Bob Cashill: He loves the original Gershwin production, but — as he makes clear here — is less than thrilled with a revised version heading to Broadway. Much less. Makes for interesting reading; is he right to prejudge?
Brian Boone: Yes. Sondheim can do whatever the hell he wants.
Bob: Sure, he can do it — we can all do it — but it seems, well, not terribly collegial, even if it is better reasoned than your average Internet nyah-nyah post. I mean, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be my favorite Le Carre book and film/TV adaptation, but I’m not going ballastic (just yet) on the forthcoming two-hour movie.
Robin Monica Alexander: He’s said in the past that Porgy and Bess is his favorite musical.
Dave Lifton: This has the full text of Sondheim’s letter, which is even more cutting.
I’m not familiar enough with Porgy & Bess to say whether the changes will improve or hurt the show, but it strikes me as egotistical on the part of the new creative team. “Yeah, it was fine for 1935, but we know how to make it a contemporary piece of musical theatre. It’s what Gershwin would have done.”
Dan Wiencek: From reading Sondheim’s missive, it reminds me of the dumbed-down version of The Great Gatsby that Roger Ebert recently carped about, but without even the half-assed excuse of being aimed at an audience of children.
Brian: I think it’s fine to update shows for embarrassing cultural content that would seem odd or off-putting out of context. Sort of like when they got David Henry Hwang to help out with the revival of Flower Drum Song a few years ago. They should maybe have involved Sondheim, had they had the chance. And his love of that show is well, well known.
Dw. Dunphy: I’m sincerely surprised that the controversy wasn’t that the lyrics were “corrected” in order to beat back stereotype criticism. When this thread was initially presented, that’s what I assumed was bound to happen.
There was, I suppose, a way around this: use the basis of the opera, the music and such, but if you’re “reimagining” it, it doesn’t need to be Porgy and Bess. Just as West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet (even though the adaptation was from a play to a musical), I’m sure there could have been a way of tailoring it enough so that you knew it was an adaptation, yet didn’t demand a namebrand allegiance to the original.
Molly Marinik: Sondheim is ardently defensive of his colleagues, both alive and dead, so it makes sense to me that he feels the need to speak out on behalf of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. He probably feels like he’s one of the last of his generation and he can’t sit idly by as formative contributions to American musical theatre are tinkered with at best, and completely bastardized, at worst. That, or he’s just becoming a crotchety old man and this is his version of yelling at kids to get off his yard.
Bob: “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.”
But, you know, McDonald’s opinions stink.
The complete piece definitely has more sting to it, and is all the sadder for it. Sondheim’s no fuddy duddy; I’ve seen him at all kinds of shows, from big musicals to tiny Off Off Broadway productions where he and I were about the only two people in the audience. He’s not living under a rock. And he knows the realities; if a film of Sweeney Todd were going to be made, and Tim Burton was determined to make it with two lousy singers in the leads and buckets of blood on celluloid, so be it — it was a film of Sweeney Todd, something he may have thought would have never happened. And if John Doyle wanted to revive it on Broadway with Patti LuPone playing a tuba, well, there was that, too. He’s relatively open to new concepts and new insights regarding his own work; why not extend that latitude?
I digress. If Paulus and co. were changing the piece on its own terms, as an opera, I would understand his dismay (and would not understand why they were doing it in the first place). But it seems as if they’re emphasizing the musical theater side of the piece, and trying to make it work for a Broadway environment.
Which may be completely misguided–but the point (or a point) is that he’s reacting to a news article about the changes, not the changes themselves. Why go public based on that? Better for him to have contacted Paulus and read her the riot act privately than to head to the blogosphere with his grievances, like an Ain’t It Cool News reader.
The pro-Sondheim commentators don’t seem to get that — if Sondheim says it, then it must be correct. I’m not so sure, and will give the adapters the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure Paulus (who got as much from Hair as anyone could at this late date) is reeling, but building on what Molly said I wish she’d write him back, saying, “Hey, Steve, at least we’re working on something; why don’t you get off your legendary ass and create a new show for the first time in a decade?”
- Sondheim’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ slam: Producers respond (popwatch.ew.com)
- Stephen Sondheim Rips Suzan-Lori Parks (and the Rest of the People Who Are Rewriting “Porgy and Bess”) a New One (slog.thestranger.com)
- ArtsBeat Blog: Stephen Sondheim Takes Issue With Plan for Revamped ‘Porgy and Bess’ (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Arts & Leisure: It Ain’t Necessarily ‘Porgy’ (nytimes.com)