost all musicals, the great and the lesser, were born by adapting a straight play or some other material—including Porgy and Bess itself, which began as a novel and then a drama.
But reconceiving plays even without rewriting can have profound, and not always felicitous, results. In 1985, I saw a Much Ado About Nothing directed by John Neville-Andrews at Washington’s Folger Theatre that was set in the 1930s aboard the S.S. Messina, making it seem more like Anything Goes than Shakespeare. It wasn’t actually bad, but just silly. (How did Don John escape from a ship in the middle of the ocean?) In 1997, Washington’s Arena Stage presented Ibsen’s Ghosts, directed and designed by Romanian avant-gardist Liviu Ciulei. The director turned one of Ibsen’s prototypical realist plays into a symbolist production to disastrous consequences: nothing fit and all of Ciulei’s adaptations reeked of imposition. Arena later produced a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire staged by Hungarian director János Szász which appeared to have been updated to the time of the presentation (2001) and performed in tune with Artaud’s theater-of-cruelty theories rather than Williams’s lyric realism. Again, the style and the text fought against one another. As I always note, however, when some director makes a mess of a script: the original's always still there for revival. No one's destroyed it. (A lesson Arthur Miller apparently didn't get in 1984 when he stopped the Wooster Group from doing their L.S.D., a travesty of The Crucible. I know he had the right to do that. I wonder if he was right to do it.) But making it different isn't the same as making it better, and if that's what Parks and her team say they were doing—improving the original—then I have to object.
(This kind of approach always reminds me of something my father used to tell me about the German translations of English literature he read as a schoolboy here in New York. They were annotated übersetzt und verbessert—“translated and improved.”)
I obviously can't address the production itself, not having seen it yet. (I’m writing this before it’s opened in New York City.) And I won't deny Parks and all the right to adapt or even bowdlerize a work, including one by the likes of the Gershwins. It's not, as someone once said to me, painting a mustache on the “Mona Lisa,” after all. (Speaking of which, even that’s been done, in a manner of speaking: In his 1919 poster of the “Mona Lisa,” Marcel Duchamp drew a beard and mustache on the model’s face—but the Dadaist did it only in his poster. Colombian artist Fernando Botero also painted his 1963 take on the Mona Lisa as a fat, grotesque girl. In both cases, though, da Vinci’s original masterwork remained in the Louvre, unharmed.) What I want to go into is the arrogance of the adapters’ rationalizations and the implications that the original can't communicate to today's audiences.
According to the ART announcement, the plan was backed by the Gershwin and Heyward estates. (George Gershwin wrote the score of P&B; DuBose Heyward wrote the libretto and collaborated with Ira Gershwin on the lyrics for the musical version. Heyward also wrote the 1925 novel Porgy, which he and his wife, Dorothy, adapted for the 1927 straight play of the same title, the source of the musical.) The Gershwin representatives objected only to the idea, proposed early in the process, of mixing some outside Gershwin songs into P&B, but that was dropped. The aim, as Diane Paulus explains it, was to turn what they saw as essentially an opera into a commercial musical play: ''The Gershwin estate was interested in a team that would take this amazing classical work, that people know as an opera,” the director affirms, “and turn it into a musical.” The musical piece was, indeed, labeled by the original collaborators as “an American folk opera,” and, as a spokesperson for the Gershwin Trust asserts, “It has had, and continues to have, a successful life in opera houses around the world,” but I, for one—I can’t speak for anyone else—never think of P&B as an opera like Carmen or La Bohème. Yes, it’s been staged by opera companies, but so have Guys and Dolls and A Little Night Music, among many, many others. In fact, opera companies, including both the Met and the New York City Opera, which have no reason to do Broadway’s job for it, have been presenting musical plays for decades, so that’s hardly a definitive criterion. Hey, many musical plays (as well as operas) have been broadcast on television. Does that make them TV shows? Of course not, that’s just silly.
