It has been quite a month. First my phone lit up ala Bells Are Ringing when the Funny Girl casting was announced and then came last week's furor over the upcoming updated Porgy and Bess. If you haven't heard about the latter, last week there was a New York Times article about the upcoming revival of Porgy and Bess, scheduled to begin performances in Boston this week and on Broadway this winter. The New York Times piece quickly garnered criticism for the revival's team; via a letter to the editor Stephen Sondheim offered a vitriolic bashing of the statements director Diane Paulus, new librettist Suzan-Lori Parks and star Audra McDonald made in the article.
To me what was most fascinating about this situation was not the fact that Paulus and crew are making what, at best, are questionable artistic choices; it was rather the fact that allowing them to do this piece in The New York Times was by itself a very questionable choice. As a journalist I of course wish all shows always had open door policies. But there is a reason they do not. Allowing stories such as this is a risky proposition -- producers often refuse significant NY pre-tryout coverage because they think it is too early to have the big city spotlight on their shows. This is especially true if a show is deviating from a norm, such as this re-imagined Porgy and Bess. (There is a risk that comes with this refusal--the chance of antagonizing major outlets. In these cases however, the odds are generally against such retaliation.)
Let's face it. Even before the Sondheim letter, the article made waves in the industry. People were talking about how the team came off pompous; people were talking about how this misguided crew was tampering with a masterpiece; people were talking about the disrespect Paulus showed to contemporary audiences. They say a woman has to be much better than a man to get the same amount of respect at work -- the pretentiousness inherent in the words of the Porgy and Bess team necessarily meant the show would need to be much better than an average revival to get any sort of credit. When Sondheim got involved, it made life even tougher for the tuner. It is going to have to work harder, stay longer hours, take more crap. And I don't believe it's going to get much for that extra effort -- the 50 people who are going to buy tickets because of the controversy are theater lovers who would have bought tickets to see Audra anyway.
So why participate in the article? One possible reason is that the team really believes in its product and did not want the reviews to focus solely on the changes. According to this line of reasoning, having all of this talk out of the way now will allow the reviews to make substantive comments on the quality of the production. Another possible reason is that it functions as a sort of disclaimer. They are saying: "We're trying. If it's not great, you know we tried." And, then, there is the need for money, which I believe was the motivating factor in this case. A big Times piece can raise money. If this article was written in a different tone -- if it featured other quotes -- it could have read as a big advertisement to both ticket buyers and backers. It clearly shows backers that this is a production that major publications are interested in.
We'll see what happens with Porgy and Bess. It could be amazing -- I truly hope it is. For now it simply stands as a cautionary tale. Not all press is good press.