Stage Left: The PORGY & BESS Controversy

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.

Previously: “What Did I Clearly Say?”: Transgression and Punishment in INTO THE WOODS, The Long-Promised Post on Liking Problematic Media

by Dorian J-----
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Correction made! I feel awful

Correction made! I feel awful for missing this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

I am extremely excited to see

I am extremely excited to see the new production as an african american woman and amateur performer, this has always been a show with a bit of a cringe factor. i think that the process of the changes is an authentic one and that the production will only gain value. it is also extremely important for black actors to have a work they feel proud of being part of. i have to say that i have not read sondheim's original comments, but only excerpts and reaction. i have no reason to believe that this is anything by a reaction to people of color taking a story that is about us and making it ours. i have tix for 9/1 and can't wait.

I wonder if some of the issue

I wonder if some of the issue is keeping the name, but changing the content. I wonder if people would have fewer problems with it if it were called "Porgy and Bess Retake" or "Porgy and Bess: a modern look."

I don't agree...

On the One Hand...
The work is a product of it's can't re-write can't know 'what they intended' can leave out bits that are unacceptable for whatever reason...but I think it's wrong to completely re-write it...

On the other hand...
There have been modern spins on Cinderella, Wizard of Oz and other works without causing any real harm...I guess it's all down to the billing...if it's clearly an 'updated version' of the original fine..but don't just call it 'Porgy and Bess' that's misleading and not right.

I can see both sides, but I would just as soon leave it alone. It is what it is.

I'm ambivalent. Altering and

I'm ambivalent. Altering and updating stories is a great way to keep them fresh and allow the audience to connect to them more easily. At the same time, America seems to white-wash its problematic history far too often. The word nigger is pulled out of Mark Twain's work so modern high-schoolers don't have read it, Captain America is backup by multi-racial troops despite the segregation during WWII, and southern plantations are represented as romantic and gallant, which leads to Republicans waxing nostalgic about the treatment of black slaves and the average American doesn't blink twice at the notion. Or we have movies like The Help where societal racism stems from one bossy white housewife.

As a nation, we seem more interested in minimizing and erasing the racism of the past than confronting the racism of the present.

Art in context

After I graduated high school, my former drama club director decided to do THREE musicals with large African-American casts at a predominantly white high school. The first was "Big River," an adaptation of Mark Twain's Huck Finn. The director had the ENTIRE show in black and white - costumes, sets, props, even the actors: he had special permission from the board of ed. to paint the kids' skin with make-up - light gray for the white characters, dark gray for the black characters (and there were actually 2 black kids in the production). The next year he did "Ragtime" and had the white characters wearing all light, pastel colors, and the black characters wearing darker, more vibrant colors like orange, purple, red, etc. This seemed to work, especially since in the show, most of the black characters are lower-class and the white ones are upper-class, so in context it was easy to tell who was who. The next year he did "Showboat", but had no color scheme/costume scheme to determine who was black or white, you just had to figure it out in context (which got a little confusing for me, since I'd never seen it).

Now, the director's justification was that these stories are very important in both the history of musical theater and the history of American culture, and that they deserve telling. He wrote a page in the program under "Director's Notes" that explained his choices and that he didn't mean to offend and merely wanted to tell these stories, and described their history. I thought it was a rather daring move, and seems to relate to this discussion: Should we stop telling these stories because they offend (or rewrite them), or tell them the way they were told, in this case, in 1935, and reflect on the implications of race/class in that actual time-period? I don't have an opinion either way, but it's a very interesting, albeit sensitive, issue. Thanks for writing!

Some sympathy with Sondheim

My feeling from the Sondheim letter is that his objection is not so much to either the scale or the people but more like this: he feels, from the comments he's read from Paulus, McDonald, and Parks, that the reworking is based on a lack of sympathy with the original. He seems to think that a lot of the changes miss the point or are trying to make it into a fundamentally different show, or are in some other way motivated by the fact that Paulus & co just don't like the original. The comments that he selectively quotes do somewhat support that interpretation: they do make it sound like at least part of the idea is not to make the show less patronizing or problematic but just to make it less artistically bad.

I have no idea whether that's a fair depiction because I haven't read everything the re-workers have said about it. It does seem a reasonably fair depiction of the way their views were reported in that NYT article of 5 August that you've linked to. Of course they may be choosing not to say 'we're making it less racist' because they don't want people jumping up and down about 'political correctness'. But what they are choosing to say sounds quite a lot like 'This show has potential but is frankly not very good as written'. In which case I sympathize with Sondheim's position: if you don't think it's good, don't put it on.

You're completely right that Sondheim ignores the fact that there are real problems with the show as written — problems of race and class and gender and disability — and the fact that he is not well placed to judge whether those problems can be dealt with by a new production and, if so, how. And it is suspicious that a lot of respected white well-to-do theatre folk are getting proprietorial about this play about poor black people who are marginalized and oppressed. Why do they feel they have a stake in the argument? Is it because it's a show that makes them feel okay about being white and well-to-do?

And, as you say, we don't know yet whether the reworking truly is a sympathetic one that's motivated fundamentally by love and respect for the core of the play and its characters or whether it's a basically hostile re-write by people who don't like or respect the original and want it to be fundamentally different. If it's the former, that's grand, and the team doing it are eminently better placed to do that, and to judge the need for it, than Sondheim. But if it's the latter, and it really does sound a little bit like it may be the latter, then why do it at all? Surely even seriously problematic or just plain incompetent works of art are owed the basic respect of being taken on their own terms? If they're so problematic or so badly written that they shouldn't be performed without fundamentally transforming them, then they just shouldn't be performed. Your article earlier in the series made that point about <i>Thoroughly modern Millie</i>. <i>A funny thing happened on the way to the forum</i> is another (much though it grieves me to say it, Roman fanboy that I am). Anyway, we'll see how it turns out.

(Another long rambly comment, sorry!)

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