Dave Sikula’s isn’t going going to see “Porgy and Bess”.
Over the past week or so, I’ve had a number of friends either post on Facebook – or actually mention in person (imagine!) – that they had seen or were going to see “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the Golden Gate. No one has asked me if I was going – and why should they? – but if they did, I’d give them a firm “No.”
On its face, this would be an odd answer to anyone who knows me. I love musicals, I love Gershwin’s music, and tickets seem plentiful (and how could they not be, given the barns the SHN shows play in?). But there’s not a chance in hell I’ll be anywhere near the theatre – unless it’s on my nightly walk to rehearsal in the heart of the Tenderloin.
You may ask “Why?,” and I’ll tell you. (Which will come as a surprise, I’m sure, given this piece’s title.) First of all, let me state my firm belief that “Porgy and Bess” is the greatest achievement of both the musical theatre and the creators of the show – half of whom seem to have mysteriously vanished. I consider “Porgy” to be one the three towering achievements in the musical theatre. (The others are Hammerstein and Kern’s “Show Boat” and Sondheim and Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd.” Nothing else, in my opinion, comes close. Maybe Goldman and Sondheim’s “Follies,” but that’s it.) And I find “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” to be the most powerful number in a brilliant score.
I was first exposed to the show in the late 70s, when the tour of the Houston Grand Opera production played the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. (Side note #1: For those who consider the Oakland Paramount the ne plus ultra of movie palace style and décor, the Pantages makes the Paramount look like a local cineplex that hasn’t been remodeled since the late 80s. But I digress …) Jack O’Brien’s production was the first to present the entire score (there were a number of cuts made in 1935 because of time and technical issues) and it was the first time that a director had been hired to bring new blood into the show. All previous productions had been replications the original, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian was a great, great director (I highly recommend a number of his films, especially the 1932 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and the 1939 “The Mark of Zorro”) – but what worked for one cast in 1935 was not a one-size-fits-all solution. (Side note #2: Jack O’Brien himself goes into this issue in great detail in his new book “Jack Be Nimble,” which I also highly recommend.)
Anyway, O’Brien took the script and score and turned what many considered a tired and too-long warhorse and turned it into one of the most powerful and gripping evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre. When the show ended, even sitting in the far reaches of the Pantages’s balcony, I was too spent to leave immediately. It was utterly overwhelming, and I had to sit a while to absorb what I’d just seen. Even now, listening to the cast recording of that production will give me chills.
So, if I love the show so much, why won’t I go? When discussing this production, the controversy raised over it (mainly by Stephen Sondheim) would seem to inevitably follow. For those of you who don’t remember or are too lazy to click, Sondheim preemptively dismissed the “revisals” of the show devised by its artistic team. This team sought, at the request of the Gershwin estate (the people who decided that DuBose Hayward should be excised from any billing, despite writing the play the opera is based on, as well as contributing the libretto and most of the lyrics – despite the billing, Ira Gershwin contributed the lyrics to only some of the songs) to make the show more palatable to the apparently delicate sensibilities of modern audiences by “strengthening” the characters, cutting down the cast, and cutting down George Gershwin’s own orchestrations.
Now, the wisdom of these changes can be debated. Personally, like Sondheim, I think they’re wrong-headed and unnecessary. (Especially if Suzan-Lori Parks, who may be America’s worst famous playwright, is responsible for them.) I’m not saying plays or opera libretti are sacred and inviolate when it comes to change. The books of old musicals are rewritten all the time, if only because, until 1943’s “Oklahoma!” most musical books (with a few exceptions) were flimsy excuses to string together lousy jokes in scenes that took up time until it was time to sing another number. What I am saying is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”
Are some of the aspects of “Porgy and Bess” troubling to modern audiences? Certainly. But to try to edit them out denies the realities that went into the research and creation of the play and the opera. Yes, some of the dialects may seem troubling, but they’re authentic to the time and place. The characters themselves, with the exceptions of the villains – Crown and Sportin’ Life – are hard-working, honest, and, if not always admirable, at least understandable. To alter them simply because some in the audience may find them uncomfortable is to A) sacrifice thoughtfulness and controversy for comfort and B) ignore the stereotypes that are presented. (O’Brien’s book deals with this, as well. As a white director, his comfort level in dealing with an almost-exclusively African-American cast was low until he and the company started discussing the stereotypes and dialect in honest discourse. There was no thought of tempering the libretto. Overcoming it took thought and communication.)
One of my favorite quotes – and unfortunately, a web search doesn’t reveal its source – is “To euphemize the past excuses it.” That is to say, while we can pretend that racial, sexual, and other stereotypes didn’t exist in old movies, songs, books, and television shows, or feel superior to our ancestors because we’re more enlightened, to cover them up denies us the chance to wrestle with them and make us defend our own beliefs (and prejudices – we all have them; yours are just different from mine …). If everything we see is squeaky clean and lacking in controversy, how is that art? It’s comfort and reassurance; it’s not challenging. (Side note #3: This is one of the reasons I lament there are few prominent conservative writers for the theatre. I’d like to have my preconceptions challenged once in a while to sharpen my beliefs by having to defend them.)
Finally, it’s not just the blanderizing of “Porgy and Bess” that makes me want to avoid it. In the few clips, excerpts, and songs I’ve heard show me that the current creative team have taken what I think is the richest and most powerful score in the musical canon and turned it into a series of pop hits; a concert of badly-orchestrated and performed ditties. If I want to hear that, I can find plenty of dull and ill-conceived versions of the show’s best-known numbers. (Side note #4: Recommended pop versions of the score: those featuring Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, and Miles Davis playing the orchestrations of Gil Evans.)
Ultimately, I place the blame for the whole farrago on the Gershwin estate. Sensing that one day the U.S. Congress may one day actually revise this country’s corporate-friendly copyright laws, they wanted to create a version of the show they can control for decades to come. It’s hard to think of any benefit these copyright laws have given American culture. Locking up plays, books, movies, songs, and characters benefits only corporate entities and does nothing to inspire new and creative works. (Ironically, the same companies that fight tooth and nail to have copyright extended indefinitely – most notably Disney – are the very ones that have most benefitted from creating new works based on concepts in the public domain.)
And that’s why I’m not going to see “Porgy and Bess.”
(Side note #5: I hadn’t intended to go on this long, and was actually going to touch on two other topics this week: artistic depictions of the creative process and the tacit contract an audience enters into by purchasing tickets, but I’ve taken up enough of your time and will, hopefully, deal with those next time.)