Monday Meditation: I Am Over Fear Taught in the Name of Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Don’t get me wrong. I love Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. Follies, Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Company are shows that can be ranked among the absolute best achievements in musical theatre and most his other shows aren’t far behind. He is an artist of the first degree who has contributed in no small way to the development of musical theatre in the last half century or so.

But… I am over fear taught in the name of Sondheim. The thing that pushed me over the edge, I think, was Sondheim’s tantrum about Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess last year. An out-and-out attack on Paulus and her collaborators in the rehearsal studio and on stage, Suzan-Lori Parks and Audra MacDonald, Sondheim took issue with the trio’s perceived disdain for the original opera, commenting on an adaptation attempting to reconfigure the material into a work of musical theatre, and a creative process with which he had no familiarity barring statements about the project released to the press. (Had he taken his issues up with the Gershwin estate, who were responsible for appending the Gershwins’ name to the title of this adaptation, or to the shoddy marketing work done for this production, which seemed engineered to portray Paulus and company’s intentions in the worst possible light, I would have had no problem. After all, those are the things that motivated his unhappiness in the first place, along with what he feared might happen when this production took to the stage.)

Many of Sondheim’s fans cheered on the famed composer-lyricist’s convictions. To me, it seemed as though many of the comments I read on the website of The New York Times and on forums like Finishing the Chat and BroadwayWorld seemed to accept at face value what Sondheim had to say without thinking it through for themselves. Amidst the hullabaloo of hundreds of bravos, people lost sight several things.

Firstly, there is Sondheim’s own bias for Porgy and Bess. He has made no secret of the fact that he loves Porgy and Bess and that he holds DuBose Heyward’s work on the lyrics in high regard. There are so many other cases where similar drastic cases of revision have taken place and Sondheim has never spoken out about them with such vehemence before. Thus, I think there is cause to be skeptical of his intentions.

Next, Sondheim seemed to miss the point that this was an adaptation that sought to shift the piece from one medium to another. This may be due to his rather shaky definition of what defines a production as opera or musical theatre: the venue in which it plays. To me, this is completely illogical. Where a production plays has nothing to do with what it is. If Carousel gets performed in an opera house, that doesn’t make it an opera: it’s a musical that is being performed in an opera house. When La Boheme was performed on Broadway, it didn’t become a musical: it was an opera being performed in a theatre usually reserved for the performances of musicals and plays. In its original form, Porgy and Bess is an opera and not a musical and what this team attempted to do was rework the material to create a musical based on an opera. Others, like Trevor Nunn, have tried to do this, always staying relatively faithful to the work, and have generally failed. So why not attempt a drastic, revisionist take on the material. Go the whole hog if you’re going to go anywhere at all, I say. The opera in all of its various configurations will still always be there and if this version had tanked like Sondheim and so many others hoped and clearly thought it would, it certainly wouldn’t have replaced it. Even being the Tony Award-winning success that it was and is, this production hasn’t made the opera magically disappear from the repertoire!

Thirdly, it must be said that Sondheim has allowed revisions to some of his own works, making him something of a hypocrite in his criticisms here. Some might argue that this is a different kettle of fish because Sondheim himself has been involved. But what about cases where the books of his shows have been altered by hands other than those who crafted the piece originally? Burt Shevelove certainly didn’t return from the grave to adapt The Frogs for its 2004 Broadway production. And even when changes have been made by himself and his original collaborators, that doesn’t mean the changes were for the better! Take a look at some of the revisions made to Follies over the years. Sometimes the original authors make mistakes too when making revisions after the fact, and surely they must at the very least be truly aware of what their intentions are.

Finally, the reality is – and this is the most disturbing point of all as far as I’m concerned – that Sondheim intruded on a creative process upon which he had no right to intrude. The man knows how difficult it is to make theatre. Where was his empathy? I get the sense that Sondheim was trying to use his weight to alter the course of this production because he was passionate about the piece. As far as I’m concerned, he went about it in the wrong way. As much as I love Follies and had hoped that it would win Best Revival at the Tony Awards earlier this year, I felt that there was a sense of poetic justice when Porgy and Bess took home the award. It felt to me as though this offered some vindication of Paulus’s intentions and to this adaptation of Porgy and Bess on the whole.

That’s the story of how I got over fear taught in the name of Sondheim, who so many musical theatre fans revere as a god. No longer can I accept the argument that The Wiz is a brilliant musical or that the lyrics to “All the Things You Are” is awful simply because Sondheim says that they. What’s more important is for me to have a look at his opinions for myself, using my own knowledge of musical theatre technique, craft and artistry to make up my own mind as to whether what he says holds any truth or not. And people who take the time to do that themselves are people for whom I have the greatest respect, no matter whether they agree with me or not.

This post is inspired by and a response to “I Am Over Fear Taught in the Name of Religion” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

This entry was posted in Monday Meditation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s