Bess, You is My Musical Now

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 09:14 AM

Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald star in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (American Repertory Theater)

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.


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Comments [18]

maddy from New York City

The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess? No way. Clearly, what's headed for New York is no such thing. If it really was, the original title would suffice. Porgy and Bess is a masterpiece as it is. Don't mess with it. In some earlier times it was fashionable and popular to change the endings of classic tragedies: Romeo and Juliet don't die. I must admit, in my heart of hearts, I always want the message from Juliet to reach Romeo in time, but would not have the play changed for it. Please save me from revisions to suit popular taste.

Oct. 26 2011 01:49 AM
Vincent Rufino from Roxbury, NJ

Having recently returned from Rome and viewing the Sistine Chapel for the first time, I was very happy that the successors to Pope Julius II did not prevail in having fig leaves painted over Michelangelo's paintings. Preserving art (in any form) is vital for posterity to have the privilege of experiencing the art as the artist conceived it. I agree that you may interpret it any way you see fit, change the costumes, the time period, the setting, but do not think it is the original conception of the artist, but merely an interpretation. I would go to see this just to hear Audra sing!
As for the ending of the Mozart Requiem, while Prof Levine is a brilliant musician and musicologist, I prefer Sussmayer's attempt to finish the work since he was a student of the Master, and although it was an educated guess that he was following Mozart's intentions, at least it was created within the time period with all of the aesthetics that were prevalent at the time. This is not the case with this change in Porgy.

Aug. 23 2011 12:28 PM
Harriet from Brooklyn, New York

I realize there are many who would not go to see the original Porgy and Bess for many reasons. That is their loss.
Yes, it contains racist stereotypes, as do many works written at that time. That is a sad aspect of our nation's history. Yet, the original Gershwin Porgy and Bess is an American masterpeice. Attempts to change it in order to render it more accessible or politically correct is, I believe, an insult to American audiences who are quite capable of seeing past the stereotypes to the heart of a timeless story set to some of the most beautiful music ever written.

I am not always a hard-act on this matter. I have seen and enjoyed a La Boheme updated to take place in the 1950's and a Carmen which gets its inspiration from the Spanish Civil War, even a modern-day corporate Hamlet. In these cases the changes in time and/or place did add to the power of the original without changing the author's words or plot line. Of course, many writers re-do their own work. That is their perogative. But the Gershwin's are dead and I am not so sure that they would approve of changes to their work.

As you point out, I have not seen the updated Porgy and Bess, nor do I believe I will, since what I love best about the work, the ending, has been changed. Porgy's inspirational "I'm on my way," too depressing? Give me a break!

This is a shame because I have been a fan of Audre McDonald's and enjoyed what I have seen of her work. But, If she or anyone else prefers a kinder, more accessible opera, I suggest they write one of their own instead of butchering a classic.


Aug. 21 2011 02:52 AM
jan from nyc

I saw Porgy in the 1950's with Leontyne Price and William Warfield, at the late, lamented Ziegfield Theater,. It left me in tears and I could not get out of my seat for some 5 minutes. Porgy was chosen by the State Dept. for the first post-war cultural exchange with the Soviet Union. Ira Gershwin & his wife were in the group - Truman Capote wrote a vivid, amusing account - "The Muses Are Heard." Porgy was an absolute smash sensation in the Soviet Union. It should be experienced as a snapshot of Charleston at the time - just as Tosca, Fanciulla del West, Il Tabarro, are verismo examples. For me, Cavalaria doesn''t stand the test of time.
And the Luc Bondy Tosca mortally offended me. This is too great a story and such fabulous music that he brought nothing but gratuitous, ill-advised sexual overemphasis. SO - yes - some stories can be updated and will work well. Others "ain't broke- DON'T FIX!"
And the Met's current production of Carme - with Garancia is a triumph - and she is THE Carmen of the 21st Century!

