Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stephen Sondheim on Porgy and Bess

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?


Greene said...

With all due respect Esther, could I please suggest you read the libretto of "Porgy and Bess" or better yet listen to one of the many fine recordings of the work? It would give you greater insight into the conflict and might allow you to understand where Mr. Sondheim is coming from.

I honestly don't think Mr. Sondheim's concerns are with the attempts to purge racially insensitive material from the libretto. He laments the contempt the directors seem to have for the source material and for the intelligence of the audiences. I picked up on this same issue and Tweeted about it this past Sunday, specifically the dramaturgy of "I Got Plenty O Nuttin" which, in the context of the drama, makes complete and perfect sense. It reflects Porgy's newfound sexual bliss and is also a reply to Jake's intent to risk his life at sea because he needs money for his wife and baby. It's not an unmotivated darky song at all, but a man celebrating his love for his woman, his life, and his God. Listen to the scene in context and I think it will become clear.

Mr. Sondheim is also correct when he talks about what a thrilling moment it is when Porgy calls out for his goat in the closing moments of the opera. Out of context it may seem ridiculous, but in the context of the show it is the act of a man who is risking everything in a hopeless struggle to get back the woman he loves. He will likely fail. There is a good chance he will die trying, but try he must. His resolve in the face of impossible odds is inspiring and awesome. I hope the revisionist version will be able to retain the power of the moment.

In reading your blog and twitter comments I find you to be incredibly open minded and your concern and sensitivity for the African American artists and audiences is laudable. I'd like to think I see both sides of the argument too. I'm very nervous that this great pinnacle of American Art might be harmed in this revision, but I also intend to see it in New York with an open mind. I look forward to reading your thoughts after you see the Boston premiere.

K Thornton said...

Well I AM an African-American theater goer and I one-hundred percent agree with Soundheim.
I have seen Porgy and Bess many times, mostly performed at City Opera, and one of the most emotionally stirring moments in opera is this opera's finale " I'm on my way."
How and more importantly WHY is this altered?
These are not racial stereotypes, they are period and location specific characters, well fleshed out by Gershwin.
If you have not seen the original opera how can you even comment on his opinion?

Linda said...

I've never seen Porgy and Bess either. I look forward to seeing this production as I'm a fan of the cast and creative team, but I also would like the chance to see the original to understand the changes. I think both sides are in the right here, but I think you are misunderstanding Sondheim's intentions with his letter.

His main concerns are calling the show "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," the creative team assuming they knew what the original creators wanted, and not trusting the audience.

He isn't talking about race, because that's not really the issue here, but since you brought it up, I have to disagree with you. This is a little different, but I can't help but think of the recent controversy about taking the n-word out of Huck Finn. I think there is a danger of trying to make things too PC. How can we learn from the past if we erase it?

One more thing. Sondheim does actually go on to praise McDonald in his letter and I think it is clear that he does respect her.

As always, I enjoy discussing these things with you, even if we don't completely agree.

Anonymous said...

I cannot tell you how much I have always despised Porgy & Bess. I realize that it has provided work to many African American opera singers when they could not get work in other shows, and I know that some of them hate the dialog as well. I realize it premiered in 1935 but I find the dialect offensive.

Re Huck Finn, the use of the word nigger is historically accurate and reflects the way white folks spoke at the time. The dialoect in Porgy & Bess is representative of a white person's imaginings of how black people spea and is more a reflection of the minstrelsy.

At any rate, for those who like it good for them. They can continue to see it. It is not going away just because there is a new production.

I am looking forward to the new production.

Esther said...

Hey Geoff,

First, thank-you for the thoughtful reply. I love a good discussion!

While Sondheim may not be concerned about attempts to purge racially insensitive material from the libretto, that clearly "is" the concern of just about everyone connected with this new production - from representatives of the Gershwin and Heyward estates, to Suzan-Lori Parks to the performers. They "all" mention it in the Times and Globe articles as the impetus for the changes. For Sondheim to completely ignore their concerns is disingenuous.

I realize I'm in the minority in this discussion. Most of the comments I've read on the Times site and elsewhere agree with you. Perhaps the idea of tinkering with great American works of art just doesn't bother me as much as most people. I've been trying to think whether there's an example of a book being rewritten or a movie or TV series or a play or musical being remade that would have me feeling as passionate and I'm not sure there is one.

Part of the reason may be that we always have the original. With theatre, it's more fleeting, there aren't as many productions and I understand the fear that a newer interpretation could become the standard.

The interesting thing about the changes in Porgy and Bess is that, of course, if I'd never read these article I wouldn't have even known they existed. Unless I go back and see the movie I'll never have anything with which to compare it. The only thing I'll be able to say is whether "this" production works for me.

Esther said...

K Thornton, thank-you so much for reading and for leaving a comment.

Like I said, I realize that most people support Sondheim. I guess I was struck by the comments from the African-American performers in the articles I mentioned, who do express discomfort with the work. I didn't mean to imply that "every" black person felt that way or should feel that way. I realize everyone will come to this with their own personal view.

While it's true I've never seen Porgy and Bess, I wanted to be honest about why I've shied away from it. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive. I think I was the last Jewish person to ever see Fiddler on the Roof. I just figured it would be a stereotypical, romanticized portrait of Jewish life in Russia and I didn't want any part of it. When I finally saw it, I loved it!

I'm certainly hoping I'll fall in love with Porgy and Bess, too, and find it as emotionally stirring as you mentioned.

