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The Gershwin Wars

With Nice Work and Porgy and Bess up for 20 Tonys, the Gershwins and Stephen Sondheim talk to Tablet

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Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in Porgy and Bess. (Michael J. Lutch)
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While producers and theater enthusiasts brace for this year’s Tony Awards on Sunday, few have more riding on their outcome than the Gershwin estates—the heirs of George and Ira Gershwin.

Theater-goers have been treated this season to not just one, but two remodeled Gershwin classics, both playing on West 45th Street in New York, a few theaters apart. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, a slimmed-down version of the work starring four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy, which had not been seen on a Broadway stage in 35 years, opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater in January. The more recent offering, Nice Work If You Can Get It, which opened in April, is billed as a musical pastiche based on the 1926 hit, Oh Kay! Nice Work has received mixed reviews, and its continued run and commercial success with marquee stars Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara may be even more dependent than Porgy and Bess on finding favor with the Tony gods. Both plays have been nominated for 10 Tonys each. Only the musical Once has gotten more nominations.

Critics might have been expected to welcome a chance to revisit in a single Broadway season so many of the splendid Gershwin songs that thrilled our grandfathers, or in the case of Nice Work, our great-grandfathers.

But it ain’t necessarily so. Stephen Sondheim, at 82, the reigning composer and lyricist prince of the musical stage and someone who grew up with Gershwins’ music, denounced the new Porgy in a letter to the New York Times. Sondheim’s letter was prompted by an article in the  Times last August in which the play’s director, Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater and director of the much-acclaimed 2009 production of Hair on Broadway, suggested that the original opera needed some tweaking.

“I’m sorry,” Paulus was quoted as saying, “but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires having your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.”

Intent on “excavating and shaping and modernizing the story and particularly Bess,” Ms. Paulus said she was planning other changes—like having actors speak rather than sing some of the recitatives, adding new scenes and biographical details about its characters, and most radically, what the New York Times called a “more upbeat ending” suggesting that Porgy and his Bess would be reunited.

This was too much for Sondheim, apparently a Gershwin purist who, in the letter to the Times, savaged Paulus’ suggestion that she and her creative team could improve upon the original. What would she have done “if she ever got her hands on Tosca and Don Giovanni?” he wrote. “Ms. Paulus would probably want to add an aria or two to explain how Tosca got to be a star, and she would certainly want some additional material about Don Giovanni’s unhappy childhood to explain what made him such an unconscionable lecher.”

Worst of all were her plans for a happy ending, or a less unhappy one. Sondheim quoted Suzan-Lori Parks’ assertion in the Times article that if Gershwin had lived longer instead of dying at only 38, “he would have gone back to the story of Porgy and Bess and made changes, including the ending.”

“It’s reassuring that Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him,” Sondheim sneered. Clearly stunned by this devastating, rare public rebuke from a fellow artist, Paulus and her creative team dropped the more ambiguous ending and many of the other changes they had been trying out on stage in Boston. Insisting that “l’affaire Sondheim,” as one Times reviewer called it, was not responsible for her decision, Paulus subsequently told the paper that she and her team had backed away from some of the changes to which he had most strongly objected.

But almost a year later, Sondheim’s critique still rankles. Sondheim told Tablet Magazine that he has “no regrets” about having written his letter. He was not attacking the production, he says, but what Paulus et al. were saying about it. And no, he still hasn’t gone to see either Porgy or Nice Work. “If I suspect I’m not going to like something (show, movie, art exhibit, whatever), I simply avoid it,” he wrote in an email exchange.

The Gershwin estates trustees remain livid. In an interview, Marc G. Gershwin, 69, the son of George and Ira’s brother Arthur and one of the three more active trustees, called the Sondheim letter “extremely unfair and unnecessary.” “We didn’t need this grief,” he told me.

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Some theater cognoscenti claim that the sudden proliferation of Gershwin on Broadway reflects changes of the guard in the musical-theater estates established after the deaths of George and Ira, the former of whom had amassed what was once considered a sizable fortune. But there is only one new activist among the trustees, one new “thirty-something” addition, and his relatives assert that plans for the new productions were well under way before his activism increased two years ago. All three of the most active trustees also insist that their goals and cultural standards have not changed and that while profit is clearly a goal, it has never been and will never be their primary aim.

“It is particularly important to me that new generations experience and enjoy the rich, historical, and timeless music that my great-uncles left us all,” said Jonathan Keidan, a 38-year-old founder of a digital media start-up called Insidehook.com, who once managed hip-hop acts and whose grandmother was George and Ira’s sister.

