’Where you goin’, Porgy?’ Perhaps not New York after all
"The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess" may not be headed to Broadway after all.
A report in this morning’s New York Post confirmed rumors that were circulating yesterday that the new adaptation of the opera, reconfigured as a musical, will scuttle its Broadway run set for December.
"The fate of "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess" was still up the air yesterday as the production team weighed the risks of opening a show in New York that’s been maligned by two of the most influential people in the American theater -- Stephen Sondheim and Times critic Ben Brantley," wrote the report on Page Six of the Post.
"Brantley broke the once hard-and-fast rule that New York critics don’t review out-of-town tryouts of Broadway-bound shows. He did so because of the firestorm created by Sondheim. The composer publicly excoriated Paulus and Parks for saying that the characters in the opera were ’underwritten’ and claiming they were going to reinvent this American classic for contemporary audiences.
"Another New York critic, Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg, weighed in over the weekend. He, too, praised McDonald, but called Paulus’ staging ’remarkably static,’ though he added that the last half hour of the show was ’explosive.’"
Critics make or break?
Adding a wrinkle to the New York opening is that both the estates of the collaborators -- George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward -- have yet to sign off on the transfer.
The Post report added:
"’They’ll do real harm to the title,’ says a veteran producer. ’If the estates do not approve the Broadway run, they’re basically saying Steve Sondheim is right and the only way to do ’Porgy and Bess’ is to do the original -- a full-length opera.’"
"Other producers believe the show should come in just to spite the critics.
"’OK -- it’s not my money -- but if they close, they’re giving the critics way too much power,’ one says. ’And we’ve finally gotten to a point where the critics don’t necessarily have make-or-break power in New York anymore.’"
While Brantley praised McDonald and damned the production, local Boston critics were unanimous with their praise:
"Sondheim needn’t have worried. The ART’s vibrant and stirring production of ’The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ makes some revisions, but Paulus and adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Dierdre L. Murray are largely faithful to the spirit and the structure of the original. And in Audra McDonald, this production boasts a Bess for the ages," wrote Don Aucoin in The Boston Globe.
Former Boston Globe critic Ed Siegel said on the NPR affiliate WBUR: "Stephen Sondheim, of all people, should know better than most of us to withhold judgment about a musical until he sees it. But not only is the new version thoroughly respectful toward the original opera, its changes are mostly subtle and, as far as I’m concerned, improvements on the original. It is a real triumph, Diane Paulus did a great job. This is by far the best production of ’Porgy and Bess’ I have ever seen."
And Variety’s Frank Rizzo wrote: "Operatic aspirations are replaced with the accessibility, theatricality and showbiz savvy of a Broadway musical in Diane Paulus’ bright, beautiful and tuner-centric re-envisioning of ’Porgy and Bess.’"
While the Post concluded that the show would be a hard sell in New York, pointed out that a similar version failed in London five years ago, the Cambridge run is sold out with just standing room tickets available.
The Post also pointed out that the producers -- if they decide to open in New York -- face the possibility of being up against the highly regarded (already Brantley approved) production of "Follies" next June at the Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical, which suggests that Stephen Sondheim’s missive has larger commercial consequences for both shows. Was that his intention all along? I doubt it, but it looks to be an unexamined consequence of what he wrote. His Times letter and Brantley’s review have, for all purposes, damaged the production in ways that may be impossible to overcome no matter how much praise it and McDonald receives.