Esther said...


Thank-you so much for weighing in! I really value our discussions about theatre, too.

I'm not trying to be obtuse. I understand what Sondheim is objecting to and I'm glad he did say at the end how much he respects Audra McDonald.

The Huckleberry Finn comparison is an interesting one. I think the last comment, from anonymous, makes an interesting point.

The Globe article mentions that until the 1950s, the Porgy and Bess libretto was "liberally sprinkled with the racial slur known as the "n" word." So if we really want to be true to the original, should we put that word back in?

I have to respectfully disagree with you when you say the issue isn't about race - it certainly is about race to the black actors and creative team. The whole problem is that Sondheim "doesn't" talk about race when everyone else "is" talking about it. It's fine for him to mention all of the other things but when he glosses over the main point of contention it makes his arguments less persuasive in my mind.

I was thinking about another comparison. Imagine that Fiddler on the Roof had been written in the 1930s by Christians and contained portraits that some Jewish performers and theatergoers found problematic. The characters seemed stereotypical and despite the best intentions of the authors, they didn't quite "get" the nuances of Jewish life and culture. Still, it was a beloved piece.

So 80 years later, the heirs of those men decide they want to make the work more comfortable for Jewish audiences and actors and they hire a Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish playwright to work on it.

I guess the Sondheim supporters would say they shouldn't do it. But being Jewish, I would understand where the impetus comes from.

Esther said...

Anonymous, thank-you for weighing in and for discussing the Huckleberry Finn analogy. It struck me that this issue brings up the matter of how we talk about race in America - or how we "don't" talk about it. I'm looking forward to this production, too. I saw Audra McDonald on Broadway a few years ago in 110 in the Shade and she was amazing. I also had the pleasure of meeting her at the stage door to get my Playbill signed and she's just as gracious as she is talented!

Bob said...

Interesting discussion here, too! I can't WAIT to hear what you have to say about the show, Esther. If you can, try to find the film of the opera (though it's out of print and largely considered poorly done) to get a sense of the original piece before you see this new version.

Esther said...

Hey Bob,

I'm glad we've managed to get a good discussion going on both our blogs!

And I don't mean to dismiss the concerns of Sondheim or his supporters. As theatre fans I'm really glad we're having this debate.

You know, usually I'm an information junkie. Even though I "want" to go in cold, I can't help but read as much as possible about a show beforehand. But this time, I want to try to be as spoiler free as possible (as possible for me, anyway) just as an experiment!

That brings up another point I was thinking about - to be successful on Broadway, Porgy and Bess will have to bring in new fans who may be like me - they only have a vague notion of it, they haven't seen it before.

Maybe afterward I'll try to find the opera or even the movie.

Anonymous said...

I just read the 1935 review of Porgy by Brooks Atkinson that appeared in the NYTimes. I totally agree with his view of musical theater vs. opera. Interestingly, he identifies one of the songs as a lazy darky song. He doesn't object to this, in fact its one of his favorite numbers. LOL.

Esther said...

Hey Anonymous, thanks for the comment. I just looked up the review and saw that sentence. Ugh. But sadly, probably not unusual in that era. And you can certainly see the point that Suzan-Lori Parks is making.

Anonymous said...

I've just finished watching The Wire. I started counting the number of times the 'n' word was uttered ...and gave up!

Stephen Sondheim's letter made me laugh out loud; he is so witty, and so passionate in the defence of this work he loves (as do I). People ought to know that Gershwin spent several weeks living with a coastal black community near Charleston, worshipping with them at their local church, so that he could absord their culture as much as possible. I think he and the other authors showed a degree of cultural sensitivity which was unprecedented at the time. The people of Catfish Row are real; some are good, some are bad; some are broken, and some are healing. To dismiss Porgy and Bess as minstrelsy is absurd.

However, creative artists deserve a chance to show what they can offer. If the integrity of the show is maintained, I would like to see the result of what may be an interesting experiment. And, quite frankly, if Audra McDonaold is in it, I'll see it!

Esther said...

Hey Phil, thanks so much for reading and for leaving a comment! And I hope you do get to see Porgy and Bess on Broadway.

I don't want to put words in the mouths of the creative team but I "think" what they would say in answer to you is that spending several weeks observing a community isn't really a substitute for intuitively knowing that community. (Think of the Fiddler on the Roof example I mentioned in a previous comment.)

I agree that for the time, they did show sensitivity but that doesn't mean we have the same standard of sensitivity in 2011. And whatever you or I may think, Porgy and Bess has made black performers and audiences a bit uncomfortable.

There was a great panel discussion at Harvard about Porgy and Bess, featuring the creative team, and I definitely recommend watching. Suzan-Lori Parks talks about what she was trying to accomplish and she certainly has respect for the Gershwins and Heywards.

Opera lover said...

I think that a lot of this talk is missing the point. The objection that the vast majority of people have against rewriting Porgy and Bess (95%+ of all comments on all sites) is in changing a landmark work, and then calling it Gershwin’s.
If you’re going to add dialogue, change the ending to make it happier, and then pretend that it’s what Gershwin wanted, you’re just trying to deceive the public.
If this team doesn’t like Porgy and Bess the way it was written by the original artists, then they should go and write their own musical. Don’t go paint a smile on the Mona Lisa, and try to tell us that it’s what Leonardo wanted. I’m sorry, it’s not.