Aug. 18 2011 01:03 PM
Jeanne Connerat from New Providence, NJ

CHANGE THE PLOT, CHANGE THE NAME.
Locales, sets, time periods, costumes, and maybe even some of the dialogue can be changed. It has been done in theater and movies,sometimes successfully sometimes not. However if the plot lines and intent of the author are altered, it is not the same story. If Romeo and Juliet live, it's not Shakespeare. "West Side Story" and "Clueless" are two examples of successful revisions that did not alter the authors' original intentions and outcomes.

Aug. 17 2011 10:26 PM
Dottie Gutenkauf from Plainfield, NJ

By all means, let's have happy endings for Madama Butterfly, Tosca, La Boheme, The Consul--even for The Ring. (Just kidding, of course.) Remember the ending quote from Bugs Buddy in "What's Opera, Doc?" and let's not tinker with the classics in ways that destroy the message the composer and librettist intended. Even "Law and Order" doesn't always have a happy ending--nor should it. If we want happy endings, let's have more Gilbert & Sullivan!

Aug. 17 2011 10:16 PM
Paul Baretsky from South Orange, NJ

Is Puccini better served by having Cio-Cio San spend her last moments singing to an obvious piece of wood manipulated by two puppeteers? Is Tosca more enjoyable in a garage type setting when the Met had a Zefferelli set that exactly duplicated the wishes of the composer? Does all this modernizing and updating really bring in a whole new audience or is it just the vanity of mediocre directors and general managers who feel they must leave their imprint on a work; good or bad (usually their latter).

Aug. 17 2011 10:02 PM
maddy from New York City

Porgy and Bess is a masterpiece. It ain't broke, so please, please, don't fix it.

I saw Peter Brook's A Magic Flute in Opera in Cinema and felt cheated of the beautiful opera I love.

Aug. 17 2011 09:33 PM
Jock Stender from Charleston, SC

I agree with Michael Koslow, and am surprised and disappointed that the Heyward family would have agreed to any changes in the story or libretto. Porgo was a real character, accurately portrayed by Dubose Heyward in his book; he had a goat cart, a violent temper, girl problems, got arrested, lived in Catfish Row, et cetera. My father, born in 1922, remembered Porgo and the sticks he carried on his goat cart up and down Broad Street. Heyward was born at 191 Tradd Street, next to my father's family at 193 Tradd Street, and later moved to Church Street, where Catfish Row is located.

Heyward accurately portrayed the lives of poor black Charlestonians, and unknown to many, he worked on Charleston's waterfront as a "checker" alongside black longshoremen. He worked for my family's stevedoring company.

Gershwin came to Charleston and stayed with Heyward at Folly Beach to learn more about the black and white people of Charleston. The libretto by Ira Gershwin came from that trip, and the story is one set, accurately, in the 1930s in Charleston.

I note on the "vote" URL for "approval to change content of operas" that the vast majority have said, "NO," and I am one of them.

Porgy and Bess was a huge failure at its premiere but has been a huge success in recent years. It describes a period of hard times for an oppressed people; if that disturbs some opera patrons, then indeed let them go see "Revised, Updated and Cleaned Porgy and Bess" (as La Boheme was renamed "Rent") but do not insult Gershwin and Heyward by advertising it as "Porgy and Bess."

Aug. 17 2011 08:07 PM
Bunny Adelman

Would you feel it approprite to bring the bible up to date?

Aug. 17 2011 07:45 PM
Michael Koslow from New York City

Sondheim's comments were directed at the statements made by the creators of the Porgy and Bess "revisal", and reserved judgment on the final product as it were. The title, The Gershwins's P & B is misleading. There have been all kinds of reinterpretations of operas and classic dramas, but to cast this as some kind of enlightened version of the original is insulting. How about Madama Butterfly with a happy ending. Is that still Puccini's opera? I have seen some wonderful productions of Porgy and Bess. It was and remains a masterpiece of its time and the music is still brilliant and thrilling. This show may be also wonderful, (certainly the cast is)but it will not be Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Call it like it is. Diane Paulus' Politically Correct Porgy and Bess for Dummies.

