Sondheim sounds off on new 'Porgy and Bess'

Aug. 12, 2011 at 7:12 PM
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NEW YORK, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim is criticizing a re-worked stage version of "Porgy and Bess," an opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.

Starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, the production is to begin performances Wednesday at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and is to transfer to Broadway this winter, The New York Times said.

In a letter to the editor published in the Times this week, Sondheim complained about numerous elements of the revival, among them the move to change it from "Porgy and Bess" to "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" and the decision to include more back story for the show's protagonists.

"I assume that's in case anyone was worried it was the 'Rodgers and Hart Porgy and Bess' that was coming to town. But what happened to DuBose Heyward? Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone ('Summertime,' 'My Man's Gone Now') or co-written with Ira Gershwin ('Bess,' 'You is My Woman Now,')" Sondheim wrote. "If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed of themselves. If it's the producers' idea, it's just dumb."

Sondheim also criticizes director Diane Paulus, star McDonald and writer Suzan-Lori Parks for suggesting the original work's characters need more development and their motivations more explanation.

"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," he said.

Sondheim takes umbrage, as well, with remarks McDonald made about how the character Bess is "often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character."

"Often?" the composer wrote in his letter to the Times. "Meaning sometimes she's full-blooded and other times not? She's always full-blooded when she's acted full-bloodedly, as she was by, among others, Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say, 'The opera has the makings of a great love story that I think we're bringing to life.' Wow, who'd have thought there was a love story hiding in 'Porgy and Bess' that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?"

Sondheim's resume includes "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods," "West Side Story" and "Gypsy."

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