It Ain't Necessarily So...
August 10, 2011 8:34 PM   Subscribe

It Ain't Necessarily "Porgy". Director Diane Paulus is turning The Gershwins' (and DuBose Heyward's) Porgy & Bess from an opera into a commercial Broadway musical, with a more upbeat ending. Stephen Sondheim takes issue with this bold reinterpretation. posted by crossoverman (52 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I mean, I know that the original still exists and will in all likelihood endure far beyond this production's memory, but it still rankles. It's one thing to reinterpret & reboot 80s cartoons based on Hasbro toys, but giving Porgy & Bess a happy ending? If you think you understand the characters better than Heyward, write your own damn story.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:52 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Romeo and Juliet god married and lived happily ever after. The end.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:54 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

god got
posted by Sys Rq at 8:54 PM on August 10, 2011

I was wondering when Nahum Tate (he of the happy ending for King Lear) would get reincarnated.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:55 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just read the article, and Sondheim's reaction, earlier tonight, and it reminded me of the post a couple days ago about "Bowdlerization."

I think Sondheim's right. The idea of giving it a "more upbeat ending" makes me feel like they should just rename it "PORGY! The Musical!"
posted by dnash at 9:03 PM on August 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

the happy ending for King Lear

posted by kenko at 9:05 PM on August 10, 2011

“I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including the ending.”

To begin with, the title of the show is now “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”

Well, no. The Gershwins were perfectly capable of writing a happy ending if they'd wanted. They had written a jazz opera, and not a jazz operetta, so the sad ending is kinda implied by the genre choice.

So hey -- if you want to call it "Paulus and Parks' 'Porgy and Bess'", go nuts. But it's not "the Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess'". That's not what they wrote. They made different artistic choices. What Paulus and Parks chose to do -- that's their own work, standing on the shoulders of much greater giants.

And to presume what one of those giants would have done had he lived longer?

That takes some kind of brass balls, I give you that, ladies. It is no stranger to 'fix' Gershwin than to 'fix' Mozart, and who can claim to fix Mozart without inviting ridicule?
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:15 PM on August 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is going to catch on, I can tell:

MACBETH: Lay on, Macduff, And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Exeunt, fighting.

MACDUFF: Nah, man. I'm good. Let's go get some cake or something.

MACBETH: ...yeah. OK. I could eat. We cool about that whole 'slaughtering your wife and kids' thing?

MACDUFF: Yeah, man. Ain't no thang.

Exeunt, holding hands, while James Taylor's 'You Got A Friend' starts playing in the background.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:22 PM on August 10, 2011 [16 favorites]

What's the meaning in the original NYT story where it says, "Du Bose and Dorothy Hayward wrote the original lithograph of Catfish Row, ..."

posted by woodblock100 at 9:24 PM on August 10, 2011

Exeunt, holding hands, while James Taylor's 'You Got A Friend' starts playing in the background.

There's a story about a production of Macbeth where the lead pissed off quite a few of those playing minor characters. So when Macbeth asked about his wife and is supposed to be told she is dead, the actor playing the messenger (or whoever it is) replies "Oh she's fine. Never better." leaving Macbeth with no chance to launch in on "she should have died hereafter..." speech.

As for the happy ending for Lear, it ends with Cordelia happily married and Lear back on the throne (I think). It was apparently the only way they could sell the play in the Restoration as everyone thought it was too much of a bummer otherwise.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:28 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I do believe it, and I ask your pardon.
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.


Man what a great nap, thanks for getting me that pillow Othello!

Record scratch


Smashmouth's All Star plays as everyone dances
posted by shakespeherian at 9:29 PM on August 10, 2011 [28 favorites]

I agree with Sondheim. It's basically a big middle finger to the original, and yeah, it should totally be called "Diane Paulus' Porgy and Bess."
posted by blucevalo at 9:36 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Audra McDonald - playing Bess in this production - is supposed to be an astounding singer (haven't heard her, would love to). Sondheim is pissed at her statements about the play, but nonetheless stops to mention her voice.
posted by jb at 9:39 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

"reinterpretation" does not always need to be preceded by "bold". This is a cowardly play for mainstream approval at a time when the mainstream is getting shallower everyday.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:42 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

The only real surprise is that they aren't calling this a 'reboot', setting it in an Ivy League university in 2011, and casting Paris Hilton as Bess.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:46 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I recently saw McDonald in concert and was absolutely blown away. I honestly think that if she were to stage Tax Code: The Musical I would be first in line to see it and cry the whole way through her heart-rending performance of "Article 12b-716.8(g): deductions for commercial vehicles not larger than 15 tons".
posted by Dreadnought at 9:52 PM on August 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

If it ain't Bessted, don't fix it.
posted by isopraxis at 10:18 PM on August 10, 2011

Sondheim nailed. Read this earlier today. He is an eloquent and ornery old coot but he's totally right and I really hope this show gets slammed. Pathetic.
posted by ReeMonster at 10:20 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Audra McDonald's voice is a-fucking-mazing! She's also a four-time Tony award winner.
posted by crossoverman at 10:24 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

And Audra's excellent voice has nothing to do with this issue. Just the idiotic things she said.
posted by ReeMonster at 10:25 PM on August 10, 2011

Sondheim is gonna be pissed when he sees the new Sweeney Todd where Mrs. Lovett was just making Hot Pockets.
posted by ao4047 at 11:32 PM on August 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Did anyone see the Trevor Nunn PORGY AND BESS? Transferred over from London in 2006. (really? That long ago? Is that right?) I enjoyed it, but I'm no Gershwin afficionado.

