So, remember that time when Stephen Sondheim decided to bitch about some people in theater? Yeah, that was crazy. In fact, that was last week. And still, days later, I am not feeling quite calm or satisfied with how that all went down.
Sondheim’s rant, which was published last week by the New York Times, concerned Diane Paulus’s revival of Porgy and Bess that began previews in Boston this week. Or rather, it concerned some comments that Diane Paulus made about her revival of Porgy and Bess in an interview. Sondheim’s concern? That the director was making some poor choices with the material and ignoring the authors’ original intentions for the work.
Just so we’re all clear: Sondheim was not commenting about the production itself, because at that point in time, the production did not exist yet. It had not played a single performance. Talk about reviewing a show in previews.
While some cheered Sondheim’s response, and his apparent interest in stopping the backslide of American theater into the pit of wicked modernity and horribleness, or something, I just kind of wanted to vom. For 8,000 reasons, but mostly for this one: His response was really unfair.
To see a show and comment on its merits and shortfalls is one thing. To lose your mind in the New York Times because of something someone said about a show, and to extrapolate about the quality of the show from there? That’s… not cool. Sondheim acknowledges and explains this in his piece, but that doesn’t make it logical. And while I appreciate that his status as a Living God of American Theatre wins him a couple of get-out-of-jail-free cards, that doesn’t mean that it’s OK to ignore the basic rules of fairness.
Plus, who knew that Sondheim held such a depressingly narrow view of how old shows should be revived? Per his comments in the Times, it’s clear that he believes that this revival of Porgy and Bess should do what the original show did, and communicate it in the same way. But why is it necessary to adhere to the authors’ original intentions? The story of art right now is the story of the riff, the spin, the adaptation. The Grey Album, Back to Black, kids lip-synching on YouTube. Some of the most compelling stuff happening right now is a re-construction of old stuff. It doesn’t demean the original. It just means that there is room in the world for multiple ideas of art to exist at the same time.
And is it possible to stage Porgy and Bess in 2011 without some significant tweaking? For a show that has been interpreted as solidly racist, some kind of adaptation is clearly necessary for a modern audience.
You’d think that Stephen Sondheim would have some sensitivity about race, and about the uncomfortable idea of outsiders interpreting an entire culture, as the Gershwins did with Porgy and Bess. But this is Stephen Sondheim, remember, who never wrote a single role for an African American actor, and whose interpretations of other cultures have felt an awful lot like Stephen Sondheim’s culture.
And was there no one else to slag in American theater last week? Was Christopher Ashley in the Hamptons? How about Frank Wildhorn or Bono? Those guys are doing some shitty things in American theater right now that, I would argue, solidly compromise the quality and integrity of the American musical as an art form. How about the 38 producers of Memphis, who were presumably sober when they decided to sign the checks that funded that show, or Floyd Mutrux, who keeps doing jukebox musicals that are wildly bad, hugely distortive of American history, and make no sense? I know that Sondheim sees these people as being beneath, and unworthy of his criticism. He’s noted with some distinct pride that he’s never criticized Andrew Lloyd Webber. (And Diane Paulus is no fool. She undoubtedly knows that getting taken down by Stephen Sondheim is a weird kind of complement. Hence her non-engaging statement following Sondheim’s letter. ) But with all the distressing stuff happening on Broadway, Sondheim decides to pick on… Audra McDonald?
In fact, Sondheim condemned her statements about Porgy and Bess and, in the same breath, mentioned that she’s a lovely singer. Condescending much? It’s as though he’s saying, “Stick to singing, lady. And let the smart people interpret the work.” Because, you know, Audra McDonald has no experience whatsoever interpreting complex, classic work.
Frustrating as Sondheim’s comments were, they made me kind of sad, too. For someone with such an intelligent world view, I wanted him to be more open minded. I wanted him to recognize that the dullest, crappiest revivals of his own shows are the ones that simply mimic what came before. Or I at least wanted him to wait a week, see Porgy and Bess, and then write his review.