Of course, enticing a new generation to Broadway for the Gershwins’ music is a sine qua non of sustained profitability, and the Gershwin estates make between $5 million and $8 million a year, according to published estimates.

“Sondheim got so much wrong,” Mike Strunsky, a trustee of the Ira Gershwin estate, said, highlighting, in particular, his complaint about having added the Gershwin name to the musical’s title. Strunsky sold his California-based construction firm in 1995 to devote more of his time to promoting the music whose lyrics were written by Ira Gershwin, whose wife’s brother was his father—and thinks the alarm at the changes made to the original score and book is overblown. “We added the ‘s’ and the apostrophe’ back in 1992,” he explained, “because I was concerned that Ira wasn’t getting the billing he deserved. So, there was nothing new about the title.”

Nor was the discarding of the goat cart that hauled Porgy around and its replacement with a crutch, or in this production, a brace and a cane, a new addition. This, too, had been adopted by earlier productions, particularly one that Strunksy had enthusiastically encouraged by Trevor Nunn, whose 2006 production in London never found commercial favor with British audiences.

“We’re keeping the brand alive,” said Strunsky. “Do we make a buck? Yes, that’s America.”

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The heirs’ commitment to introducing the next generation to the Gershwins’ music in user-friendly form was apparent on any Wednesday matinee from March through the end of May. Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the estate, matched by roughly $33,000 from New York’s City’s Department of Education, some 2,000 high-school students from 30 public high schools representing all five boroughs had a chance to see the new production. On a typical Wednesday in mid-April, 235 students from three New York public high schools that had paid $15 per student got the best available seats for a matinee. Scattered throughout the audience, most of the students seemed transfixed watching Audra McDonald, who critics agree has redefined the role of Bess, struggle to become more than a drug- and alcohol-addicted floozy with an affinity for red dresses and bad men. As the actors took their curtain calls, the teenagers gleefully hissed at Phillip Boykin—much to his apparent delight—for his Broadway-debut depiction of Crown, Porgy’s unworthy rival, a man who uses and abuses Bess and whom Porgy kills, in this version, in an implausible fight.

Continue reading: A new generation of theater-goers

A few days before the performance, members of the cast had traveled to the participating schools for a workshop to discuss the play. Nathaniel Stampley, who plays Swing, whom Crown kills early in the play, visited Bryant High School in Queens, the high school that Ethel Merman attended. A few Bryant students quietly cheered when they saw him on stage.

After the performance, McDonald, Lewis, Stampley, and three other actors, as well as the play’s stage manager returned to the stage for a half-hour-long “talk back” with the students, a post-production chat about the theater and the play they had just seen. Lewis took off the brace he had worn throughout his moving performance to show how he had twisted his leg and body into a distorted pretzel shape. Audra McDonald told them that she had fallen in love with the folk opera’s music when she first heard her parents’ recording of Porgy and Bess, sung by the incomparable Leontyne Price. From the record she had memorized all the songs by heart, she said.

Peter Avery, the director of theater for the NYC Department of Education who previously worked at Disney Theatricals for two years, coaxed the star-struck students into asking the questions they were initially too shy to pose. How had the actors made it to Broadway? Weren’t they afraid they would forget their lines? “The audience doesn’t want you to fail,” another actor reassured them.

A show of hands revealed that more than half of the students who lived less than 10 miles away from the Great White Way had never seen a Broadway play. Few had ever heard a Gershwin song. Of those who had, most recognized only “Summertime.” The winner of an early American Idol had performed it, one student volunteered.

Only 10 percent of the city’s 1,700 schools still had certified theater teachers, Avery told me after the students boarded their buses for home. “There are excellent theater teachers across the city,” he said. But at schools hard hit by citywide staff cutbacks and budget cuts, access to quality theater education for New York students remains a “challenge.”

Broadway’s aging audiences attest to the need to introduce a new generation of Americans to not just the music of the Gershwins and other great American composers, but to the musical theater genre itself. In 1982, patrons under 30 comprised 27.1 percent of theater audiences throughout the nation, a National Endowment for the Arts study of age and arts participation showed; by 1997 they comprised just 16.2 percent. The percentage over age 60 rose from 16.4 percent to 22.7 percent of the musical theater audiences. “The kids are responding to the project like gangbusters,” said Avery, who is now discussing access to performances to Peter and the Starcatcher and other plays.