He "turned it into a musical" which I think just meant cutting chunks of it and speaking the recitative. It was generally well-received over here (UK) but of course it's not our culture, so it's not so sancrosanct.
posted by alasdair at 12:10 AM on August 11, 2011

I googled Diane Paulus. Amongst her credits, the wikipedia entry states that she did a revival of Hair which won awards. It also lists two other shows: "The Donkey Show", a disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream and "The Karaoke Show", an adaptation of Comedy of Errors set in a karaoke bar.
posted by likeso at 1:42 AM on August 11, 2011

Which is to say, "The Dagger Show" is a distinct possibility.
posted by likeso at 1:50 AM on August 11, 2011

Her revival of Hair deserved all the praise and awards it got.
posted by crossoverman at 1:51 AM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Then she should stick to revivals and stay away from reinterpretations.
posted by likeso at 2:51 AM on August 11, 2011

If this is what it takes to make it a Broadway hit, then make it a Broadway hit and let it play alongside T.S. Eliot's Cats and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. They aren't rewriting the songs, and the songs are the only reason anyone still cares about Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin wanted hits. If people love this show, think it was much better than Cats, and maybe even see it again and again, more people will get into Gershwin, the "real" Porgy and Bess will still be around in recordings and other productions, and Gershwin's ghost will be satisfied.
posted by pracowity at 4:17 AM on August 11, 2011

Nah, pracowity, I do see your point, but we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Changing the ending means changing the context of the songs means changing the emotional meaning and impact of the songs means changing the songs. In this purist's opinion. :p
posted by likeso at 5:25 AM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you pick up nothing else from this thread, recognize that Audra McDonald has a voice that makes you proud to be a human born with ears to hear something so extraordinary. (And if you don't have ears, then I'm very sorry.)
posted by grabbingsand at 5:26 AM on August 11, 2011

I can't wait to see Porgy fly around the stage suspended from the ceiling.
posted by tommasz at 5:42 AM on August 11, 2011

Which is to say, "The Dagger Show" is a distinct possibility.

Diane Paulus worked with a company called Punchdrunk to bring a version of Macbeth called Sleep No More to Boston. She didn't have much to do with its creation but she was heading the ART when it came.

I went - it was absolutely goddamn breathtaking. Literally one of the most incredible things I've ever been a part of.

The Donkey Show is not quite as earth-shaking but is still a lot of fun. If you're in the Boston area, come to OBERON where it's a more or less permanent fixture. Great times.

This, on the other hand, seems pretty stupid. I don't know. I think there's a lot to be said for Paulus taking risks but I also think that sometimes those risks fail to pay off, and giving Porgy and Bess a happy ending seems to be one of those times.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:03 AM on August 11, 2011

T.S. Eliot's Cats and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables

I'm no theater expert, but I don't think either of those shows use those descriptors in the title. I think that's the most galling thing here. If they want to change Porgy and Bess, fine, but don't call it The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
posted by kmz at 6:06 AM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks, FAMOUS MONSTER, I was very curious to hear from someone who'd seen either of those shows - and have noted the OBERON info down for my next visit to Boston. I may be a purist, but I'm not an inflexible purist. Not exclusively. ;)
posted by likeso at 6:13 AM on August 11, 2011

A Raisin in the Sun
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:13 AM on August 11, 2011

I recently discovered that the song Summertime came from this opera. I felt so stupid I didn't know. Other great music I have enjoyed are in this opera. I agree with the comments that the ending shouldn't be changed.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 6:59 AM on August 11, 2011

Reading that I thought, You've just been schooled, Sondheim style.

I've probably mentioned here that two of my grab-in-a-fire possessions are a personally inscribed photograph from Ira Gershwin and a personal letter from Stephen Sondheim. So I appreciate that the latter is defending the Gershwins/Heyward here.

I'm sure he cringes at the thought of a day when he has left the planet the poorer for his absence and some young punk tries to alter Company so Bobby end up with the airline attendant.
posted by NorthernLite at 7:15 AM on August 11, 2011


O Caesar,--


Hence! wilt thou lift up Olympus?


Great Caesar,--


Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?


Speak, hands for me!

CASCA first, then the other Conspirators and BRUTUS stab CAESAR


Et tu, Brute! Then--hey, are those rubber knives? ZOMGWTFLOL



Liberty! Freedom! Party Hearty!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.


Some to the common pulpits, and cry out
'Liberty, freedom, and strippers!'


