Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Ballad of Porgy and Bess and Sondheim

Now, the fact that you are reading this blog tells me you must be at least somewhat interested in the theatre.  And unless this interest is brand-spanking new (like, in the past 3 months), you surely heard all about the not-so-nice letter Mr. Stephen Sondheim wrote criticising the creative team of the Broadway-bound revival of Porgy and Bess for their hubris in rewriting the classic in hopes of making it "more commercial."  But in case you didn't, you can read what he wrote here.

Well, in the interest of stirring the pot, the NY Times felt the need to interview director Diane Paulus and lead producer Jeffrey Richards about the matter.  You can read all about that here.

Quite frankly, the attitudes displayed by Paulus and Richards in this article disgust me, for several reasons.  First off, the refusal to mention him by name like he's freaking Lord Voldemort is just plain childish.  They are both supposedly professionals working in one of the highest profile theatre cities in the world; they need to grow up and get thicker skin.  If they honestly thought no one would take issue with them altering a recognized American classic, they are absolutely delusional.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, including Sondheim.

That's not to say I don't understand why there might be hard feelings.  Sondheim did trash their new production without having seen it, based on reports of changes (apparently authorized by the writers' estates) he hadn't seen in context.  Sondheim is certainly aware of the clout he has in the theatre community, and does not critique others lightly.  He made a point of not discussing still living or recently deceased lyricists in his book Finishing the Hat out of respect for them, and I'm sure Sondheim would be one of the first advocates of the artistic process and the necesscity of trying different approaches in rehearsals.  He had to have known publishing the letter would create a lot of bad press for a show which wasn't fully formed, and yet he wrote it anyway.

But the attitudes displayed by Paulus and Richards in this interview show that they have fundamentally missed the point.  Yes, Sondheim was probably upset that they were changing a work he has repeatedly cited as one of his favorites.  But more importantly (and this is where Sondheim is absolutely correct), he took issue with the fact that they were doing this tinkering without any of the original creators around to okay it.  As a writer himself, Sondheim understands the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into creating a theatrical work.  He has also shown he is not afraid of change, having given his blessing to many radical reinterpretations of his own works and also continuing to rewrite shows after their initial premieres (see the multiple versions of the show that ended up being called Wise Guys went through).

But Paulus, Richards, and new book writer Suzan-Lori Parks had decided they could improve upon an acknowledged masterpiece, which (as Sondheim mentioned in his letter) shows they all have enormous egos.  The claim that this is what Gershwin would have done had he lived longer is beyond presumptuous.  We can't know what Gershwin would have done; he isn't around to ask.  Even if there were things he wanted to change, we can't claim to know how he would have changed them.  It is not Paulus' place to make those decisions for him, even if his heirs have given her the okay to do so.  If the show is so broken to begin with, why is Paulus even wasting her time reviving it?

Clearly, Paulus has let the success of Hair go to her head.  Yes, she did alter and change aspects of that show, but she also had composer James Rado around to okay her alterations and ensure that the intent of the piece was preserved.  Unless she has managed to reanimate the dead corpses of George and Ira Gershwin, she can't have the same luxury with this latest project.

What must really make Paulus mad is the fact that somewhere along the way, she was forced to admit Sondheim was at least partially right.  A lot of the changes Sondheim took issue with are no longer a part of the show.  Paulus insists the decision to cut these elements has nothing to do with Sondheim's letter.  Assuming she's telling the truth (a big assumption), exorcising those changes from the production shows that Paulus realized they did not work and/or were contrary to the spirit of the show.

So Sondheim - 1, Paulus - 0.

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