Aug 12, 2011

Stephen Sondheim, Superfan

Here's the thing: Patrick Healy's feature about Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks' new musical adaptation of Porgy and Bess was a big fat target; I myself read it with very mixed feelings about what they're doing with the material, not because I doubt the artistic integrity of their efforts (a judgment which properly waits to witness the results) but because they spoke about the project in such self-parodically process-y terms—"fleshing out" the characters and giving them back stories (spare us the back stories, please!), getting audiences to "care" about and "invest" in the story. That kind of talk always sounds silly and indulgent, regardless of the quality of the work produced.

And for those who believe that Porgy and Bess is already a great and complete work of art, the efforts of this new company to "improve" the original surely seemed like arrogant sacrilege. They certainly did to Stephen Sondheim, for whom Porgy and Bess is the high-water mark of American musical theater, period. His furious letter to the Times is a classic and utterly characteristic jeremiad against sloppy revisionist thinking. I particularly relished this stinging bit of sarcasm:
[Audra] 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?
The meat of his objection, and his counter-perspective, is here:
[Ms. Paulus] fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings.
Sondheim has made this sort of distinction before, and about a show whose lyrics he's famous for: West Side Story. I can't call the precise quote to hand (I thought it was in Finishing the Hat, which I have with me here at work, but it must be in the Secrest bio, which I have at home*), but he has essentially said that for him Tony and Maria et al are not characters but archetypes, which puts the merits of that show closer to the realm of opera (or dance-theater, which is West Side Story's central strength). What's odd about Sondheim making this point is that his own best work as a songwriter/dramatist is all about character and complexity, not archetype, as he told me earlier this year:
A lot of the shows I've been connected with have been very character-driven. The characters created by the book writers I've worked with have all kinds of subtleties, and they come across better, I think, when the camera is close in on them...They are closer to characters in straight plays than other musicals.
So an artist appreciates a kind of work he himself doesn't do; nothing new there. Indeed, there has always been a kind of disarming humility and wistfulness about the way he valorizes Porgy and Bess, as if it's a miracle he can only approach as a fan and never aspire to as a writer—an attitude that's all the more striking because he (justifiably) has it about very few other canonical works or artists.

But is Porgy and Bess an irreproachable masterpiece? I've only seen it once, maybe 20 years ago, in a version of the famous Houston Grand Opera revival, and I was sufficiently awed if not quite bowled over by it. I've spent some time with the score and I like most of it, love some of its famous numbers and cherish some less celebrated bits ("Clara, Clara," "I Ain't Got No Shame"). But is it as good as Tosca or Le Nozze de Figaro, let alone Sweeney Todd? I'm not sure.

There's another elephant in the room with Porgy. Sondheim, probably unintentionally, nearly alludes to it. Dismayed at one of the production's choices re: Porgy's disability, he writes:
Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane. So now he can demand, “Bring my cane!” Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.
Number 1, ouch; there's no wrath like that of the scorned superfan. Number 2, I'm sure Sondheim only intends a vaudeville reference with "buck-and-wing," but it evokes the not entirely discredited critique of Porgy and Bess's racial content. After all, another way to spell "archetype," particularly when it's invoked by white writers portraying people of color, is "stereotype." For myself, I think Dubose Heyward and George Gershwin come as close as any white folks in their era possibly could to being above reproach on this issue, particularly in the show's signature songs. I like the way Parks put it recently in American Theatre:
Paulus and Parks are facing Porgy's thorny problem of racial stereotyping head-on. Parks talks about the script's flirtations with minstrelsy as a "shortcoming of understanding." As she puts it, "I see what the writers were doing. This was born of love for black people. We're not going to indict them, we're just going to keep working on it."
Even Paulus' own quotes in the same piece (by Chris Wallenberg) are more reverent and mollifying than the ones she gave Pat Healy:
"Every choice I'm making with this production is to strip away any distancing gauze and make it feel immediate and visceral," she continues. "What's great about a show like Porgy and Bess is that it's all there—the incredible drama, incredible people, incredible emotions. But you can remove that distancing lens and make it immediate, which doesn't mean that you have to update it or make it modern."
Bottom line, all this fuss won't just be good for P&B's box-office in the fall. As my colleague Jason Zinoman put it on Facebook:
What I love about [Sondheim's letter] is just how much the guy gives a shit. About the work. Even if he's wrong, even if he's narrow-minded or conservative or unfair, this is a kind of passion that is all too rare in the theater world. This is the kind of theater rant I can get behind because there's not a trace of careerism or petty gossip or personal bullshit. It's just he has a strong opinion about Porgy and Bess and that really matters more than hurting someone's feelings or being impolite...Now if Diane Paulus also believes as strongly, she can double down, make a persuasive case for her vision of P and B and prove him wrong. I am looking forward to seeing it more than ever.

*I located the quote and posted about it here.

1 comment:

Jeff Sweet said...

I think Bess is one of the more complex characters in musical theatre. Being an uneducated women in a world where to be a woman is to be powerless, she has to choose between the men who offer their protection. Crown is a violent thug who wants her only as an ornament. To Sporting Life, she's a commercial investment. Only Porgy offers her real respect and sees the potential she has as a human being. When she chooses to stay with him, she makes a move in the direction of a constructive life. Characters are largely defined by the choices they face, and Bess faces and is attracted to a wider range of possible choices than most. She doesn't need fleshing out, she needs realizing. I don't agree with what Audra McDonald is quoted as saying, but I can't imagine anyone better equipped -- dramatically and musically -- to realize the potential of the part.