Controversy is a-brewin’ over the upcoming revival of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess. And just to make things fun, there’s controversy OVER the controversy.
Here’s the basics: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) and theatre/opera director Diane Paulus have reimagined Porgy and Bess as a Broadway musical, adding scenes, updating dialogue and – gasp! – even changing the ending. Audra McDonald stars in the production and appears to be an avid supporter of the changes. Now, with any revival or re-imagining or new interpretation or, for goodness’ sake, any new production of just about anything, you will always find nay-sayers, protestors, and so-called “purists” who are opposed to the way things are being done. But few are as high-profile as this incredibly vocal opponent of the new Porgy and Bess production: renowned composer Stephen Sondheim.
In a letter he wrote to the editor of the New York Times, Sondheim ripped apart not only the changes being made to the Gershwins’ masterpiece, but also the women behind the work themselves.
“If (Paulus) doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to ‘excavate’ the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it?” Sondheim wrote, in response to a comment from the show’s director. With biting sarcasm and obvious frustration, he goes on to attack Parks and McDonald as well (though he later states he can think of “no…better Bess than Audra McDonald”).
To read his entire letter and the New York Times article on the subject, click here.
But that’s not all, folks. This is where we get into the controversy OVER the controversy.
Julie Crosby, producing artistic director of the Women’s Project Theatre in New York City, posted her own response to Sondheim’s rant on the facebook wall of 50/50 in 2020 (a group dedicated to seeing women’s plays produced as much as men’s plays by the year 2020). In the note, Crosby postulates, “Why does this debate seem always to surface when the artists are women?…It is the job of artists to reflect, refract, and otherwise re-imagine our history, our culture, and our humanity. And this job is not the province of men alone.” The assumption here is that Sondheim wouldn’t be responding to this new rendition of Porgy and Bess with such vitriol if the revival were being undertaken by a man instead of a crew of women.
So now we get down to the hard questions. Is there something quietly disturbing about the fact that Paulus and Parks want to rewrite the ending to one of the most famous, beloved, and monumental American operas ever created? Does the negative response from Sondheim have anything to do with the project being helmed by women? Or would he be just as vocal against a reinvention by, say, David Mamet? And how on earth are we ever supposed to know?
Controversial, isn’t it? 😉
Coming up: Be sure to check out my blog post this coming Friday, September 26, to catch my interview with playwright/actress/director Laurie McCants of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. Laurie just completed a run of her one-woman show, Industrious Angels, at the Ko Festival in Amherst, Maryland.