(TV has experimented with the musical form for years, going back at least to the ’60s and The Monkees on NBC from 1966 to ’68 and The Partridge Family from 1970 to ’74 on ABC. Cop Rock on ABC in 1990 actually modeled its structure on the Broadway musical; it was followed in 2007 by Viva Laughlin on CBS and Fox’s Glee in 2009. Were they musical theater? No, they were still TV shows. Of course, only two of these were even remotely successful—and none qualified as high art. I can think of only one actual musical play conceived specifically for television: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on CBS in 1957. That was a true cross-over—though it, too, was eventually bowdlerized by its own medium.)
Additionally, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and several other of the composer’s musicals have more singing than spoken dialogue, coming close to operatic in that respect. Are they really operas in sheep’s clothing? I recently saw a terrific revival of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (see my ROT report of 22 October 2011): it’s even called an opera. So is it? I’m sure it’s been produced by opera companies in the past, but the BAM version was from the Berliner Ensemble—not an opera company. Is that definitive? Not really, but it’s suggestive. The 1964 French movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has no spoken dialogue in it—it’s all sung in recitative. Is it an opera? It’s had stage adaptations (in English, and not terribly successful), but I don’t know of any live opera presentations either in French or any translation.
What all of these are, I say, are unique (or nearly unique) theatrical or film experiments, innovations in musical theater or musical film, that stand on their own as successful works of genius. Porgy and Bess is like that: it’s not really an opera, despite its subtitle; but it’s not just a musical play, either—it’s one of a kind. (There are lots of things like that in the arts—and probably other fields, too.) As far as I’m concerned, those pieces all work on their own terms and don’t need to be defined so they fit into narrow, preconceived categories. Because they don’t is no rationale for revising them, editing them, changing them. They’re square pegs: they’re not going to fit in any damned round holes. The only way to make them fit is to cut away bits that don’t conform to the predetermined shape. Then they aren’t what they were anymore. Is that what we want?
When I was in grad school, I had a teacher who was a dramaturg. She’d met a young playwright one of whose early scripts was being developed for production at the theater where my teacher then worked. She admired the young writer for her idiosyncrasies and the quirky turn of mind she displayed in her writing—she was surprising and unpredictable. The playwright began to have some success and her plays began to be produced around the country, and one, which I’d read in manuscript, was coming to New York in a production from a respected regional rep company. My teacher had seen the production there and urged us to see it when it came here, but warned us that the director and producer at the rep theater had “taken out all the wrinkles.” The quirkiness had apparently frightened them, so they made the play conform to more standard structure and dramaturgy. As a consequence, the spark had gone out of the script. The production of what had been a provocative and quirky play was lackluster and wan.
When Elia Kazan made Tennessee Williams change the ending of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the 1955 Broadway première, he may have assured the play’s commercial and critical success—but he altered or obscured the play’s original meaning and made Williams terribly unhappy. Their long and productive collaboration (six plays and two films) began to deteriorate after Cat and Williams published the play with two endings, his original one, less hopeful and reassuring and more ambiguous, and Kazan’s “commercial” one, more direct, acceptable, and comfortable. (Just to demonstrate that original concepts hang around, the 1958 film adaptation of Cat, starring Burl Ives, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor, had the Kazan ending, but I saw the stage version at the then-new Actors' Theatre of Louisville in December 1969 or January 1970 that was directed by ATL's founding artistic director, Jon Jory, and starred his father, Victor, as Big Daddy and his mother, Jean Innes, as Big Mama and used the alternative Williams ending.)
Square pegs for round holes, see?