Yet professional critics have hardly been as kind as local teenagers. Ben Brantley of the Times called the estate-approved production of Porgy “skeletal,” “cloudy,” and “mild,” and “just pretty good,” or in non-Timesean-speak, awful. Charles Isherwood, writing that Brantley and Anthony Tommasini had found the production “disappointing,” chimed in as well, calling it “musically underpowered and emotionally tepid.”

The only thing virtually all critics agreed upon was Audra McDonald’s magnificent performance. Even Sondheim, who had harshly criticized her lack of regard for Bess in the original play’s depiction, saluted her astounding voice as one of the glories of the New York stage.

The decidedly mixed critical reaction to the production made New Yorker critic Hilton Als’ admiration for what he called Paulus’ “politically radical and dramaturgically original” adaptation even more striking. As an African-American, or more accurately, Caribbean-American, Als did not hesitate to challenge the Gershwin purist dogma and agree with the need for updating the opera, given the evolution of American attitudes toward race. However talented Edwin DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel on which the play was based, may have been, he was of his time, Als wrote, a man who saw blacks as “alien and exotic,” a man who could write, “I saw the primitive Negro as the inheritor of a source of delight that I would have given much to possess.” Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, he wrote, was “a show about black people, created entirely by white people.” Whereas “Paulus and Parks’s approach,” he added, had “less to do with the self-serving manipulation of a classic” than with “humanizing the depiction of race onstage.”

Writing for the World Socialist web site, Fred Mazelis complains that Als did not back up his charges, “nor does he try to explain how Gershwin could have written such magnificent music” if he had “disdain and disrespect for his characters.” In a shrewd observation about the current controversy, Mazelis said he was struck by how “indifferent” Als was to the music itself. That may well be true: Als writes primarily about theater, not music. And the power of Porgy and Bess, in whatever form it appears, resides for many of us in the gorgeous music rather than the powerful love story that accompanies it.

In an essay in the National Endowment for the Humanities journal in late 1997, music historian James Standifer puts the current debate in perspective by providing some useful facts about the play, its reception over time, and “the complex way the issue of race continues to be played out on the American scene.” The work that is now a “cultural artifact,” he notes, an “epochal event in American music,” has long been controversial within the black community. And it was cut by Gershwin himself from its opening in 1935 in Boston to the Broadway stage. Though it played 124 times and toured for three months to large audiences around the country, it was a commercial failure. The version that finally succeeded financially as well as critically—and not until World War II—was about half the length of the original.

Though the work was written thanks to a commission from the Metropolitan Opera for a distinctly American opera, the Met could not perform it when it was written because, among other reasons, the Gershwins insisted (as do the estates today) that it have a black cast. In 1933, the Met did not have a single black singer on its roster: The Met, in fact, did not perform the work it had helped create until 1985, more than 50 years after its Broadway premiere. (The Houston Grand Opera revived it in 1976.) Marc Gershwin says that the Met is expressing interest in staging a production in 2017.

For Gershwin purists, this may well be the most important silver lining of the current production’s reappearance on Broadway. For the rest of us, the good news is that The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which was originally scheduled to end its run on July 8, will be extended with its leading stars at least through Sept. 30 and possibly longer—depending on how the controversy over the Gershwins’ artistic legacy plays out on Sunday night at the Tonys.

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Jayson2 says:

“Do we make a buck? Yes, that’s America.”

How very true. Even if it means changing history, America will do it for the buck.

urthetop says:

I have seen many productions of “Porgy and Bess”, going way, way back and including the current one. This production,in spite of the glorious performance by Audra MacDonald is missing many things, including the most important one: George Gershwin. Anyone who did not grew up in that magical era of the Gershwins’ Hollywood and Broadway is entitled to enjoy
revivals that stick to the letter and the spirit of them. There is no excuse for hijacking time-honored material and deciding that you know better.

ann powell says:

Sondheim is right: if you revive a show, revive it. Otherwise, do your own.

But, having seen several productions of PORGY & BESS, including the Houston Opera one, I’ve never found anything beyond the music to be engaging. It’s too bad that the Gershwins didn’t think that the things they knew and understood were worthy of their efforts to write a genuine American opera. Their attempt to mine unknown environments and characters is even weaker than Arthur Miller’s escape from the particular and the familiar in his less than successful effort to universalize DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

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The Gershwin Wars

With Nice Work and Porgy and Bess up for 20 Tonys, the Gershwins and Stephen Sondheim talk to Tablet

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