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Stephen Sondheim… I’mma Let You Finish, But…

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.

Uh… yeah.

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.

{ 17 comments… add one }

  • Amanda August 19, 2011, 1:43 pm

    LOL at “his apparent interest in stopping the backslide of American theater into the pit of wicked modernity and horribleness, or something.” <3 you

  • Robert August 19, 2011, 2:41 pm

    This is an interesting article, but why did you feel the need to bring race into it? Neither Sondheim nor Paulus mentions racial attitudes in Porgy and Bess, and its confusing as to why you think its significant to Sondheim’s commentary. Also your insinuation that Sondheim himself is racist because he has never written for a black actor is completely ridiculous. If this is some kind of attempt to show that he prefers the original Porgy and Bess to Paulus’s updated one because he is a low key racist you are a moron. But its still nice to see another opinion on this subject.

    • Jennifer March 11, 2012, 10:36 am

      Race cannot be separated from the story of Porgy & Bess and it’s ignorant for you to believe it can be.

      And it is a fact that is being stated, Sondheim never did write a part for a black actor. You assumed that it was a racist comment, but read carefully. No one called Sondheim racist, just stated fact.

  • Lucky August 19, 2011, 2:58 pm

    Paulus has indeed mentioned racial attitudes in regards to this revival. And my point is that Porgy and Bess requires some updating because of the way it handles race. In his letter, Stephen Sondheim ignores that. And that’s a pretty major thing to ignore.

  • sweeks1980 August 19, 2011, 4:07 pm

    I’m torn about Sondheim’s comments. On one hand, I do wish that he had waited until the show opened to go after it with both guns blazing, and I agree that his letter can certainly come off as curmudgeonly and unnecessarily harsh in places. Having Sondheim, with his intellect and his standing, go after anyone in regards to musical theatre is akin to calling a SWAT team in to rescue a kitten that is stuck in a tree. No matter what happens or what he says, there will be a commotion that no one will be able to escape or ignore.

    However, I also think that he makes some valid points in regards to the attitudes displayed by some of the people associated with the production. After reading the original article that sparked the controversy, I can see where Sondheim is coming from, since some of the comments can be interpreted as backhanded compliments or outright criticism of the original work with some (perhaps unintended) arrogance thrown in for good measure. Is any work perfect? Probably not. However, saying that a classic (in this case, “Porgy and Bess,” a work that is apparently one of Sondheim’s favorites) is seriously flawed and that you can and will improve upon it is certainly provocative and will undoubtedly inspire a reaction. Some might say that saying this takes a lot of courage (it does). Others, such as Sondheim, might argue that making such a statement involves hubris.

    I also appreciate Sondheim’s point regarding the “difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting.” As an English teacher and a former dramaturg, I understand how people can hold different interpretations of a work, but I also think that you need to be able to support and ground these interpretations with the text itself. If you want to add material to flesh points or characters out, perhaps the better answer is to write a separate piece rather than trying to interpolate additional text and information (particularly that not from the original author) into the existing work. A prime instance of this is most of the oeuvre of Gregory Maguire, an author who seems to truly enjoy writing about the supporting characters and exploring their backstories. That said, he does this within his own works (“Wicked”) rather than placing backstory within the already established classic (“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”).

    On a tangentially related note, Audra McDonald’s comments about Bess being “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character” made me think of Sarah in “Ragtime,” because the same charge certainly applies.

  • David R August 19, 2011, 9:57 pm

    Did you catch your friends discussing this on Broadway radio last week? They had a very thorough discussion both pro and con. I think you got all wrong but to each his own.

  • lucky August 19, 2011, 10:53 pm

    I’m fucking devastated that I got it all wrong. DEVASTATED, I tell you.

  • BRJ August 19, 2011, 11:09 pm

    You don’t get it. Please go back and read what he actually said. You’d have much more credibility if you actually critiqued what he said instead of what you think he said.

    Geez. I used to like this site. But between this ignorant response and the fixation on how hot certain actors are, I kinda feel like I need to vom.

  • lucky August 19, 2011, 11:22 pm

    I did critique what he said. I said that I disagree and that I think his comments were both unfair (because they were directed at a show that had not played a single public performance) and surprisingly conservative (because he’s advocating against change). So.

  • JHinNOLA August 20, 2011, 3:44 am

    Sondheim is absolutely right and Paulus, etc., is/are absolutely wrong. The great Audra McDonald should be ashamed of herself.
    Minor tinkering and re-working older shows (for the intended edification of a dumbed-down American sudience!) may be relatively harmless, but totally reworking, rethinking and rewriting a true classic piece of American theatrical history is just Rape.
    If most of you believe that this is the road that the American musical theatre should take, then you all deserve “SpiderMan” for the rest of your theatre-going lives!
    I shall keep my pathetic pittance at home and watch my dvds of the great, intact shows of Sondheim.
    By the way….. I suppose “Porgy” is being adjusted so that “Bess” (Audra!) sings “Summertime”— the iconic anthem that is NOT performed by “Bess” in the original. Hmmmmm……..

  • Esther August 20, 2011, 9:33 am

    Thanks for writing this! I wrote about it on my blog last week, bringing up many of the same points you do – especially about race – and I felt like I was definitely in the minority. And great point about the state of art today – how it’s all about adaptation.

    I understand that Sondheim is a musical theatre purist who loves Porgy and Bess but instead of calling out the largely African-American cast and creative team for their “arrogance,” I wish at least he’d consider the viewpoint of African-Americans toward this work. It doesn’t seem to have even entered his mind. Either that or he’s being disingenuous.