When ART announced the new production and adaptation, which the theater is billing as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess to differentiate it, I suppose, from the original one (though I don’t know what happened to Heyward’s contribution), Paulus explained that the Gershwin estate “wanted to make it more fully realized in terms of characters. They were eager to have a writer bring it to the audiences of today.” This is where I start to have problems. If all the producers want is to get younger spectators who don’t know the play into the theater, that’s actually a fine goal. But aren’t there ways to do that other than reconceiving the play and the characters? That’s essentially marketing—an outreach job for the dramaturg and the press agent. But Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori (who’s also won Obies and a MacArthur “genius” grant) asserts: “we're . . . crafting a piece that speaks to contemporary audiences,” declaring that the original doesn’t, and Tony-nominated director Paulus promises to make “the characters in the story more fully realized,” as if they hadn’t been three-quarters of a century ago on the Broadway stage or half a century ago on the Hollywood screen. Audra McDonald, who plays Bess, concludes that “the opera has the makings of a great love story too that I think we’re bringing to life.” Has it been dead and buried all these years, then? Then composer-musician Diedre Murray, an Obie-winner and Pulitzer finalist, proclaims: “We want to move the story of Porgy and Bess forward on its continuum, re-envisioning it for a modern perspective.” P&B is a classic, like a Shakespeare or a Sophocles: by definition, a classic transcends era and period and continues to speak to audiences through the ages. If you need to bring it to the attention of naïve audiences, show them what a wonderful and fulfilling piece of theater it is, Yes. But if you feel you need to bring it down to some lowest common denominator, to make it simple to understand and keep the 30-minute attention spans of today’s adolescent TV spectator occupied, then I shudder! I shudder at the poverty of your imagination and commitment to the art in which you’ve presumably chosen to spend your life—and I shudder for the arrogance and benightedness of your soul. Paulus also declares: “[W]e want to bring Porgy and Bess to life on the musical stage in a way that feels essential, immediate, and passionate.” I never realized that it had been dead, insignificant, distant, and cold all these years!
This is not to say that P&B is easy. It fell out of favor in the ’60s and has always suffered from charges that its portrayal of poor African Americans in depression Charleston, South Carolina, is offensive. Less worrisome, it’s also seen by true Southerners as culturally inaccurate. (I’m going to assume that readers are either familiar enough with P&B’s plot not to need a synopsis, or can find one easily on the ‘Net.) The roles are nearly all black, which was a problem for segregated theaters in the Jim Crow era of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. (Washington’s National Theater permitted integrated audiences when the play toured there in 1936, but reverted to segregated houses afterwards.) Personally, I’m not convinced that part of the impulse to “fix” Porgy and Bess now doesn’t come from a certain resentment on the part of black (and female) artists like Parks and Murray that three white men were responsible for a story written in a stage interpretation of the black vernacular of the day and a score written in imitation of black rhythms and traditions. As the New Yorker’s Hilton Als remarks, it was a situation “in which white composers and lyricists presented their ideas of blackness to one another.” (I’m not musically astute enough to know how well Gershwin did with the music—though I do know that he was known as an superb student of various musical styles—but many African-American singers covered the songs in the ensuing decades, often turning them into hits on various charts.) The musical’s popularity resurged after 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera presented a highly-regarded revival. (It won the best musical revival Tony when it transferred to Broadway—the only Tony the play’s ever won.) Difficulty, however, often comes with great art, including the classics in all genres. We don’t go around rewriting Shakespeare willy-nilly just because he’s hard to do or to follow. (Well, okay—some people do. But that doesn’t make it necessary or right.)
According to Patrick Healy, the New York Times reporter who attended some rehearsals in Cambridge in August 2011, Parks rewrote scenes, created biographical elements for the characters, composed dialogue to replace the musical recitative, and even replaced the ending with one that suggests more hope. (On that last note, Michael Musto in the Village Voice suggests some humorous changes that might be made to other well-known musicals to spiff up their conclusions. The one that tickled me the most is: “A Titanic where they avert the iceberg and keep pouring the cocktails?”) Actress McDonald, winner of four Tonys, explains that the new version “tries to deal with the holes and issues in the story that would be very, very obvious to a musical-theater audience” and a trustee for the Heyward estate speaks of “balancing the original work’s intentions with a story that is maybe more realistic for a present-day audience.” According to earlier announcements, some of George Gershwin’s score has been re-orchestrated as well. “It’s always easy to make something different out of it,” warned James Levine in 1985 when he was preparing to conduct the first Metropolitan Opera performance of Porgy and Bess. “But the trick with any masterpiece is to make use of what the genius gave you.” Healy reports that ART’s P&B company is already anticipating some resistance and, according to reviews of the Cambridge opening, some of the ART changes were later reversed.
