Saturday, August 06, 2011

Hubris alert

I am looking forward to the ART production of Porgy and Bess, the first opera I ever saw from good seats (I was taken by the late great Oz librarian Margaret Trask twenty-five years ago in Sydney)  and thus responsible for my financial ruin. And I understand that this production is not going to be the full-on opera, with dialog replacing the recitative and a Broadway singer (the wonderful Audra McDonald) starring as Bess. One of the great things about the work is the way it has survived various incarnations and the success many of the "numbers" have had as pop and jazz standards (best being, I think, Nina Simone's "I Love You, Porgy")

But a recent NYT story makes me verrry nervous, especially this quote from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, tasked with revising the opera for this production. She says, "if [Gershwin] had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including to the ending.” She's going to change the ending? The ending is the BEST: Porgy, freed from jail, returns to Catfish Row only to find Bess has run off to New York with that no-good Sportin' Life. "Bring me my goat!" he commands, referring to the goat-driven cart he uses to get around (although not, apparently, in this production; he'll use a cane instead). And off he heads to New York, leading the chorus in the rousing "Oh Lord, I'm on my way." What is Parks going to do instead, send Bess to rehab? This is kind of like saying that had E.B. White lived, Charlotte would be happily spinning sheets for Fern's babies.

So now I'm just hoping it won't be the adolescent disaster that was ART's Cabaret.

10 comments:

GraceAnne LadyHawk said...

We saw the 1976 production in New York City with Clamma Dale as Bess. It had the most brilliant of endings. Bess is gone, but Porgy takes his cart, and the red dress Bess loves, and goes off. For the curtain call, Clamma Dale comes out in Bess' red dress. It was a great moment.

Fuse' said...

GraceAnne, my mother saw that same production. Someone should make a list of brilliant curtain call choices. The idea that they'll change the ending now makes my teeth curl.

Elaine Marie Alphin said...

Why?? Why do new generations feel the desperate need to create revisionist productions of classic shows? Do we want Romeo and Juliet to live and bite their thumbs at their warring families? Do we want Hamlet to report his own cause aright, having survived the poisoned blade? Or Desdemona to pat Othello on the shoulder, assure him that she survived his attempt to kill her, and say that he was only the victim of prejudice and the weakened listener of a jealous friend?

Classics show the audience where the responsibility for the show's outcome lies, and in musicals and operas the music even foretells it - would a revisionist production of Sweeney Todd "improve" Sondheim's score with upbeat trills and allow Sweeney, his wife and Joanna to go off to a new home together, with the hope of happiness implicit in the final chorus? What would we make of such an ending? And what if that revision became the norm, and there came a time when audiences did not remember the original?

I wait, shuddering, to learn how the ART production alters Gershwin's intent, and the audience's experience.

TWG said...

Sometimes I think everything has become fanfiction, where the canon story is rewritten to suit how someone thinks it ought to have been written, or thinks that she or he has improved upon the original.

I grew up with The Lord of the Rings the way other children grew up with Dr. Seuss, and I hated the LOTR movies because they rewrote characters’ motivations, when there was absolutely no reason to. And a boy character was added to the film version of Coraline, and… there are so many examples.

I'm interested in hearing your opinion of Porgy's new ending, Mr. Sutton.


(In the interest of full disclosure, I enjoy writing fanfiction as a hobby, for fun and relaxation.. But I never kid myself that my stories are equal to or better than the canon.)

Peter D. Sieruta said...

To respond to Fuse #8's comment, the best curtain call I ever saw actually had a children's book connection. Back around 1980 I saw Sandy Duncan in PETER PAN and when she came out for her bow, she flew out over the audience, all the way up the mezzanine and back!

Roger Sutton said...

GraceAnne, that curtain call sounds GREAT.

In fairness, we don't know what changes will be wrought to this Porgy and Bess; it's just that Parks' comment was arrogant--how the hell would she or anyone know that Gershwin would have changed the ending had he lived?

I'm all for playing around with the classics, whether they be plays or operas or books. What I don't like is when they are dumbed down to make them more palatable to more people. I'll let you know if I think that happens here.

Mary Brigid said...

Roger, you may be interested in this blog post in NYTimes:
http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/stephen-sondheim-takes-issue-with-plan-for-revamped-porgy-and-bess/?ref=theater

Jennifer Schultz said...

I was just coming here to post about Sondheim's letter. Don't know if you frequent All That Chat, but this lit the message board on fire.

Roger Sutton said...

Sondheim's letter is quite a smackdown!

Jennifer Schultz said...

It was quite entertaining. Roger, have you read Finishing the Hat? It's fantastic-the second volume (Look, I Made a Hat) will be out in November, I think.