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Monday, October 24, 2011

Question of the Week—Porgy and Bess: How much revision is too much?

Composer Steven Sondheim really, really hates the idea of the new version of Porgy and Bess on Broadway (opening on January 12, 2012). In summary, he disagrees with the decision to dub it George Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the new happy ending, the more in-depth character backstory and an assortment of other things (see his piece in the New York Times at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/stephen-sondheim-takes-issue-with-plan-for-re vamped-porgy-and-bess/?scp=1&sq=stephen%20sondheim%20porgy&st=cse). But he’s not the only one who takes umbrage at the 1935 opera’s transformation into a commercial Broadway musical. Twenty-four pages of online commentary follow Sondheim’s letter, most agreeing with him to some extent.

So, the question becomes: Is director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks going too far with their reinterpretation? Sondheim thinks so, saying: “I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting.”

To an extent I agree with him. Too much revision dilutes a work, and removes its original intent. And Paulus and Parks’ version offers a vastly changed work. Still, I cannot castigate them for trying. Isn’t that what artists should do? Shouldn’t they bravely venture into uncharted territory, even if many may feel the work is obscene, outlandish or self-indulgent? When I first heard about a Broadway version of The Who’s Tommy in 1993, I believed it was just another attempt to capitalize on a known entity despite its obvious inappropriateness for a stage musical. How wrong I was: sometimes what seems so miscalculated actually works. Another case in point: I love A Chorus Line, yet the 2006 revival felt lackluster and dated. When I saw the show, I wished that someone had really tinkered with it to make it more resonant and relevant.

So, what of Porgy and Bess? So many deviations from the original do feel unreasonable, like the essence of the show may be removed. I will go see it, but my expectations aren’t high. However, I am prepared to concede. Paulus and Parks may be lambasted for their efforts. Or the revivial could be brilliant. We will see.

1 comment:

Wendy Caster said...

To the person who commented about the spelling of Sondheim's first name: I accidentally deleted your comment. But, yes, it should be Stephen!