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Monday, October 24, 2011

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

When I first heard the commotion regarding the new Broadway adaptation of Porgy & Bess--directed by Diane Paulus, with a new book by Suzan-Lori Parks and musical adaptations by Deirdre Murray--my mind wandered to a discussion I remembered from my days as an undergraduate studying English Literature. In an Introduction to Literary Theory course, my professor spent a fair amount of time contemplating Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Frankenstein. Despite the insane amount of liberties he took with the text, Branagh felt compelled to title his film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, seemingly out of respect for the author and her work. We spent several classes discussing whether Branagh was truly sincere in his choice of title and tribute, or if he was trying to pull one over on his audience and scholars alike. Having since seen the film, and recognizing the glaring, questionable changes Branagh made, I find myself siding with the latter camp.

Similarly, Paulus and company are calling their production The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess, although on paper what they're presenting seems to be anything but. The historical Porgy & Bess is a four-hour, sung through opera that features some of the greatest music in the American canon. Paulus' production is a streamlined adaptation that scales down the work's operatic orchestrations and heavily revises some of the characters. Aside from Audra McDonald, who has operatic training, and Phillip Boykin, a bass-baritone, the cast is comprised of musical theatre performers. Much has been made of dramatic changes Paulus and Parks have made, including the decision to have the crippled Porgy walk with a cane rather than his traditional goat cart. Musical adaptor Murray lowered the familiar high notes in "Summertime," claiming a rationale that the song is a lullaby and high notes would "wake the baby" (a live baby was actually used in the Boston production). Many claimed that Parks and Paulus had also decided to brighten up the play's downbeat ending, although reports from Boston suggest that this plan has been ditched.

While I can understand why Stephen Sondheim found himself angry enough to write The New York Times an open letter airing his grievances about the proposed changes, I do believe that it is unfair to judge a work that you haven't seen. At the time Sondheim was writing, not a single performance had been given, and he (and many others) were responding to comments made by the creative team. I agree that much of what Paulus, Parks, Murray, and McDonald said was boneheaded, but I'm not going to offer an opinion on the adaptation until I've attended a performance. Does this production align exactly with what the Gershwins'--along with Dubose and Dorothy Heyward--envisioned for this American opera in 1935? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that it might not be a powerful piece of music theatre. In his rave review of the Boston tryout, The New Yorker's Hilton Als claims that the production's "great achievement is to cut through Heyward’s muddy folklore and to present us with something more profound." I cannot tell you if I agree with this yet, but I'm not willing to write something off until I've actually seen it. More in December.

2 comments:

JB said...

He didn't judge a work he hadn't seen. In fact he specifically stated he was reserving opinion on the production. He judged the stated intentions of the creative team.

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