The ‘Porgy and Bess’ controversy: Sondheim and Bess

Leontyne Price as Bess/Carl Van Vechten via Wikimedia

The arts story of the month —the remodeling of “Porgy and Bess” for Broadway and Stephen Sondheim’s objections to the idea — began with an arts story, specifically a story by Sean Healy for the New York Times. Healy wrote one of those relatively harmless “process”  stories about the production, interviewing director Diane Paulus, writer Suzan-Lori Parks and actress Audra McDonald, among others, about the liberties they were about to take with an American classic. You know the kind of story I’m talking about, right? The kind that has sentences that start, “In between generous forkfuls from a dish of spinach, rice and beans, the high-energy Ms. Paulus said…”? That kind.

The story gave a very general idea of what the production team intended to do with the material. They said they wanted to make the character Bess, a drug addict living on Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., who is torn between two very different men, a real character, the equal of Porgy. Here’s Healy quoting Paulus: “’I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires having your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character,’ Ms. Paulus said of Bess, whose motives and viewpoints are muddied in the opera, where she is largely an appendage of Porgy or Crown.” Healy’s story is a good one, wide-ranging. He checks in with representatives of the various estates that own the copyright for the book, lyrics and music (the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward, who wrote the original novel, play, libretto and, per Sondheim, the best lyrics in “Porgy and Bess”) to see what they think about the new production. He watches a scene in rehearsal. He has lunch.

Maybe Paulus’s description of Bess as an “appendage” makes sense to you and maybe it doesn’t. Was Leontyne Price’s Bess a “cardboard cut-out character” (as Parks called both Porgy and Bess in the story)?  Well, Sondheim didn’t think so, so he fired off a letter to the Times, criticizing the characterizations of the show by the production staff and McDonald. He’s brutal.

“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.”

Sondheim rips into the story, quote by quote, not to criticize Healy, but to make mincemeat of Paulus, Parks and McDonald and their descriptions of “Porgy and Bess.” At one point, he writes of Paulus, “If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to “excavate” the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it?”

That’s a good question, and one which Healy and Paulus attempted to answer: She loved the songbook (“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” etc.) but thought the story and characters needed some help. Oh, and a producer had some money…

So, Sondheim’s a smart guy. He knows that art works of all sorts are re-imagined, re-conceived, reconditioned, remodeled all the time, with results that usually hinge on the power of the remodeling idea and the talents of the participants. And at the end, he even concedes that maybe this particular “Porgy and Bess” will be a revelation. Here’s what he writes:

“Perhaps it will be wonderful. Certainly I can think of no better Porgy than Norm Lewis nor a better Bess than Audra McDonald, whose voice is one of the glories of the American theater. Perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will have earned their arrogance.”

The proof may be in the pudding, but he still doesn’t like their… attitude. Toward the original and its degree of accomplishment.

What went unspoken in all of this is the subject of race. White men wrote “Porgy and Bess,” created African-American characters, gave them language and stories. And for a long time, as Healy points out in passing, white producers thought their depiction of black America was disparaging in one way or another. When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s “Porgy and Bess” barely existed for me, except maybe in snatches of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” sung by my musical father.  When Janis Joplin sang her version of “Summertime,” I probably would have guessed “Show Boat,” if someone had asked me where it came from, revealing my ignorance of both shows!  Then the opera was rehabilitated, not by changing it but by doing it extremely well.

But if you approach it from a “non-formalist” point of view, this can still be charged ground. America is not “post-racial.” Was “Porgy and Bess” written for an African-American audience at all? How much of our understanding of African-American life in the American South, as the 19th century became the 20th, do we want it to carry? Don’t we want Zora Neale Hurston to be the vehicle for our understanding of this place and time? And Duke Ellington?