People and senators, be not affrighted;
Fly not; stand stiff: rock out with your cock out!


Keg stand!

(Exeunt to Fuddrucker's)
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:38 AM on August 11, 2011

the happy ending for King Lear


Yep. Nahum Tate was late 17th/early 18th-century poet who "improved" on Shakespeare by giving King Lear a happy ending involving a marriage between Edgar and Cordelia. (He also eliminated the Fool for some reason.) You can read his version in its entirety here.

That's not an isolated incident, either. You've heard of "bowdlerization", right? That comes from Thomas Bowdler, who published The Family Shakespeare in 1807. (There was a later edition that was subtitled in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.) He made changes such as altering Lady Macbeth's "Out, damned spot!" to "Out, crimson spot!".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:52 AM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

proacowity: Gershwin wanted hits.

You mean, the same Gershwins who mandated that only black actors could be cast for major singing roles, resulting in Porgy becoming one of the most acclaimed and least staged operas of the 20th century? Of course, they were not remotely shy about the usual commercial crossovers of arrangements for solo voice, piano, and the symphonic suite either, so I'm not certain where this fits in.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:53 AM on August 11, 2011

Wow - I'm far from a theater geek, but Sondheim's diatribe makes me feel like those kids in Camp -- just thrilled and in awe.

I'm no purist. I can see the value of updating, re-mixing, re-booting, whatever you want to call it. I've even come to see even the benefit of that version that of Gatsby that got everyone (including me) so up in arms.

But if you're going to do this, for the love of God, won't you please leave the basic arc of the story in tact. Or give it a completely different name. You don't get to say you're doing The Gerswins' Porgy and Bess when, well, you aren't.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:56 AM on August 11, 2011

MCMikeNamara, hon, you're a purist. Re Porgy and Bess. Hiya comrade!
posted by likeso at 7:59 AM on August 11, 2011

In film adaptations, having the author's name* precede the title tends to suggest that the material has been altered beyond recognition. Could this not also be true, now, of theatre?

* = the author of the source material. See also: Baz Luhrman's Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Because we all know that when the Bard wrote this, he imagined something like the "Sabotage" video.
posted by pxe2000 at 8:18 AM on August 11, 2011

I gave Sondheim an "Oh Snap!" for his response.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:20 AM on August 11, 2011

For everyone commenting on Audra McDonald's amazingness, or wishing they could hear her sing, I'll just leave this here...
posted by Zephyrial at 9:30 AM on August 11, 2011

Almost all the comments here are beautiful and intelligent. I just wanted to add that the biggest surprise and indignity is that Gershwin Estate agreed to this atrocity and unjustified offense. Too bad DuBose Heyward's people (if there are any left) didn't get a say in this. Sondhiem's NYT letter was right on the money.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 11:14 AM on August 11, 2011

Man, Suzan-Lori Parks has really turned out to be a sell-out.

Also, this, like pretty much most of Broadway, is just about money. This has nothing to do with creativity, really, or whatever it portends to be about. It's why 'new' shows on Broadway are all "[insert crappy rom com]: the musical", & c., or shows made from obtusely creating stories from butt rock band retrospectives, or revivals that will surely return on the investment it takes to mount a show these days. I doubt this is any different. And on a much more philosophical and profound level, this shit ignores the hermeneutic entrapment that gives artworks their meaning and significance (holla atcha, Hegel). Is this view conservative? No; in fact the opposite. What's conservative is to constantly look back for a crowd favorite to rework. Chances are so rarely taken these days; the financial risk is too high. I mean, people should do whatever the fuck they want, obviously, and in the end I don't really care. But there is so much new music to be written, that is being written, so many things to talk about and analyze, why so much returning, so much looking back? It stifles, but it pays. Alas.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:07 PM on August 11, 2011

Paulus responds: "The entire creative team and cast have the most enormous love and respect for ‘Porgy and Bess,’ and we are grateful for the support and encouragement we have received from the Gershwin and Heyward Estates for this production."
posted by ReeMonster at 1:34 PM on August 11, 2011

the Gershwin and Heyward Estates for this production

Proving that you might inherit money, but you don't necessarily inherit (artistic) integrity.
posted by crossoverman at 2:33 PM on August 11, 2011

In film adaptations, having the author's name* precede the title tends to suggest that the material has been altered beyond recognition.

A titling convention begun by The Godfather, incidentally.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:42 PM on August 11, 2011

I assume Bess got a Sassy Gay Friend?
posted by naoko at 8:16 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Next up, a darker, edgier, more emo Huckleberry Finn, where Huck realizes that if he doesn't get Jim back in chains toot sweet, his soul will burn in HELL for all eternity. After much hand-wringing and soul-searching, Huck does the good, Christian thing and returns Jim to his proper owners.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:55 PM on August 11, 2011

Is anyone else surprised that Suzan-Lori Parks was involved in this calamity? I would have thought she would be among the outraged. O how the mighty have fallen.
posted by Lisitasan at 6:45 AM on August 12, 2011

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