Stephen Sondheim and the case of ‘Porgy and Bess’


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Stephen Sondheim — theatrical hero or raving curmudgeon? The venerated composer launched a tirade this week against the new Broadway-bound revival of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ criticizing the creative team in a letter to the New York Times for its intention of making significant changes to characters and plot.

In his lengthy letter, Sondheim takes director Diane Paulus, actress Audra McDonald and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to task for adding character backstories, creating dialogue and changing the ending to the popular opera. ‘If [Paulus] 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?’ Sondheim wrote in his letter.


The revival staging by American Repertory Theatre will be titled ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ — another point of contention for Sondheim. The opera, first staged in 1935, features music by George Gershwin, a libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward. The new mounting is set to open this month in Cambridge, Mass., with Broadway previews beginning in December at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.

Producers have issued a non-response to Sondheim’s invective, saying in a statement sent to various media outlets: ‘The entire creative team and cast have the most enormous love and respect for Porgy and Bess, and we are grateful for the support and encouragement we have received from the Gershwin and [DuBose] Heyward Estates for this production.’

McDonald also delivered a sort-of-response via Twitter on Thursday: ‘Here’s what I quote the greatest musical theater composer of our time... ‘Art isn’t easy.’’ (‘Art Isn’t Easy’ is the title of a 1990 biography of Sondheim.)

Theater fans have been weighing in on various message boards, with the preponderance of comments taking the side of the enraged Sondheim. Some fans have directed their criticism at the Gershwin estate for bowing to the commercial whims of Broadway and allowing changes to the opera.

Sondheim, 81, has a reputation for being an exacting composer who demands fidelity to the original text. His musical ‘Follies’ will receive a revival on Broadway this season, coming from the Kennedy Center in Washington.

While it remains uncertain what, if any, impact Sondheim’s words will have on ticket sales for ‘Porgy and Bess,’ his letter will almost certainly pervade the critical discourse surrounding the production in Massachusetts and in New York.

Let the theater critic beware, lest he or she too earns the wrath of Stephen Sondheim.


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— David Ng