Stephen Sondheim Not Happy About ‘Porgy and Bess’ Revival

So if a theatre icon is trashing your reinterpretation of a classic stage opera is that a good or bad thing? On the one hand, you get oodles of free press where you’d otherwise be twiddling your thumbs (case in point), but you also invite a certain negativity into the theatre before the curtains have even been drawn. Wednesday begins the staging of ‘Porgy and Bess’ at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is already set for a Broadway transfer this winter. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is voicing his displeasure with the show’s director (Diane Paulus), its writer (Suzan-Lori Parks) and its star (Audra McDonald) by writing a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

After hearing additional backstory would be added to help flesh out the shows protagonists, Sondheim commented, “Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.”

Ouch! Sondheim goes on to scold comments McDonald made about the character Bess as well as the title of the show ‘Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess’ — “In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’,” concluded Sondheim, in his letter. “Advertise it honestly as ‘Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess’. And the hell with the real one.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I’d say Sondheim might not be in the audience opening night and no one in the revamped production of ‘Porgy and Bess’ can expect to have their Facebook friend requests reciprocated by the Broadway icon.