Sunday, August 14, 2011

On Stephen Sondheim and the New Porgy and Bess

So Stephen Sondheim's stirred up a tempest in a teapot over the upcoming new American Repertory Theater production of "The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess."  Sondheim claims that he's mainly upset at the attitude of the new producers and actors toward the original production (they have already responded), but he also calls them out simply for undertaking substantial changes to the original:
I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting. Nor am I judging this production in advance, only the attitude of its creators toward the piece and the audience.
Hmm... so I suppose Sondheim wouldn't be terribly enthused if a spirited young theatrical whippersnapper had the bright idea to "wholesale rewrite," say, a classic Shakespeare play, like, say, Romeo and Juliet.  Of course, for modern day audiences the tale of the Montagues and Capulets could really do with a makeover.  How about ditching the whole old-school Verona setting and transporting the action to New York City?  And the whole interfamily rivalry could certainly be spiced up if we added an element of interethnic tension and some gang violence for good measure.  And naturally, all that nonstop talking just gets mighty tedious after a while.  Let's liven it up with some singing and dancing.  In fact, why not reimagine the whole shebang as a Broadway show?  Oh, wait a minute, I think that's already been done.  Back in 1957 in fact.  But who on earth would have had the audacity to write new lyrics superseding the Bard's lines?

I wonder what Sondheim makes of some of the many other sacrilegious bowdlerizations of Porgy and Bess?

Jascha Heifetz, "It Ain't Necessarily So":

Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, "Strawberry Woman":

Frank Sinatra, "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" (with studio chatter):

Keith Jarrett, "I Loves You Porgy":

Janis Joplin, "Summertime":

Miles Davis and Gil Evans, "Prayer (Oh, Doctor Jesus)":

Nina Simone, "My Man's Gone Now":

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