The Playgoer: Don't Loves You, Porgy

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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Don't Loves You, Porgy

Unless you retreated into a total theatre news blackout in August, you probably have heard about (or even read) Stephen Sonhdeim's snarky takedown of the team behind the new "revised" and Broadway-bound Porgy & Bess.

The revival has now premiered at ART in Cambridge, MA, where it has been developed by director Diane Paulus, the company's AD. Ben Brantley's largely unfavorable review of that pre-Broadway opening has spurred gossip over whether the project will basically fold as a commercial venture, not come to Broadway, and simply play out its limited run at ART. Riedel today quotes a source as confiding, "You'd better rush up to Boston if you want to see the show." Maybe he/she was joking.

I don't right now feel like getting into the substantive arguments about the show itself and Porgy's  dramaturgical challenges--I haven't seen the ART production, for one thing. But I do want to come to Brantley and NYT's defense in reviewing that opening, despite Riedel's claim that the critic "broke the once hard-and-fast rule that New York critics don't review out-of-town tryouts of Broadway-bound shows." 
What such complaints miss is that Broadway or no Broadway, this was not just an "out-of-town tryout" but a major opening at one of our country's leading regional theatres. (Their season opener, no less.) Under normal circumstances, ART would be thrilled to have Ben Brantley come review their show.  And indeed, Brantley and (mostly) Isherwood have traveled around reviewing many regional theatre productions in recent years. (As if to refute my frequent carping here about lack of NYT attention to non-NYC theatre. Well played, gents.) 

In fact, I even received a press invite to the ART opening myself. (I'm on their press mailing list.) And I'm one of those pesky bloggers that's supposedly ruining artists' supposed right to privacy in public performances. So what does that say?

Finally, another issue worth clarifying is the awkward re-titling of the show as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Sondheim, rightfully, complained that this leaves out the quite essential contribution of DuBose Heyward, who wrote not only many of the lyrics but also the novel and play that the musical is based on. And he's also right that it seems inappropriate to single out this production as somehow uniquely "The Gershwins'" version when, not only are they dead, but this incarnation is probably the most extensively altered to ever appear on these shores. (True, Trevor Nunn recently mounted an unsuccessful reduced version in London.) 

But there's a very simple explanation for this curious title-- branding. Or to be precise, updating the brand. ("New Coke" serves as perhaps a depressingly instructive model.) Remember William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet? That was the official title of the film that should have been called "Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet"--certainly the least "strict constructionist" version of the play out there. In movies, though, there's at least one very simple reason for such a tweak: product catalogues. When someone wants to rent (or now download, stream, etc) a movie of Romeo and Juliet, several versions will show up. But there's only one William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet!  Even though it's arguably the one that least reflects the Bard.

(This rationale also explained other nineties costume epics like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Although in those cases, some claim to authenticity--getting back to the original source material--was also cited.)

No, Porgy doesn't have to worry about competing versions on sale at the same time. But who knows, they eventually probably want to put out a CD, maybe even a video.

And there, people, is the lovely logic of corporate branding.

1 comment:

Playgoer said...

PS. This should also serve as a cautionary tale of the perils of commercial collaboration and "enhancement" for nonprofit regional theatres. The B'way "Porgy" producers are basically using ART as a cheap out-of-town tryout venue. Notice what ART loses in the process.