August 11, 2011

Are the females of contemporary theater out of their minds? Is Stephen Sondheim a ridiculous old crank?

Sondheim inveighs against the re-envisionment of "Porgy and Bess":
What [director Diane] Paulus wants, and has ordered, are back stories for the characters. For example she (or, rather, [playwright Suzan-Lori] Parks) is supplying Porgy with dialogue that will explain how he became crippled. She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings. It makes you speculate about what would happen if she ever got her hands on “Tosca” and ‘Don Giovanni.” How would we get to know them? 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.

Then there is Ms. Paulus’s condescension toward the audience. She says, “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.” I don’t know what she’s sorry about, but I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers. If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to “excavate” the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not Heyward’s?

She is joined heartily in this sentiment by [actress Audra] McDonald, who says that Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Often? Meaning sometimes she’s full-blooded and other times not? She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly, as she was by, among others, Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say, “The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we’re bringing to life.” Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in “Porgy and Bess” that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?...
Is "Porgy and Bess" sacrosanct? Are the females of contemporary theater out of their minds? Or is Stephen Sondheim a ridiculous old crank?

Via Metafilter, which also digs up the 1935 review of the original production of "Porgy and Bess."

44 comments:

Sixty Grit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel5000 said...

I agree with Sondheim. This modern desire in modern and theater to give everyone a back story is annoying. They say Freud is out of fashion but you would never know it from our pop culture.

Porgy and Bess: The Rise of Porgy.

Daniel5000 said...

By the way, I just now realized that "the females" of contemporary theater was your framing, Prof. Althouse, not Sondheim's or the NYT's. Nice. I like the provocation.

Do you think the fact that the director and writer are female is the reason that they insist on a back story? Do you think females are responsible for the modern trend of giving longstanding pop-culture figures full back stories?

Fred4Pres said...

I would have to see what she did with it to say it was good or bad. Are classic shows like Porgy and Bess sacrosanct? No, of course not.

Say what you will about Sondheim, but the man did some great work. I can't say the same for Diane Paulus. She has done reworks of Hair and the Tempest? Sondheim has done orginal works that are now classics.

Carol_Herman said...

Stolen. Plagiarized. And, done stupidly.

Sondheim doesn't even make music. His "songs" sound terrible. So. Sung. Blue. Or. Whatever.

Gershwin on the other hand was a genius.

Porgy and Bess a masterpiece.

At a time when Broadway also showed SHOWBOAT.

And, you could sing about "OLD MAN RIVAH."

Where Mark Twain told when you "went down the Mississippi ... you were going into slave country."

Porgy is crippled. Couldn't really use his legs. Swung about using upper arm strength.

Bess was beautiful. Inside. And, out.

Then just because feminism involes women ... you can't smell da' kaka?

Carol_Herman said...

You know, until I just Google searched it. To make sure I got Gershwin right. And, the Google choices included "opera." I had absolutely no idea you could even get an opera in English.

To hear Opera you had to listen to Pavarotti. Or Maria Callas. (Can you imagine Aristotle Onassis broke Maria Callas' heart when he married Jackie? A man who looked like DSK. A man definitely not a bargain!)

Why did I check? Oy. I thought my memory could be faulty when I said "Gershwin." SUMMERTIME.

It is, now, too.

John Burgess said...

I'm voting 'out of their minds'. That is, if they have minds rather than emotion-generators that seem to be viewed as adequate substitutes for 'minds'.

Mary Beth said...

A happy ending? I blame all of that on when they decided to do a sequel to "Gone With the Wind". Nothing was safe anymore.

Dad29 said...

The triumph of Derrida in literature now, like the Blob, moves to triumph over opera.

What a Country!!

Jube said...

@Carol_Herman:

ever see Handel's Messiah?

gregq said...

Why do you have an "or" there? It is "yes" to both. :-)

Trapper Townshend said...

This post, and other posts from the past, make me wonder if you often teach your classes this way: imply gender differences are at the root of a debate simply because the individual antagonists are not both men or both women.

I had a few professors in college who were like that. Some were men, and some were women. No doubt they found it an easy way to provoke discussion and get the kids talking.

You don't provide any evidence that gender is the issue, here, and your best blog posts are the ones that take others to task for their sloppy thinking and mental shortcuts.

edutcher said...

I'm sure Ms Paulus would want to include back stories for Lady Macbeth and Ophelia to show how the patriarchy oppressed them.

lemondog said...

Back-storying or prequels always seems anti-climatic but, I guess, easier than attempting to accomplish something fresh, contemporary or original.

gregq said...

In this, Sondheim hit the nail on the head:

In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” nor even “The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.” Advertise it honestly as “Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.” And the hell with the real one.

Calling it "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" is like calling a country "the Democratic People's Republic ...", a pure guarantee that it's not democratic, and the people are screwed.

vnjagvet said...