Paulus speaks of the characters, too: “In the opera you don’t really get to know many of the characters as people, especially and most problematically Bess . . .,” who, in McDonald’s words, is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy, reports that the new script provides details about how Porgy was crippled and develops the character’s desire to walk normally. (Porgy also walks with a cane in the adaptation instead of riding in the iconic goat cart of the original version, substantially changing the visual dynamic of the finale when Porgy rides off to New York City to find Bess as he and the cast sing “I’m On My Way.”) The director’s first decision was to hire Parks to “excavate” Bess in particular. From what, I wonder? It sounds as if Paulus found the character (and, by extension, the plot and the other characters, too) buried beneath tons of debris. (I’ve just written a short report on the restoration of a long-abandoned building in downtown Manhattan. Over the years, the 1882 structure was sheathed in false walls and ceilings from the 1940s and ’50s. The renovation architects plan to do a lot of excavation to uncover the original Beaux Arts detail. Is that the analogy Paulus is drawing?) As Paulus sees it, Bess isn’t “understandable” or “fully rounded.” Parks calls Porgy and Bess, the two lovers at the center of the story, “cardboard cut-out characters” and claims that “fleshing them out” is “what George Gershwin wanted” and “if he had lived longer,” he’d have “made changes, including the ending.” As one acting teacher of mine would have said, We don’t have Gershwin’s phone number. How the hell would Parks know that? Did Gershwin leave secret instructions that tell some unknown writer 76 years in the future what he’d do if he hadn’t died at 38 two years after the début?
Oh, wait! I know: she held a séance. Ohhh, Ouija board . . . .
That changed final scene bothers me, too. According to reports, Paulus’s idea is to show that Bess, who’s leaving for New York City, and Porgy have a connection and to indicate that it’s their destiny to reconnect. So Parks wrote a scene in which Bess tries to persuade Porgy to go with her (in the original, she’s trying to get away and just splits with Sportin’ Life), and then, in the last moments of the play, when in the original version Bess was already on the boat (that’s leavin’ soon) for New York, she and Porgy share a look that’s supposed to intimate that connection. Not only is that a wholly Romantic stage picture, way out of line with the play that Heyward and the Gershwins wrote, but it defies their clear intent. They wanted an ambiguous ending—that’s why Bess leaves unannounced and Porgy doesn’t know where she’s gone. (“Where’s My Bess?” doesn’t make a lot of sense in the new scenario—Porgy already knows where she’s heading.) Instead of leaving shortly after Bess, as the changed ending has it, so that we can infer that he’s only a few steps behind her, Bess has a much greater head-start in the 1935 play—and we know that Porgy’ll be damned lucky to catch up to her by the time he makes it to New York City (if he even manages to—on that goat cart). We’re not supposed to walk out of the theater knowing Porgy’ll meet up with Bess in New York. We’re supposed to walk out not knowing. This is a big difference Paulus and her team contemplated. That’s not just tweaking a little. It’s grabbing hold with both hands and ripping the heart out. That’s Kazan with Cat—though Kazan got Williams to do the rewrite: he didn’t do it himself later. Where do you get the chutzpah to do that? If Parks is in contact with George Gershwin’s ghost, my guess is he’d slap her face for that! Or at least take out a cease-and-desist order.
