Stephen Sondheim and a Revised ‘Porgy and Bess’

Stephen Sondheim takes issue with a new American Repertory Theater production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."(Photo: UPI)
Stephen Sondheim takes issue with a new American Repertory Theater production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."(Photo: UPI)

Composer Stephen Sondheim has sent a letter to the New York Times “in dismay” over a new production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater.

Director Diane Paulus is overseeing a new book, plot twists that neither DuBose Heyward, author of the original Porgy, or George Gershwin would recognize, and a new ending. Ms. Paulus’s production opens in Cambridge, Massachusetts next week “on the road to Broadway.”

Porgy and Bess is, in this writer’s opinion, a great American opera. It is hard and expensive to produce with a huge cast and orchestra (to do it right).

The roles are troublesome for the African-American community. The great Shirley Verrett never performed Bess. “I don’t like what it says to my people,” she said.  Grace Bumbry agreed reluctantly to sing Bess at the opera’s Metropolitan Opera premiere (in 1987!) “Because they were going to do it anyway, with or without me.”

Even worse, Porgy and Crown -huge and difficult roles – can become graveyards for male African American artists. You can be hired for Porgy when you should be singing Rigoletto and Figaro.

I love Audra MacDonald too, but I love Porgy and Bess more.  The new production will have to do without me (boo hoo!). It’s fine if this “new” Porgy catches on, but it won ‘t be authentic, it won’t be Heyward, and it won’t be Gershwin.

Just to remind us, here’s a fine production of the work from Los Angeles:

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