Aug. 17 2011 06:40 PM

I will say, Peter, one of the keenest ways I've seen of incorporating the mule into a mid-century Schicchi was at Castleton last year in which the Mule was an art work similar to Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde.

Aug. 17 2011 01:00 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

Part of the silliness of many "updatings" of opera arises from the fact that the text and its context are shoved to the side in order to serve the masterful insight of the director into what really should have been on the minds of the composer (rarely the librettist) when the work was written. Here ("Porgy and Bess") at least, the silliness goes far enough to recognized that there are words in the original, which, of course, need to be changed. In other contexts, updating almost always does disservice to the words. One example is a production that Juilliard did a few years ago (maybe a lot of years ago) of "Gianni Schicchi", which (as others seem to like doing) updated the setting to the 1950's. Lots of things in the text need to be ignored in order to do this. First, would people in the '50s be fighting over the most valuable mule in Tuscany? Maybe the mills at Signa, but not the mule. the silliest lapse, to me, was the failure to deal with "Addio Firenze" and the whole scene counseling the conspirators about the very non-twentieth century penalties for assisting in the forgery of a will: first your hand is cut off, then you are exiled. It doesn't fit. If the piece is woefully dated (as perhaps "P&B" is), then don't do it.

Aug. 17 2011 12:52 PM
David from Flushing

I am under the impression that "Porgy" has always been restricted to black artists by the estate. This was probably a move to prevent blackface performances. If the venue of the opera was moved to, say, a village in China, would the cast then be open to all?

Aug. 17 2011 10:31 AM

Silversalty, I was thinking about the same thing and I wonder if, in part, part of this mega-controversy revolves around the event-like nature of a major Broadway revival (with a prestigious out of town tryout at ART), not to mention—as Sondheim points out—the titling of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Is where and how we sell the art as important as, or even more important than the art itself?

Aug. 16 2011 10:27 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I've never seen "Porgy and Bess" and likely won't see this version. My only knowledge of the matter is through Jonathan Schwartz' commentary on it through his WNYC weekend shows. I look at the issue from a copyright point of view. Where older operas are rarely touched due to orthodoxy, Porgy doesn't have as much of that following. Certainly Sondheim's response was pure orthodoxy but then it was personal for him, as seen through his objection to the new title, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." I think Sondheim is mistaken in thinking that "The Gershwins'" represents a slight to the other artists involved in the creation of the piece. It's not George (and Ira?) that's being given a sole spotlight but rather it's George's estate that has given the OK to modify the work. Hence the plural in "The Gershwins'."

If Jonathan Schwartz is correct in saying that Porgy has never been a financial success, then why not try making it into one. Let it, this new version, live on its own merits, and of course the Gershwins' (George and Ira) and DuBose Heyward's.

It's refreshing that the orthodoxy of copyright hasn't been invoked here. Thanks to "The Gershwins" for that.

Consider how often WQXR plays pieces called "Variations on a theme by .." What if none of those works existed? When classical pieces are used in modern works (Cartoon Saturday, television and movies) it's never mentioned that a very likely reason older classical works are being used is that they are both superb and out of copyright.

Aug. 16 2011 06:30 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

If anybody reading this did not listen to the Grace Bumbry excerpt above, drop what you are doing and listen to it right now!

Aug. 16 2011 05:12 PM
Frank Feldman

Hey, don't diss Parsifal as background music for a seder. That Act 1 Black Mass is just what the reconstructionist rabbi ordered.
I have no problem with the Porgy tinkering. The original still exists in score and repertoire, so what's the harm? No, they shouldn't be calling it the Gershwin's P & B. Other than that, no problem.
I heard someone wrote a letter in the early sixties full of outrage-they had just heard that someone was daring to recompose, reharmonize, re-orchestrate, and improvise upon Gershwin's sacred P & B. The actual MUSIC, not the shlocky book. A letter a la Sondheim's. The nerve, the effrontery, the lack of reverence!
The result?-Gil Evans' and Miles Davis' masterpiece.

Aug. 16 2011 01:42 PM

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