A new production of “Porgy and Bess,” the legendary opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, is scheduled to be on its way to Broadway in the form of a musical, previewing December 17 and opening January 12. And it’s arriving in a storm of controversy.
The question on the minds of ticket brokers: How will the controversy impact ticket sales and the show’s future in New York?
Diane Paulus’ new production, retitled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” now playing in Cambridge, MA, has angered some devoted fans of “Porgy.” Paulus, working with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, got permission from the Gershwin and Heyward estates to rewrite much of the classic work (first performed in 1935) because she wanted to modernize the story and, as Parks told the New York Times, to “flesh out the two main characters.”
The most vocal and famous fan objecting to the changes — before seeing the show — is composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a letter to the Times suggesting: “In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called ‘The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,’ nor even ‘The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.’ Advertise it honestly as ‘Diane Paulus’ Porgy and Bess.’ And the hell with the real one.”
Times theater critic Ben Brantley’s review added fuel to the fire by calling the production “confused.” Media reports last week hinted the producers were still looking for money to get the production to the Richard Rogers Theater in December and that an overhaul of the show was in the works.
Still, Kati Mitchell, media rep for the American Repertory Theater, which is staging the Cambridge production, told TicketNews the show is playing to packed houses there.
“We’ve been sold out for two weeks,” Mitchell said. “There’s not a ticket to be had. And I’ve heard sales in New York are quite healthy. We have people standing outside the place for standing room tickets and they’re flying out of the house.”
That’s quite a contrast to what Jason Berger at Broadway ticket broker, AllShows.com has seen. “We’ve had no real inquiries at all,” Berger said. “There were rumors that it wouldn’t be coming. Once they have enough money, they can try to turn it around just like ‘Spider-Man,'” referring to the Broadway hit that succeeded after an early revamping.
Berger said “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” is a great example of a troubled show turning things around. “With the lack of a real family show this season,” Berger said. “‘Spider-Man’ has really taken over that market.”
Mitchell said, despite the rumors, all systems are go for New York.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Of course it’s still being worked on and will continue to be worked on.”
Jay Bruce at Applause-Tickets.com, said the Brantley review led to speculation about the show’s future in New York.
“Usually the protocol is that you don’t review anything until it comes to town,” he said. “There was some question as to whether it would even open here. The marquee is up, but that doesn’t mean anything really. Plenty of marquees have gone up and come down quickly.”
Bruce said he isn’t seeing a lot of ticket buzz yet: “I’ve gotten a few calls and a few e-mail inquiries but nothing like ‘Book of Mormon‘ or ‘On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,’ with Harry Connick, Jr.”
Other prominent commentators support the Paulus’ update of the Gershwin classic, including Hilton Als of New Yorker magazine, who wrote that the adaptation “ultimately has much less to do with the self-serving manipulation of a classic than it does with humanizing the depiction of race onstage.” Als points out later that “‘Porgy and Bess,’ a show about black people, created entirely by white people, has never been a favorite with black audiences.” He also pointed out that the show’s lead actress, Audra McDonald, at first balked at the role of Bess because of its two-dimensionality. (Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who did the adaptation, also is African-American.)
Some reviews have been positive, especially for the performance by four-time Tony winner and two-time Grammy winner McDonald. Brantley did call McDonald’s performance “as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years,” and the Boston Phoenix‘s Carolyn Clay wrote that, when McDonald and Norm Lewis (Porgy) sing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I thought I’d died and gone to some auditory equivalent of the Promised Land.”
An earlier musical revival that came to Broadway with conflicting advance buzz was Arthur Laurents’ 2009 revival of “West Side Story,” the classic show whose script Laurents wrote in 1957. In the 2009 show, several of the songs were sung in Spanish instead of English, and some dialogue was translated into Spanish. Laurents said he made these changes to enhance the “authenticity” of the portrayals of Puerto Rican characters. Not all audience members were happy about these changes, and during the show’s run, many of the lyrics were changed back into English. But the show was still a hit, running for 748 performances and winning a Tony and a Grammy.