Bess, You is My Musical Now

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Operas tend to have depressing endings. This is a fact as evident and uncontested as the French horn being a difficult instrument to play and Wagner not being a natural fit for your next Passover seder.

So what would happen if the downers of Donizetti and tearjerkers of Tchaikovsky got a bit of a facelift? The Village Voice's Michael Musto posed this question from a musical angle last week, envisioning a Titanic "where they avert the iceberg and keep pouring the cocktails" and a Urinetown "where everyone just holds it in." But Musto was referring to a revised and reimagined Porgy and Bess, a work that moves fluidly between opera and musical.

Academic Denis Dutton posited a "smoke-free" Carmen in which Don José gets anger management and the bull wins. But why not go further? What about a Lucia where Edgardo springs for a divorce and they escape their feuding families by running off to the mists of Brigadoon? Or a Boris Godunov in which Marina, Rangoni and Grigoriy decide to content their designs on world domination with a game of Risk and Boris resolves his issues with 28 days of vodka detox? Or a La bohème where Mimi doesn't die? (Wait, that last one was a musical.)

But is the ending of Porgy and Bess really that downbeat? Sure, there are deaths and murders and a happy dust relapse, but neither of the title characters die. There's a sense of hope in "Oh, Lawd, I'm on my way," as Porgy leaves for New York in hopes of reclaiming his woman. In fact, the most awkward part of that last sentence to a 21st-century reader is the sense of ownership that men hold over women in Catfish Row.

It was with those issues in mind that the Gershwin estate approved a Broadway production—which opens tomorrow in an out-of-town tryout at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA—retooled by director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks with musician Diedre L. Murray also playing a significant part. The producers have added character backstories, created dialogue and added a kickier ending, all while tempering many of the work's issues that have wreaked PC havoc with gender and racial equality groups.

Rationalizing these changes, Parks told the New York Times, "I feel this work more than anything is a romance, and so I wanted to flesh out the two main characters so they are not cardboard cut-out characters. 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 to the ending.” It was this same quote that drew outcry from a number of Times readers, chief among them Stephen Sondheim, who sent in a letter to the editor that was subsequently published on ArtsBeat: "It’s reassuring that Ms. Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him, and that she thinks he would have taken one of the most moving moments in musical theater history — Porgy’s demand, 'Bring my goat!' — and thrown it out. Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane."

Left to right: Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Diane Paulus and Diedre L. Murray

Times reporter Patrick Healy notes in his article, referring to Hollis Alpert's 1990 book The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess, that George Gershwin spent the opening night of Porgy meandering the Boston Common with collaborators discussing cuts to the epically long work. And some changes were made, just as Puccini revised his scores—including creating several endings to La Rondine. The difference, of course, is that Puccini himself made those changes (though Marta Domingo has her own revision of Rondine that she believes is in keeping with Puccini's original wishes; perhaps because it's not the composer's most-loved or best-known work, such changes were not as hotly contested).

"Porgy and Bess has been dogged for many years now by its (perhaps unjustified) reputation as a piece of (perhaps unintentional) racism and misogyny, and it is understandable, if not necessarily laudable, that the Gershwin estate and the producers of this version of the show want to rid it of that particular stigma by rewriting the most troubling aspects of its dramaturgy," wrote composer Jason Robert Brown in an e-mail.

It's equally understandable that, throughout the 20th century, many black entertainers expressed discomfort with—or outright refused to perform in—the work. Grace Bumbry felt it "beneath" her to sing Bess, and is quoted as saying, "I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there."

The varied comments in Healy's article—including Audra McDonald's contention that her character, Bess, is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character," Norm MacDonald's (Porgy) belief that such revisions will "deal with the holes and issues in the story that would be very, very obvious to a musical-theater audience," the estate of Porgy librettist DuBose Heyward suggesting that the rewrite is "about balancing the original work’s intentions with a story that is maybe more realistic for a present-day audience"—ignore the racial discomfort that has long been associated with Porgy and Bess. They focus on the gender inequality, but isn't that a historical fact? Haven't we seen, and don't we treasure, a number of operas that make women out to be powerless pawns with occasional flashes of manifest destiny?

Of the Metropolitan Opera's ten most-performed works, its heroines range from tubercular seamstresses and courtesans who both careen between wealthy providers and impoverished lovers, to the daughter of a hunchback who is so blind to a man's flagrant lies or libido that she willingly sacrifices her life for him, to a country girl who serves as a barely-fleshed-out plot device for a condensed retelling of the Faust epic and a Nubian princess quite literally treated as a piece of chattle in a political love triangle.

(As an interesting side note that touches on another revision in Porgy to explain its eponymous character's crippling deformity: No one ever derided Verdi for not explaining why Rigoletto had a hump back.)

Who Is Served By Revising A Classic?

So for whom are these revisions being truly made? Are they being done for the performers who otherwise may not be completely at ease with revisiting harsh racial and gender messaging that seemed partially arcane even when the work premiered 76 years ago—but conversely still rings true in 2011? Are they being done for an audience that may not be as accepting of the original plot and play, and therefore not as likely to buy tickets? Are they being done to appease the late George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward due to some unspoken, unfinished business surrounding the plot, à la the posthumous completion of works like Mozart's Requiem and Puccini's Turandot?

And is Sondheim in a position to criticize The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess creative team without noting in turn that not only have several of his works undergone revisions and reorchestrations (such as the Broadway revivals of both Sweeney Todd and Company that required the actors to also serve as the pit orchestra), but he has also allowed revisions to be made to West Side Story—a work with which he was partially involved and whose composer, Leonard Bernstein, is not himself alive to sign off on tempo and key changes?

Where is the fine line between allowing a work to organically grow, live and breathe as it moves from performance to performance (a defense for singers who take optional low notes and conductors who cut or add arias), and reinterpreting it to the point where it has to be retitled? Peter Brook did the latter with Mozart's Die Zauberflöte earlier this summer in his acutely renamed A Magic Flute, though the director was the first to tell audiences that this is not Mozart's opera, rather his own meditation on the work. Meanwhile, at the Mostly Mozart Festival, conductor Iván Fischer directed an unorthodox performance of Don Giovanni that simultaneously focused on the composer's musical intentions. A production at the Glimmerglass Festival of Annie Get Your Gun made no attempt to soften the book's tensions between whites and Native Americans, albeit the same festival's production of Carmen made cuts to the score that verged on barbarism.

Diane Paulus's Turandot: Rumble for the Ring, performed at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater in 2007.

What none of us can say yet is that we've seen The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, so ultimately we don't know the answers to the question that every production asks of its audiences: Is it good?

This reworking may breathe life into a classic that many people (this writer included) would not normally be inclined to see. It may undo all of the work that the Gershwins and Heyward put into their original "baby" and be an insult to audiences for a whole new set of reasons. Or—and perhaps most likely—it could fall somewhere in between, using its reworked—though, in agreement with Sondheim—misleading title to suggest that this isn't Porgy and Bess as we know it. In keeping with Paulus's canon which includes a Puccini riff titled Turandot: Rumble for the Ring, it could end up being a group of artists' attempt to reconcile a work that they love in part with their own ideas for making it a work that may or may not be loved on the whole.

Should operas ever be retooled by artists who were not the original composers? Where does the line fall between interpretation and revision? What is your take on the proposed changes for Porgy? Take our poll and sound off in the comments below.