For those who don’t follow theatre news (so…quite possibly a lot of you), one story is currently dominating coverage, and it’s got a number of complicated aspects to it. I am referring, of course, to the kerfuffle over Diane Paulus’ mounting of Porgy & Bess at Boston’s American Repertory Theatre. The controversy, in a nutshell, is this: Porgy is an old show (1935) and widely considered one of the most important in the canon. However, many aspects of its treatment of race are…problematic, to put it mildly. To quote New York Magazine, in a recent online column:
It’s a story of “black life” penned by a white Southerner, scored by a New York Jewish composer, written in dialect (cartoonish, by today’s standards) and containing strong whiffs of well-intentioned paternalism, tourism, and exoticism.
Because of the issues in the source material, Paulus is working with two writers, Suzan-Lori Parks (a Pulitzer-winning playwright) and Deirdre Murray (an Obie-winning composer) to update it and, in the words of Audra McDonald, who will be playing Bess in the production, “do […] a new conception that tries to deal with the holes and issues in the story that would be very, very obvious to a musical-theater audience.” (source)
So far so good, right? And the Gershwin and Heyward estates (George & Ira Gershwin and DuBois Heyward being the writers) have given their blessings to the production, saying, among other things, “It’s about balancing the original work’s intentions with a story that is maybe more realistic for a present-day audience.”
Stephen Sondheim, however, has doubts. And he sent a nearly-1000-word letter to the New York Times to expound on them in detail. I’ll restrain myself to quoting one representative paragraph below:
Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.
So, that’s the story. One thing I am going to make clear is that I am not going to be commenting on the substance of the changes, or of the original opera—I am not at all familiar with Porgy & Bess and, in any case, this revised production has not played a single performance. What I’m finding fascinating are the general questions raised by this scenario. Namely, what are our obligations to a work of art? When is it and when is it not appropriate to change things?
I doubt even Mr. Sondheim would disagree that sometimes changing works is appropriate—he’s certainly revised his own shows often enough. Often he’s done this for artistic reasons—witness the gradual evolution of the musical we now know as Road Show, formerly Wise Guys and Bounce, which has gone through many rewrites—but on at least one occasion he has done so out of concern for causing offense, by changing a lyric in Company to omit a homophobic slur.
Presumably, then, Sondheim’s problem is not with the idea of revising a show for modern audiences. Which suggests the issue, for him, lies either with the scale of the revisions or the people doing the revising. I can sympathise with these concerns—questions of artistic license are big ones in the theatre, where the work of even a living writer can be radically reinterpreted, and not always in ways the writer approves of—but in this debate I am actually on the side of Paulus and her co-writers. I think the content issues are a bit of a red herring—we can debate whether the writers would approve, but in the end those currently in charge of their estates have given the production the go-ahead, and presumably feel the rewrites bring something of value to the piece.
So the question then becomes, who has a right to rewrite a show? Why can’t Paulus, Parks, and Murray update Porgy?
Well, here’s one thing that might play into it, and certainly plays into the responses to this debate I have seen online, where people have shown astonishing venom in decrying Paulus’ “arrogance” or “disrespect”, as well as that of her co-creators.
Sondheim, like all three writers of the original opera, is a white man.
Paulus is a white woman [ETA: It has been brought to my attention that Diane Paulus is biracial. I sincerely apologise for the error]. Parks, Murray, and McDonald—the three of whom, particularly McDonald, have been extremely open over why they feel the original needs an update, especially with regard to how it deals with race—are all black women.
I am not saying Stephen Sondheim is consciously leveraging racism and sexism against these women. I have enormous respect for the man, and think that were it to be suggested he was doing so, he’d be appalled. But I am saying I believe racism and sexism have a lot to do with why the validity of their revisal is being so scrutinised in the first place. And I am saying that their relative social position to Sondheim—probably the most-respected living theatre composer—is a big part of the reason so many are loudly agreeing with him, and pushing back against a production, that in the end, has not been seen by a single person outside of the creative team.
I am not going to voice an opinion on the show until after it has opened. But I seem to be in the minority on that, and the people voicing opinions—and the ways they are doing so—are in my mind very worthy of closer examination.