Stephen Sondheim Comments on Broadway-Bound Porgy and Bess Revisions

By Adam Hetrick
10 Aug 2011

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

As New York audiences await the arrival of a new adaptation of the American folk opera Porgy and Bess, which will first be seen in an out-of-town try-out at the American Repertory Theater, a Broadway giant is weighing in.

Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim recently penned letter to the New York Times in response to a Times article that outlined some of the dramaturgical changes the opera is undergoing.

Now billed as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, the upcoming revival is being explored as a musical for contemporary audiences, according to A.R.T., by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog, Book of Grace) and Pulitzer Prize nominee Diedre Murray (Running Man).

Director Diane Paulus, a Tony Award nominee for the 2008 revival of Hair and the artistic director of A.R.T., is at the helm and actively involved in the new vision for Porgy and Bess.  (Paulus, with the blessing of living authors Galt MacDermot and James Rado, was also given major creative authority over the Tony Award-winning revival of Hair, which was structurally different than the 1968 original.)



Sondheim, who along with collaborators George Furth, James Goldman, Hugh Wheeler and James Lapine (to name a few), has mined the complex depths of human emotions and psyche, disagrees with Paulus' beliefs that there is not enough back story, or emotional clarity to the inhabitants of Catfish Row. The current team is at work authoring additional material to give audiences what they feel will be a more rounded vision of the characters in Porgy and Bess.

"These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theatre, 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 asserted.

He continued: "Among the ways in which Ms. Parks defends the excavation work is this: 'I wanted to flesh out the two main characters so that they are not cardboard cut-out characters' and goes on to say, '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 the ending.'"

"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. So now he can demand, 'Bring my cane!' Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York."

Sondheim, who has revisited structural moments within several of his own works along with his collaborators after their initial productions (and approved of re-imaginings like those of John Doyle), pointed out that he was not attempting to stifle the creativity of directors who wish to bring "fresh perspective" to classic works, but was concerned with "wholesale rewriting," especially when the creators themselves are no longer here to speak for their original intent. Estates now oversee the rights to Porgy and Bess.

Sondheim also laments the new title of the work, which diminishes the contribution of DuBose Heyward, who authored the book and lyrics for many of the songs in what is now billed as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Sondheim previously listed the Porgy and Bess song "My Man's Gone Now," with a George Gershwin melody and Heyward lyric, among the songs he wished he had written.

The Sweeney Todd and Follies composer noted that he did not mean to pre-judge a work that has yet to be presented to an audience, only the "attitude of the creative team." He also praised its stars Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald, adding that by the time it opens, perhaps the creative team "will have earned their arrogance," but suggested changing the title to Diane Paulus's Porgy and Bess.

You can read Sondheim's full letter here.

Porgy and Bess will debut Aug. 17 at A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA. It will continue through Oct. 2. The production will later transfer to Broadway beginning Dec. 17 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It will officially open Jan. 12, 2012. American Express cardholders can begin purchasing tickets to the Broadway engagement Aug. 10.

Porgy and Bess has music by George Gershwin, lyrics by his brother Ira and lyrics and book by DuBose Heyward; the work includes such songs as "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "I Loves You, Porgy," "My Man's Gone Now," "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York," "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nothin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So."

Click here to read a previous Playbill.com story on the full cast.