The Washington Post

For ‘Porgy and Bess,’ removing happy ending is a happy ending

David Alan Grier and company in the American Repertory Theater's production of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" (Michael J. Lutch/MICHAEL J. LUTCH)

Director Diane Paulus, known for directing the revival of “Hair,” and producer Jeffrey Richards decided the 1935 opera by George and Ira Gershwin needed an update to appeal to modern Broadway audiences, so they hired Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to write new lines. That earned Paulus a rebuke from Sondheim, who said that the musical should be called “Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.”

Peter Marks wrote this summer about the problems that directors and producers encounter when they update classic texts for contemporary audiences. Regarding Paulus, he wrote, “ [Her] intentions do not seem to be conveyed with the requisite clarity: The show very much feels like a work still trying to find its urgent rationale.”

Still, the contemporary audience that Sondheim says Paulus is condescending to might not even know the difference between the two versions. Writes Marks: “Much of the ‘revising’ of older works goes on these days without anyone kicking up a fuss. When it comes to classical theater in particular, playgoers can be forgiven for having no idea whether what they see in a modern ‘adaptation’ comes — for better or worse — close to the source material.”

After all of the back-and-forth about the ending, it all might be for naught: The publicity generated by Sondheim’s anger and the constant changes to the show may have generated enough buzz to pull in the young audiences Paulus is seeking.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts.


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