Who does she propose will write the new libretto, words and music to "flesh out the plot"? Who would have the ego to try to pull that off?

George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward couldn't be reached for comment.

Mark O said...

I can't wait for her to get her hands on Macbeth.

This requires a level of arrogance generally seen only in Obama.

Henry said...

David Mamet wrote an entire book tearing method acting to pieces. Ms. Paulus might want to pick up a copy of True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor.

Mamet writes that there is no such thing as character. The character is words on a page. The job of the actor is to deliver the words. The actor focused on backstory or sense memory or interpretation is focused on the self, not the audience and not the other actors.

There is an emotion that actors should bring to their work. That emotion is courage. The courage to face the audience, not to hide in the recesses of their own imagination.

ricpic said...

Sondheim's close reading of Diane Aubus's sloppy statements tells you why 1) a Sondheim show is always of professional caliber and why 2) Aubus's improvement of other consummate professionals' work will be a mess.

Richard Dolan said...

"Is "Porgy and Bess" sacrosanct? Are the females of contemporary theater out of their minds? Or is Stephen Sondheim a ridiculous old crank?"

Oh, please. P & B is not sacrosanct. Neither is Hamlet. It status as a religious icon is not at issue (since it has none). What's at issue is whether it's an opera worth putting on, and if so, whether a director should muck around with it in such a foolish way. Directorial conceit is not new. Sondheim's reference to Don Giovanni is, I suspect, intended to call to mind the setting of that opera in the South Bronx by another intrepid director, who evidently thought Mozart's conception was too tired to accept on its own terms. Same with the worthies who set the Ring in a power plant.

The point is not that a director can never do something different with a classic work. But if you do, it's going to take talent that rises to the level of the works you're screwing around with. From Sondheim's comments, it's talent commensurate with the task that is missing in this remake of P & B.

That a (mostly female) crew seems to be hard at work wrecking P&B is also not much of a premise from which to draw conclusions about "females of contemporary theater". That Sondheim points out the vacuity of the exercise is not a reason to suggest he's a "ridiculous old crank." It's just an exercise in criticism, with no guarantee that the critic is any the wiser than the object of his attention. All that's in play is the relative persuasiveness of two competing views of P & B.

I'd say Sondheim has the better of it, but the only way to tell would be to see the P & B remake.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lucius said...

The females of contemporary theatre--and their male counterparts-- and all their counterparts in the other performing arts, as well as departments of literature, are all idiots.

First, she thinks it's too long, so she wants to invent backstories to, er, make it go faster?

Or will she cut out material to compensate?

"Porgy and Bess", tho not close to my own heart, is regarded as sortuva a BFD, so it would seem audiences are quite willing to put up with it.

And drivel like "the makings of a great love story"-- lmao-- this is the tripe dumb actresses mouth all the time. "Gosh darn, you know, if you put some hip-hop in this 'Twelfth Night' thing, it's almost like you start to *feel a connection*!!!"

They're fucking idiots. I have no boner for Sondheim, but he's just making plain sense here.

Alex Ignatiev said...

Sondheim is right. David Mamet, among others, recognizes this masturbatory trend in the theater. It's not confined to women in theater, though. It's rather a perversion of the method, this search for a truth outside of the text. The actor is the servant of the text, and is obligated to communicate the play to the audience as directly as possible, without funny voices and external inflections. The actors performance should be a response to the play, not the imagined history of the characters in the play. Interpolating this backstory nonsense is simply vile.

Mamet's written whole books about this. I tend to agree that there is no artistic benefit to transporting some fictive background that is not organic to the play. Imagine doing this to Shakespeare. Oh, wait, they did that in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the infamous Nahum Tate-adulterated King Lear with happy ending.

Who the hell would watch that crap? Who should be subjected to it? Why do we tolerate it?

What they're producing isn't Porgy and Bess, it's Andrew Lloyd Webber presents The Gershwins On Ice Porgy and Bess, the Sanitasticle(TM).

Lucius said...

The females of contemporary theatre--and their male counterparts-- and all their counterparts in the other performing arts, as well as departments of literature, are all idiots.

First, she thinks it's too long, so she wants to invent backstories to, er, make it go faster?

Or will she cut out material to compensate?

"Porgy and Bess", tho not close to my own heart, is regarded as sortuva a BFD, so it would seem audiences are quite willing to put up with it.

And drivel like "the makings of a great love story"-- lmao-- this is the tripe dumb actresses mouth all the time. "Gosh darn, you know, if you put some hip-hop in this 'Twelfth Night' thing, it's almost like you start to *feel a connection*!!!"

They're fucking idiots. I have no boner for Sondheim, but he's just making plain sense here.

Alex Ignatiev said...

Crap, I see that Henry has already said more or less what I said.

Lucius said...

