An interesting NYT article by Anthony Tommasini raises some smart questions about the heated criticism leveled at “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” verses non-reactions to other theatrical remakes. He makes great points about the cultural politics of tweaking a work when some of the creators are still alive, but sidesteps how race was a factor in the P&B drama.
Race has always been front and center with P&B so I’m not saying anything new. It’s an opera about black pimps, hos and po’ folks written by white guys, based on a play written by a white lady and guy, based on a novel written by a white guy. In 1925. So it’s no surprise that the portrayals of these characters are… let’s say dated. Despite the racial controversy that has dogged it over the decades, the opera is considered to be an American classic and the music is known by all.
With the process of converting the opera into a Broadway musical last year (trimming the running time down from 3+ hours, etc) came announced changes that included tweaking character and story stuff, which riled Stephen Sondheim but good. In his letter to the editor Sondheim wrote that the proposed changes in the new P&B all but condemned “the real one” to hell. Which is weird, when said Real One is based on other source material from which it changed original story points — and even the “real” P&B opera has supposedly undergone significant rewrites since it first premiered in 1935.
So what was the real controversy? I’m betting that if Suzan-Lori Parks, Diane Paulus and Audra McDonald had been less open to the media about fixing a black story written by Old White Guys they could have avoided generating as much OWG anger before anyone had even seen it. Regardless, the revamped P&G has found a new audience as a Broadway hit (critic Hilton Als thinks the new show is righteous). And I’ve found a new play in all this to write.