Let’s say that you are worried about issues such as these. I’m not sure Paulus is, mind you, just speculating. You don’t want to ignore a great artistic achievement, but you want to shape it a bit, so that it reflects its times, its concerns, democratizes its audience. And who would you get to reshape it? Why not an African-American playwright who has addressed problems of race fearlessly (not to mention with great creativity)? Suzan-Lori Parks: Let’s see what she’d do with “Porgy Bess”!  She wants to “flesh out” Porgy and Bess to make them more legible, more individual and less archetype (Sondheim’s word)? Somehow that doesn’t sound as outlandish as Sondheim makes it seem (although I agree with him that Parks’ contention that she is somehow channeling Gershwin is far-fetched).

One more point. What if Sondheim sat down with Paulus and Parks and discussed “Porgy and Bess,” what makes it great and how a creative director and writer might provide a vital variation of it? First of all, I’m sure he’d have some great ideas for them. Second, I think he’d be convinced of their seriousness of purpose and regard for the ur-musical in question. Finally, he’d leave it in the same place his letter leaves it: Let’s see the idea in action, on stage, performed.

That’s the danger of pulling out quotes from a story and having an argument with them (something I quite enjoy doing myself, I admit). You don’t get the chance to ask some questions of your own, seek a fuller explanation, place statements in the context of a larger conversation.

The writer had his own brief, and he picked out some pertinent quotes for the thought train of his story, which was basically that since the estates of the original team don’t mind this reconsideration of the material, it must not violate the taboo against desecrating a piece of art by excessive “interpretation.”

But ultimately there is another taboo violation in “Porgy and Bess”: The taboo against colonizing the experience of other cultures. We do it all the time, of course, sometimes quite successfully, not to mention profitably. But when we do it on contested ground in our own culture, things can get heated. This particular production may figure out a way around the taboo by adding the voices of Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray (who worked on the adaptation with Parks) to those of the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward. Is it possible to understand Bess “better”? To animate her more clearly with own set of problems and desires? Give her something more than just the pain? Can we look at the social context of “Porgy and Bess,” not just the psychological? Can it be more than a museum piece, an evening of great Gershwin songs?

Clearly, we are in swampy ground here, and it’s no wonder that no one wanted to talk about it much. Should Shakespeare have avoided the story of Othello or Shylock (both re-writes of previously existing material)?  Of course not: That our time brings its own edge to issues of race and religion is part of what makes those plays so interesting to us now. We don’t feel comfortable with our own formulations of those issues, so how could we possibly feel comfortable with Shakespeare’s?

We are confused about the “issues” in “Porgy and Bess” — poverty, addiction, passion, race, disability violence. That’s not a bad thing, and it opens the door to the opera in a way, though those songs do a pretty good job of it themselves. Especially when Audra McDonald sings them.


The Sondheim letter and the producers’ intentions have circulated widely on the theater-concerned blogosphere.  Michael Musto’s take is funny… of course.

Sondheim visited here in 2008, and I wrote a little post about his Q and A with Frank Rich for Art Scatter.

The Vulture’s Scott Brown has a witty and reasonable take (meaning it resembles my own!).

2 Responses.

  1. Chickenknickers says:

    This is no new news having worked with Ms Paulus as fellow grads of New Actors workshop. She enjoys reinventing work.
    What surprises me is the need to justify the actions of Bess though drug use. Many women have been in complex relationships and made sad and difficult decisions with out the influence of drugs. I think this adaptation belittles Bess and demonstrates a lack of understanding of what I find to be a complex and fascinating character.

  2. opera lover says:

    I so agree with Stephen Sondheim, and thank him for his eloquent defense of this work. The objection that the vast majority of people have against rewriting Porgy and Bess (95%+ of all comments on all sites) is in changing a landmark work, and then calling it Gershwin’s.
    If you’re going to add dialogue, change the ending to make it happier, and then pretend that it’s what Gershwin wanted, you’re just trying to deceive the public.
    If this team doesn’t like Porgy and Bess the way it was written by the original artists, then they should go and write their own musical. Don’t go paint a smile on the Mona Lisa, and try to tell us that it’s what Leonardo wanted. I’m sorry, it’s not.

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