Now, I suppose my reaction to this effort to iron out all the wrinkles of Heyward and the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess can be dismissed as the rantings of an old fogey. I can live with that. I imagine that Paulus, Parks, and Murray would disparage me as a “Gershwin purist,” as McDonald calls people like me, out here with “their arrows in their bows, ready to shoot.” Okay. I’ve copped to being a geezer before now. I wouldn’t be alone in this case, though. Among the more illustrious (and knowledgeable) protestors (in addition to Michael Musto in the Voice) is no less a personage than Stephen Sondheim, composer and playwright of a few contemporary classics of the musical stage himself (Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, to name just three). I’m going to report a little of what he wrote, after Patrick Healy’s 7 August report on the production appeared, in a letter to the New York Times, published on 14 August 2011, because I totally agree with the composer’s opinions. In fact, I can't find an argument against Sondheim's points.
First, Sondheim was disturbed by the omission of Heyward’s credit from the new title of the ART revival. Why is the sole librettist and co-lyricist being ignored this way? “More dismaying,” Sondheim writes, is the new creative team’s “disdain” for the original work. Of Diane Paulus’s assertion that we don’t get to know “the characters as people,” the playwright complains: “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.” When it comes to the “backstories” that Paulus has asked Parks to supply, Sondheim explains, “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.” That, like the notion that the play speaks to audiences beyond its era, is part of the definition of a classic piece of art. What do we know about Lear’s backstory, or Tartuffe’s, or Alceste’s, or Faust’s. (We know a little more about Oedipus’ or Antigone’s biographies because they are the subjects of entire myths over centuries of a culture.)
On the matter of making the play easier for an audience to follow, Sondheim laments Paulus’s lack of trust in the spectator. “I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers,” the composer says wryly. “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?” I couldn’t agree more!
As for Audra McDonald’s sense of Bess in the original play, Sondheim responds to the actress’s estimation that Bess isn’t always “full-blooded” by pointing out, “She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly,” and of McDonald’s claim that the ART adaptation is bringing out the hidden love story, the playwright declares derisively: “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?” Parks’s invocation of Gershwin’s spirit elicits the same reaction from Sondheim that it did from me—though more eloquently, perhaps. His dismay at the altered ending, which he suggests would necessitate replacing Porgy’s plea, “Bring me my goat!” with the cry, “Bring me my cane!” adding, “Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.” (Sondheim’s so much cleverer than I am. Which may be one reason he’s a playwright and I’m not! My only thought was that composer Murray might be tempted to splice in a chorus or two of “Hand Me Down My Walkin’ Cane.”)
By labeling us sticks-in-the-mud “Gershwin purists,” which apparently Sondheim is, too, the writer notes McDonald can defuse any criticism. In defense of himself and the rest of us, Sondheim indulges in a little sarcasm:
[W]e 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.
Just as I stated earlier, Sondheim affirms he isn’t prejudging the production (which, of course, hadn’t opened at the time he wrote his letter), but is only condemning the “attitude” of the adapters. He praises the casting of the leads and, like me, wishes the adapters good fortune. But he makes this disclaimer:
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.
Producer (and creative director at Jujamcyn Theatres) Jack Viertel admonishes that “revivals succeed best when artists take the essence of the original work, add to it subtly or stage it inventively, and make the show live anew without betraying the original.” I think that’s what Sondheim is suggesting—and it’s definitely what I’d have wanted, in the vein that Molly Smith “modernized” Oklahoma! at the Arena last fall without “wholesale rewriting” (see my report on ROT, 17 October 2011).
Sondheim’s suggestion for the new title, based on the distinction he sees between the two endeavors, is neither The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, nor The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess. “Advertise it honestly as ‘Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.’ And the hell with the real one,” Sondheim insists. “Perhaps it will be wonderful,” the playwright offers. “Perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will have earned their arrogance.” My sentiments exactly!
