Wednesday, August 24, 2011


One of the major monstrosities is rewriting a classic. That is what Suzan-Lori Parks (playwright), Diane Paulus (director) and Audra McDonald (star) are perpetrating with their forthcoming Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. Partly rewritten, it is to be called Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, allegedly with the blessings of the executors of the Gershwin and DuBose Heyward estates.

Absurd right off is retitling the classic as “Gershwin’s” after you have arrogantly de-Gershwinized it. If the offenders were honest, they would call it “Parks’s” or “Paulus’s” unless they have obtained the go-ahead from the composer and lyricists in the Great Beyond. Unlike the executors, the authors do not stand to profit from a revival, however travestied.

Stephen Sondheim, in a cogent and witty letter to the New York Times, has pointed out the preposterousness of an undertaking that treats composer George Gershwin, bookwriter and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward, and co-lyricist Ira Gershwin as needing the two P’s, Parks and Paulus, as baldies needing a toupee. (The pun is mine; if you dislike it, don’t blame Sondheim.) The supposed explanation was that the principal characters needed backstories and fleshing out to become rounded flesh-and-blood characters, which is bloody nonsense.

Unlike—perhaps—major characters in a novel, the principals in an opera or musical (which of the two the show is has been the subject of unending and pointless debate) require no such ministrations. The story, lyrics and music of a classic will satisfy all demands. Provide a cast of gifted singing actors or acting singers, and the production’s living is easy.

I realize that I am not saying anything very new, but what is raised here is the larger issue of rewriting the classics to bring them “up to date,” or to bring in a new, young audience, presumably wanting more “reality.” Is then a Porgy who sets out to retrieve Bess from New York with his goat cart less believable than one who needs only a cane—not even a pogo stick—for the journey, and who, in one misguided version, asked “Bring my coat” for “Bring my goat”? A goat makes much more sense, even if, unlike the protagonist of Edward Albee’s ludicrous The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, he is not in love with the critter.

But it’s that damned happy—or at least happier—ending that is supposed to keep an audience contented. Thus the 2P Porgy, needing only a cane, is less of a cripple and so more likely to satisfy Bess and the audience. If audiences were desperate for happy endings, half of our plays and three quarters of our operas would not have survived. As if a good death scene weren’t as satisfying as a final embrace—think Shakespeare’s Othello or Verdi’s Otello.

Well, all this may not be news. What may be news is my contention that the history of the arts is as important as history itself. A human being is three things: what he is, what he thinks he is, and what he would like to be. Now history records the first of those things, but scants on the other two. For them, we have to go to the literature, fine arts, and even music of ages past.

However, to get back to that goat. I read in today’s Times that an experienced hiker in Olympia Park was gored to death by a 300-pound goat. That, of course, was a wild one—the goat, I mean, not the hiker. Still, while a trained goat would behave itself, and not even demand rewrites in its role, it might be a good idea to weigh it as well as the Porgy, and avoid excessive weight disparity. But goat there must be if the production is not to get my goat, not to mention Stephen Sondheim’s and that of other right-thinking folks.

1 comment:

  1. Tricky business, of course. Cut a Shakespeare play and you are rewriting it, though many would agree the pruning improves the production. I abhor changing the period of a period piece by monkeying with design and costume. Yet I liked the 19th century design/costumes of Brannagh's HAMLET film.

    Goat? Always skip the chèvre chaud at dinner.