Thursday, August 11, 2011

Porgy and Bess Redux

This past week there has been a shitstorm about the ART production of Porgy and Bess which opens soon. It began with a feature about the production in this Sunday's NYT - which includes interviews with a number of the artists involved who've decided with the Gershwin Estate's approval to make some changes to the book of the show written in 1935. That was followed by a scathing reprimand for having the gall to change a word in the sacrosanct Porgy by Stephen Sondheim himself in which he eviscerates the director Diane Paulus, skewers Suzan-Lori Parks who's writing the revised text and even goes after the bella donna of music theatre - the female star of the show Audra McDonald. I was furious I have to tell you. Mr. Sondheim hasn't seen the show. No one has. It hasn't opened yet. And then I became more furious when I saw all the comments on Mr. Sondheim's tirade. Everyone  agreed with him. Praised him. And thanked him for protecting American Musical Theatre. As though Diane Paulus was about to desecrate a national monument. So I wrote a comment last night in support of the artistic team's choice to do as they choose with this production - especially since they have the approval from the estate. And today I was going to post the comment I made to the NYT website, but this morning I saw my post had been removed.  Miffed, (as I hadn't made a copy of what I wrote), I decided I could just sum up the heart of the points I wanted to make - in particular that so many of the masterpieces have been toyed with over the years. There are a dozen different Magic Flutes, Candides and Giovannis out there. No one considers it disrespectful that there are versions that change the ending or cut major parts of the recit - despite their masterpiece status. It is a time honored tradition in the lyric theatre. And it won't kill the show. It might not work, but sometimes it's better. So let these sincere artists take a whack at it. 
I also wanted to talk about how times have changed and an updated book might make sense. Especially concerning race. And gender. And when I saw the Houston Grand tour a few years back was amazed that I'd forgotten a major plot point is that a hurricane sweeps through and destroys much of the black neighborhood. I was left speechless, seeing how relevant Porgy & Bess still is. And I was horrified that is was still so politically and socially relevant 75 years later. And despite that, the show still didn't reach me as powerfully as I thought it should and I could certainly point blame to the book which is the only thing this team is tampering with. But I've decided I would share just this one thing with you. I wrote the director. 
I found her email online very easily because she's the Artistic Director of A.R.T. (the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge). And then I composed a short note to her that was simply a Vote of Confidence and Letter of Support. I wrote that I saw the flack she'd been getting and I stood by her choice to try and revitalize the piece. I've never met Diane, though I've seen her shows. Some were great, some less so. But I so respect her sincere interest to create vital theatre - and especially music theatre. Last year she cast Amanda Palmer as the Emcee in Cabaret. I almost flew East just to see it. And I really want to see what she and Suzan-Lori come up with for the Porgy and Bess. She's up to great things. And the thing I'm most glad about is that I actually wrote Diane directly instead of just posting a comment on some website. While I'm interested in what you think about this little controversy, here's what I'm more interested in: 
Have you ever written a public figure you didn't know in support of them when you thought they were going through hard times?

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