The response to the response, however, is sort of interesting in itself. A friend who gave me a heads-up about Healy’s 15 November 2011 column in the New York Times says of the stance of the adaptation team and their producers, “They practically refer in it to Sondheim as if he were Lord Voldemort—‘he who shall not be named.’” In fact, Healy quotes Paulus as asking, “Are we not saying his name?” and producer Jeffrey Richards replies, “It can be said.” Defensive much? According to Healy, some of the most objectionable changes the team made to the original script have been dropped, among them the hopeful ending, and Paulus is adamant that it was the team’s own decision to do so, not a response to the criticisms of “Mr.-Whomever-we-are-not-talking-about.” The reversals came, the director insists, from “learning about the work” so that “we found its strongest version.” What it sounds like to me, though, is that after trying to rework the play with some preconceived ideas in their heads, born of some kind of philosophy or agenda, it turned out that the best version of the play was the one that Heyward and the Gershwins wrote in 1935 after all. It’s water seeking its own level. Turns out those old guys (who weren’t actually all that old at the time) knew a thing or two about making musical theater. And Sondheim, who knows a few tricks himself, had the ART folks’ number all along! You go, guys!
To be sure, when Ben Brantley reviewed the Cambridge début of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in the New York Times (2 September 2011), he remarked that the bruited changes weren’t “nearly as egregious as they were rumored to be,” probably because many, especially the planned new ending that was cut in previews, were softened or dropped by the time the play opened. Brantley does emphasize that this production is Bess’s play and that Audra McDonald is the strongest actor on the stage and that nothing else in the production has her power or cohesiveness. (Paulus and Parks have acknowledged that the emphasis on Bess may have resulted from the number of women artists involved in the adaptation.) “Ms. McDonald’s performance aside,” writes Brantley, “all the new stratagems to specify and anchor the show’s themes, people and plot have instead made it oddly abstract and diffuse.” The direction, says Brantley, “lacks focus,” so “the story lacks urgency.” In other words, one of the very goals Paulus set for the adaptation failed; I wonder if this was the result of the creators’ original intent fighting against the imposed reinterpretation and ultimately defeating it. Another planned innovation, the substitution of interpolated spoken dialogue for the operatic recitative, “can often feel arbitrary,” in Brantley’s estimation. The square pegs seem to have just resisted being pounded into those round holes. Commenting on the current spate of “revisals,” revivals whose scripts and production concepts have been heavily reworked, Jack Viertel warned of “the dangers of taking a show that has always worked a certain way and saying, ‘I believe it can work my way.’”
In Variety, Frank Rizzo writes, “While entertaining, engaging and exceptionally well-acted, something is lost, too, in the scope of the score. The work's new passions—while musical-theater ‘real’—are now earth-bound, making it more ‘folk’ than ‘opera,’” sacrificing focus on the music to emphasize the “truth in the storytelling.” (One example: When Clara sings “Summertime” in the opening, she’s carrying a real baby!) The restored original ending was judged “pitch perfect” by the Arts Journal’s David Patrick Stearns, reinstated, he says, not because it’s sacrosanct or because Sondheim excoriated ART over its excision: “Put simply, the old ending works better . . . and so solid that it still works when cluttered up with some angsty new writing.” Rizzo adds that the new, peppier orchestration, while it doesn’t seriously affect the lighter numbers, diminishes the deeper ones like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” because the old operatic way of singing them resonates more soulfully. “This sort of mistake is often made by theater directors who are new to opera,” Rizzo explains. “They think of music as theatrical information. But it’s not. It’s music, and it has powers that we don’t fully understand.” In the New Yorker, Hilton Als supports almost all the adjustments and says the performance “left me breathless.” In ART’s hometown paper, the Boston Globe, Don Aucoin assures theatergoers and us “purists” that Sondheim’s concerns were mostly unnecessary because while ART made some adjustments, “Paulus and adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Dierdre [sic] L. Murray are largely faithful to the spirit and the structure of the original.” Overall, the reviews I saw of the 1 September 2011 Cambridge opening of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess are somewhat mixed but generally positive, with occasional reservations. Only Brantley in the New York Times is essentially negative. My sense, however, is that what the reviewers object to is the remaining alterations and the positive response, along with nearly universal praise for Audra McDonald’s work (she was especially appreciated for her combination of excellent acting and superb singing), comes from the elements of P&B that were left unchanged or reverted back to the original concepts.