@Jube: "Messiah" isn't an opera.

Fred4Pres said...

So[ng]. Sung. Blue? Isn't that Neil Diamond? I prefer him as songwriter for the Monkees.

Henry said...

Hey Alex, no problem. You provided more context. I provided the Amazon link.

pst314 said...

Back story? Sounds like Paulus is suffering from George Lucas disease.

BarryD said...

For better or worse, contemporary theater isn't particularly relevant to modern culture.

Joe said...

"Mamet writes that there is no such thing as character" and then sets out to prove it as often as possible.

I like Mamet's commentaries. I detest almost everything he's done.

Joe said...

This reminds me of how with any modern action movie, some critic somewhere commplains that he/she wasn't shown the motivations and backstory of the bad guys.

bwebster said...

I don't think "Porgy and Bess" is sacrosanct -- reboots and reinterpretations often cast new light on original stories -- but their "improvements" sound wretched and condescending. On the other hand, Hollywood makes billions of dollars doing the same thing, so who's to say they're wrong. ..bruce..

Unknown said...

I love Porgy and Bess and have for years. I have seen both the Houston Opera and San Francisco Opera versions. I know the score well.
But I don't believe the show is sacrosanct. For one thing, it's too long. The SF Opera cut it significantly, to its benefit.
If Paulus and her backers want to spend millions on a rewrite of Porgy and Bess, let them. Let the market decide. I hope their money lasts long enough for the show to make it California so that I can see it and form my own opinion.

Almost Ali said...

What we need are the back stories on director Diane Paulus (Harvard, Columbia; friends in right places) and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (dreadlocked Pulitzer Prize winner; 2002).

Meanwhile, around the time Diane and Suzan were born, the definitive revision of Porgy & Bess was done by the Queen of Southern Comfort...

Although some may still prefer the original…

Peter said...

"Advertise it honestly as 'Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.' "

But truth-in-advertising would require the title, “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Adapted for Those Who Are Easily Bored or Lack Imagination.”

Of course, it’s not sacrosanct. Shakespeare's works have survived all sorts of bizarre interpretations, and I’m sure Gershwin’s will survive as well.

Although a contemporary interpretation might add something to the original, mostly these interpretations seem to be about asserting the importance and creativity of the interpreters, at the expense of relegating the original author to a position of lesser importance. (The short form: “Really, it’s all about me!.”)

Christy said...

I think an artist who doesn't fail spectacularly every once in a while isn't trying. I also think that it is very costly to mount a show these days. Then that show must compete for eyeballs with movies, webisodes, Youtube and whatever else is out there. Is it any surprise that much of what we get is predigested pap that has been focus-group tested? Or should I say vetted for correct thinking and values by the investors?

If you want the edgy, the new, the creative, then go to Youtube, but be prepared to go through a lot of drek to find the gold.

Ah, for the old days! But then in the really old days women wouldn' have been allowed near a theatre production.

traditionalguy said...

Literature works best when archetype characters do the interactions with the times that they face.

It is a bonus when several characters are fleshed out as a noble man or woman, but that is not necessary.

Let the show begin.

Carol_Herman said...

Oh, MarkO at 10:56 AM ...

I LOVED IT! You added the necessary "score" ... to to the vibes this smelly piece tends to be giving off.

Lionheart said...

Is there not a huge difference between re-writing a play to include a back story and a method actor using an imagined back story for self guidance? I don't see any problem with either choice but in the wrong hands disaster may happen if overdone.

Roger J. said...

if the new playrights are so fucking smart let them do something original rather than like remoras ride on the backs of the original porgy and bess

they are hacks unable to do anything creative on their own.

Hacks

William said...

It's a merchandising gimmick, and it worked. Sondheim is talking about it in The Times. It stirs interest and perhaps some box office. People will go to see the show because they want to hear Audra McDonald singing Summertime, not because of any libretto changes. But this adds a little frisson of controversy to a not very adventurous theater experience.......Incidentally, I read the Brooks Atkinson review of the original show. He talks about the Gershwins, the writer of the play, and the director. He doesn't mention one word about the performers and the quality of their performances. Not one word. The invisible man.

Mian said...

What they're producing isn't Porgy and Bess, it's Andrew Lloyd Webber presents The Gershwins On Ice Porgy and Bess, the Sanitasticle(TM).

Heh heh ...very good comment.

Can't wait for the critics to shred this production to the point of oblivion.

('dont Taymore me, bro'!)

Melinda Rhodebeck said...

Is a backstory important in theatre? Yes, very, very important. However, it is important for the actor, not necessarily for the show. The actor has to find a reason for the way they are, what they say, how they react to the others, and why they do what they do. Otherwise you get a very flat show. But the trick is to do for yourself, and allow it to come through in what the author of the piece has written. If you are good, and have a good imagination, you should be able to do that without having to add any more words to the production.