    For Robert to question why you’re bringing race into this when Sondheim doesn’t – well that’s actually the problem.

    Every African-American cast member quoted in The Times and in another article in The Boston Globe stated very clearly that although they love the music, some parts of Porgy and Bess have always made black audiences and black performers uncomfortable. In fact, the Times article says the impetus behind this production came from the Gershwin and Heyward estates, which wanted a musical version that would attract large numbers of African-American theatergoers.

    And to excoriate Audra McDonald, of all people. She has been a fierce advocate for gay rights, for which she’s been rightly praised. So when she speaks as an African-American woman about her concerns with racism in Porgy and Bess, she deserves to be treated with respect.

    It’s unseemly for someone of Sondheim’s stature to have come down so hard on this production before even the first preview. With great power comes great responsibility.

    Granted, I’m not a purist when it comes to anything. If someone wanted to remake my favorite movie, Casablanca, I wouldn’t be up in arms about it. I’d think, that’s interesting. (And I’ve never seen Porgy and Bess, so the changes will go over my head.) But if we can make the portrayal of black characters in the 1930s less offensive, while still keeping the elements that make this a great work, why not try?

  • Doug August 20, 2011, 11:54 am

    Sondheim admitted he was not criticizing the production, and admitted that it might be wonderful. I believe he was commenting on the arrogance of the director and writer to announce that they were not simply “tweaking” the show, they were rewriting it – giving the characters back stories, etc – without the authors’ knowledge or consent. It is one thing to stage a show in a new manner, but to rewrite what many consider a classic is pretty nervy. I don’t believe Ms. Parks would be pleased if someone began rewriting her plays for her. I think that this was Mr. Sondheim’s major contention.

  • L August 20, 2011, 12:28 pm

    This is obviously missunderstood. What Paulus claimed was reworking the book of the show, altering scenes and providing “new” scenes. This is what Sondheim was against. A show, specially once it has been called a ‘classic’ should not be shuffled around in its writing. If there is new things to be found or shown in the story, they should be expressed in staging and visual aspects of costumes and sets (e.g.: the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd). If there should be any changes to be done, they should be done by the original writers of the show, who have a clear view as to what needs to be told. And race was never in discussing so there is no need to bring that up.

  • Larry B August 20, 2011, 12:39 pm

    I don’t know….i read Mr. Sondheim’s comments a little differently.

    I think he was annoyed at the arrogance of the creatives on this new production
    in ASSUMING that they could do it better and ASSUMING that the original authors
    missed the boat or something.
    I don’t think he was saying it should be untouched.

    I think he is afraid that after he is gone…someone will re-think SWEENEY TODD
    and interpolate SORRY GRATEFUL after Sweeney cuts the beggar womans throat.
    Because Sweeney has regrets…

    I’m being assumptive myself about what he thinks. He was pretty clear.

    So…I don’t think it is so much that the great Steve Sondheim is taking advantage of his
    position of revered creator. I think he was outraged by the comments not necessarily the actions. After all…he has allowed productions of his shows that are questionable.
    However…there isn’t much re-writing done on those projects.

    The implications that the Gershwins and Dubose Heyward weren’t all that smart….is what
    appeared offensive and mostly….”arrogant”.
    Porgy and Bess is a pretty great piece of work.

    I’m curious to see how it’s handled and if this new conception brings anything to it.
    But I too was offended by the arrogance of the interviews and statements.
    Why don’t they not talk about it….and just do it.

  • the mick August 20, 2011, 1:19 pm

    I don’t think anything about Lucky’s response is misunderstood. Sure, Sondheim was clear that he was commenting on what the creators were saying about the show, and not the show itself, but admitting that much does not make his commentary fair.

    Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, this outrage at the “arrogance” of the creators seems wildly misplaced. Does anyone really expect Diane Paulus to give an interview to the Times in which she says “Well, we don’t think we’re that smart, or our ideas are that good, but we’re doing it anyway because why not screw with a perfect piece of work?” or “We don’t think the material is turning out that well and we’re probably not improving anything here.” That interview was as much a part of the show’s marketing as it was anything else. Of COURSE the cast and creators were effusive and enthusiastic about their work.

    Sondheim was defending people–and work–that do not require his defense. As Esther pointed out, the Gershwin and Heyward estates requested work on an updated version that would be palatable to a modern audience, particularly one that included African Americans. To assume that because the creators are expressing confidence in their work they are therefore somehow disrespectful or disdainful of the original work and willfully mishandling the material, without ever having seen a performance, is supremely unfair. Particularly to do so in the New York Times, a public forum, and not in a private note to the creators themselves.

    There is more at work here than simple concern for a work that is considered a “classic.” That is what was truly upsetting about Sondheim’s letter.

  • W. Squier August 20, 2011, 2:52 pm

    Re: why is it necessary to adhere to the authors’ original intentions?

    There are obviously a lot of ways to interpret the written word. Resourceful theater artists do it all the time. But, usually without rewriting them.

    Re: a show that has been interpreted as solidly racist

    No more than, say, The Merchant of Venice. And somehow modern day directors and actors find a way to deal with the attitudes of the time when it was written without rewriting Shakespeare.

  • JimmyD August 22, 2011, 10:54 am

    JHinNOLA: Sondheim is absolutely right and Paulus, etc., is/are absolutely wrong.

    Oh my. Anyone who lives in a world of absolutes scare me.

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