The misconceived production of a new play can kill it, as almost happened with Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke after the 1948 Broadway outing, closing after a scant three months. (The play’s rep was revived when José Quintero restaged it Off-Broadway in 1952.) The account of the young dramatist whose play was smoothed out by the rep company before coming to New York made me think of some of the principles by which a dramaturg is expected to work. One is to be the playwright’s advocate. There isn’t a dramaturg listed for ART’s re-imagining of Porgy and Bess but Diane Paulus certainly served as one de facto. Where was her advocacy for Heyward and the Gershwins? The estates might have been looking over her shoulder and approving of her work, but no one, it seems, was looking out for the originators’ artistic interests. No one without a serious conflict of interests. (Literary estates are sometimes less concerned with protecting the legacies or intentions of their departed charges than in seeing their works revived. It’s how they earn money.) In fact, the participating artists seem to have treated the original creators as adversaries. Another dramaturg’s rule, lifted from the Hippocratic Oath, is: “First, do no harm.” The ART docs all operated because they could; no one looked out for the patient’s ultimate welfare. (To continue the medical analogy, these adapters also behaved like stereotypical surgeons, electing to perform surgery as the first option even when less invasive but perhaps equally effective treatment was available from the acting and directing departments.) Their goals were not to make the play a better rendering of what it was—if that were even possible or necessary—it was, for each participant, a variation of making it suitable for ART’s artistic profile, saleable to some notion of the company’s audience, or appropriate for some vision of the 21st-century theater scene. Nowhere was the work of art honored. The production team working with that young writer didn’t try to make the script the best expression of her intent; they guided her to rewrite it into the play they wanted her to write. In the same way, the P&B adapters turned Heyward and the Gershwins’ script into the Porgy and Bess they’d have written. (Claiming it’s what George Gershwin would have done is just absurd.) In the end, I fall back on the one thing Audra McDonald said with which I can agree: “[T]he opera will always exist to be performed.” Happily, whatever becomes of the ART adaptation, however well-intentioned and however successful the result, the original Gershwin-Heyward version remains, and we can always return to the well. The mustache on this “Mona Lisa” can be removed with no lasting damage.
[I should note that this column was written before the New York production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opened (17 December 2011 for previews; 12 January 2012 for the press). Not only have I not seen the performance, but the local reviews haven’t appeared yet. (Among the New York City press, only the New York Times covered the opening. Against the paper’s usual policy apparently, Brantley went to Cambridge because of the controversy, especially in response to Sondheim’s letter, which had played out in the pages and on the website of the Times over the year since the 5 November 2010 announcement of the “re-imagining” of P&B.)
[Readers may have noted that I avoided referring to the original P&B as an “opera” (though I may have done so once or twice). As I said in the article, I see it as a one-off, something unique unto itself as far as its genre or taxonomic category is concerned. Let me quote the New York Times’ music critic Donal Henahan from his review of Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1983: “‘La Tragedie de Carmen’ is a peculiar hybrid, a bird that makes noises like an opera but looks like a play and may be neither . . . .” Henahan has precisely captured my feeling about the 1935 version of Porgy and Bess. Henahan went on to suggest that Brook’s adaptation was principally “a celebration of a director's ingenuity.” I’d revise that to say that P&B was principally a celebration of a composer's, two lyricists', and a librettist’s geniuses.
[I should also note for clarity and preciseness that the other adaptations that I named above, West Side Story and My Fair Lady, weren’t merely reinterpretations of earlier classics (Romeo and Juliet and Pygmalion), but the creation of entirely new works of art. Cabaret wasn’t merely a revision of I Am a Camera or even Berlin Stories. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific wasn’t a simple adaptation of Tales of the South Pacific. As I noted, too, Porgy and Bess was itself such an adaptation: a musicalized version of the Heywards’ play Porgy, which was in turn a stage adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s novel of that title. They were new artworks that stood on their own, without reference to their predecessors.]