I've never seen Porgy and Bess. I'm not even sure I've ever heard any of the songs. So the objections raised by Stephen Sondheim to changes in the upcoming production go over my head.
In fact, some of the things that have gotten stuck in his craw are downright perplexing. In his letter to The New York Times, Sondheim says that the line "Bring my goat!" which apparently has been taken out, is "one of the most moving moments in musical theater history." Really?
To be honest, Porgy and Bess was on a list of works I had no interest in ever seeing. I knew it took place in a poor black community in South Carolina in the 1930s and I figured it would be a stereotypical portrait. The song titles made me cringe: "Oh, Dere's Somebody Knockin at de Do," "Here Come de Honey Man," "I Ain't Got No Shame." I could go on but you get the point.
Despite my reservations, I bought a ticket to see Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., later this month, in its pre-Broadway engagement.
What made me change my mind was Audra McDonald, the four-time Tony winner who'll play Bess. I have enormous respect for McDonald. I figure if she's signed on, then I would give it a chance.
And I was glad to read the article in The Times that drew Sondheim's attention, in which representatives of the Gershwin and Heyward estates express their desire for a version of Porgy and Bess that would draw African-American theatergoers.
So it shocked me to read Sondheim's letter excoriating McDonald, director Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright who is adapting the book for the musical. To be frank, it's a bit unseemly for someone of Sondheim's stature to come down so hard before the first preview. With great power comes great responsibility.
The sniping at McDonald seems especially petty. She has been a fierce advocate for gay rights, for which she is rightly praised. So when she speaks as an African-American woman about her concerns with racism in Porgy and Bess, she deserves to be treated with respect.
I understand that Sondheim is speaking from the perspective of a musical theatre purist who has a great love for Porgy and Bess. But instead of calling out the largely African-American performers and creative team for their "arrogance" I wish he'd at least consider the viewpoint of African-Americans toward this work. It doesn't even seem to have entered his mind.
In an article in The Boston Globe, the performers and creative team talk about the work and about the importance of adapting it for a modern audience.
McDonald said that while she's performed songs from Porgy and Bess in concert, she's been reluctant to play Bess onstage. She mentions the "Sambo-type racist talk" that bothered her. “I want them to be real people in the way that Lorraine Hansberry was able to lift the shade and [let] everybody peer into a real American family with ‘Raisin in the Sun.’ ’’
Parks said the song “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ’’ “has stuck in the craw of many a folk, because people have interpreted it as the happy darky song: There he is, out of nowhere, for no reason, singin’ about how he ain’t got nothin’ and how that makes him happy.’’
Philip Boykin, who plays Crown, says: “There are things I’ve done in the opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ that I’ve hated for years. I’ve hated the lines.’’ But with Parks willing to hear suggestions, he’s been able to ditch some of them. “I just love it,’’ he said. “I love it, love it, love it, love it, love it.’’
I'll admit I'm not a purist. If somebody wants to remake my favorite movie, Casablanca, and have (spoiler alert!) Ilsa stay with Rick at the end, I'd say, "that sounds interesting." As far as I know Porgy and Bess did not come down from God at Mount Sinai, delivered into the arms of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. (And this idea that a work is sacrosanct, that it can never be reinterpreted or altered, isn't that how a lot of people feel about the Bible?)
The Globe article notes "what has been the greatest obstacle for Porgy and Bess over the decades: the perception that this depiction of a black community in the American South, written in dialect by whites, is a racist work."
No one wants to make Porgy and Bess unrecognizable. But there's a difference between making an audience confront its prejudices, no matter how uncomfortable that may be, and making them comfortable in their prejudices.
If we can make the portrayal of black people in the 1930s less offensive, if we can make black audiences feel welcome and performers more comfortable, while still retaining the elements that everyone says make Porgy and Bess a great work, then why not? Or at least, why not try?