So much has been written about the current Porgy and Bess controversy, I feel I’ve little to add. And I’m ever-hesitant to say anything about a production I’ve not seen.
For those needing the back-story, I’ll try to cram it into this paragraph. A white author from Charleston, SC, DuBose Heyward, wrote a novel about a black community there, Porgy, in 1925. With his wife Dorothy, he adapted it into a hit Broadway play, also called Porgy. George Gershwin, whose career bridged the classical music and popular entertainment fields, spent many years working with DuBose Heyward on an opera version, Porgy and Bess. Eventually, they called in George’s brother Ira to contribute some lyrics to the second and third act. The opera was produced on Broadway, but was not particularly successful. After George’s untimely death, Porgy and Bess was embraced as the greatest of all American operas, almost universally admired. Currently, The American Repertory Theatre in Boston is mounting a musical version of the opera, substantially revised by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray under the direction of Diane Paulus. It boasts an all-star cast of musical comedy veterans, and is eying Broadway. After the creative team and certain cast members spoke to the press about what makes their version, now called The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess“, better and more to the taste of today’s audiences, Stephen Sondheim voiced his objection to their attitude, and that wildly inappropriate title, in The New York Times. Boston Globe article. Sondheim’s in The Times.
Let’s begin with the ridiculous. Some have asserted that a change is needed because Porgy and Bess has not been successful in a financial sense. Well, I don’t have any figures in front of me, but the show’s played on Broadway seven times, has toured nationally more than once, has been done by countless opera companies (including The Metropolitan Opera), has been recorded many times, and became a Hollywood movie. It can be argued that one aria, heard right at the beginning, Summertime, is the most successful song of all time. Like many an opera, it’s large, and therefore costly to produce. It’s a difficult opera to do because it requires a great quantity of black opera singers. There’s a comparatively small community of singers to choose from, and yet, despite all these difficulties, it gets done again and again.
It’s not cynical to suggest, however, that this new, shorter concoction is fashioned with one eye on the bottom line. Broadway, as ever, is a commercial venture. It’s easier to sell seats to a musical with a running time shorter than three hours, or one with a cast of players who have musical comedy voices rather than opera ones – after all, nowadays there are not black opera singers who’d sell a lot of seats on The Great White Way – or one with a happy ending.
Far more ridiculous is the more controversial assertion that the original Porgy and Bess is somehow racist. The characters in the all-black fishing community of Catfish Row aren’t terribly sophisticated, and believe in a number of superstitions. They use the n-word.
Let’s think about that one. A white Charlestonian writes about an all-black community using the n-word when no whites are around. Is that inaccurate? Is it racist? Get over it, for chrissakes. One of the things that makes Porgy and Bess one of the greatest pieces of American art is the way it illuminates, with verisimilitude, a part of the world opera-goers are unlikely to see. What Heyward and Gershwin wrote was the result of a substantial amount of research into what’s called “Gullah” culture.
Still, the Heywards and the Gershwins were white, and some have lauded the fact that the women rewriting the dialogue and music are both black. To which I say: It’s high time we get some actual Italians to rewrite Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare, an Englishman, lacked the proper ethnicity to accurately depict life in Europe’s Boot. It’ll take a true Veronan or Venitian, rewriting the Bard, to provide a legitimate portrait.
Paulus and Parks maintain they’re adding dimension to the characters. But has the opera been criticized for Bess’ or Porgy’s lack of depth? Porgy’s most famous song, I Got Plenty of Nothing, seems, to them, like “a happy darky song,” one in which, unbidden, a beset-upon black character sings about the joy of living. They’re a little gleeful about the solution they found, writing new lines for a “nudge-nudge” suggestion that “nothing” in this case, means sex. How dense they must be, to have missed the implication, in any production of the opera, that Porgy is joyful because he’s sharing his tiny hut, which clearly has room for just one bed, with Bess. I first saw Porgy and Bess when I was a small boy, and I got that. It was never an unmotivated “coon song” about getting a high out of life; but they felt the need to fix it lest anyone in the audience get the false impression that their sensitive souls got out of nowhere.
I don’t wish to spoil the two plots for anyone. These versions end differently. I’ll only say that the opera’s original ending is astoundingly moving. It’s tragic, and yet affirmative. We’re moved by a character’s faith in God while we can see ahead to the future events that will happen after the curtain falls. I believe it’s one of the best endings in all of musical theatre.
And Sondheim has said for years the Heyward’s lyrics are the best in all of musical theatre. So, naturally, he’s irked at the decision to title the new show, “The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’.” It’s nice to see the author of “he made his home in that fish’s abdomen” get some unaccustomed credit, but not while leaving out mention of the man who created the characters, knew the fishing community, and wrote the original novel, the play version, the plot of the opera and all of the opera’s first act lyrics. (Sondheim doesn’t care for Ira’s contribution, natch.)
Credit where credit is due. The new work is not what George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward (with an assist from Ira Gershwin) wrought. I really wouldn’t mind if the producers called this musical “Suzan-Lori Parks’ ‘Porgy and Bess’” because that’s whose it is, and I’m sure there are plenty of Suzan-Lori Parks fans who are dying to see it.