diane paulus

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…

Continues…