It’s long been a truth that the only thing worse than having your work forgotten is having it remembered. Poor Shakespeare finds this out every summer: his work is abridged for performances without the editors ever acknowledging their crime. Now George Gershwin’s ghost has to suffer too. The famed composer of the Jazz Age is experiencing a renaissance - of sorts. It began with a revamped version of the opera, Porgy and Bess currently playing in New York. Dubbed “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess”, the title implicitly dismisses the contribution of co-lyricist / librettist Dubose Heyward (the other author was George’s brother Ira). The show has also been changed, rendering the title both rude and inaccurate. For better or worse, this Porgy and Bess isn’t the one Heyward and the Gershwins left behind.
I’m not the only one who was incensed: theatre icon Stephen Sondheim penned a notorious condemnation for the NY Times. So far Sondheim has stayed silent about the other “honours” being heaped on Gershwin this year. First there’s the “new” musical based on Gershwin tunes that hit Broadway in the spring starring Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara, Nice Work if you Can Get It is an attempt to recapture the magic found in Crazy for You back in 1992. Then there’s the scandal happening across the pond. With the European copyright of Gershwin’s music expired, composer / lyricist Leslie Bricusse has announced he’s writing lyrics to famed orchestral pieces like Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. With typical understatement, the Guardian reported the Gershwin estate is “not supportive”.
Not having seen Nice Work…, I can’t comment on its worth – though I will say that jukebox musicals are the artistic equivalent of spending a lazy day at the beach. But there’s no excuse for Mr. Bricusse’s behaviour: really, sir, you’re a composer, write your own damn music.
The thing that truly grates is the inherent hypocrisy. Why have we decided that the best way to celebrate an artist is to alter their work? Museums don’t honour Picassos by throwing paint over Les Demoiselles; why do theatre artists have to suffer such indignity just because they’re dead? Hasn’t anybody read Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol? “The man had killed the thing he loved,” wrote Oscar. “And so he had to die.”
Adaptation and re-interpretation is a time-honoured part of theatre. Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays were taken from other sources but he never attributed his versions to other artists. The Comedy of Errors was not advertised as “Plautus’ The Menaechmi”; nor was a certain other play marketed as “Arthur Brooke’s Romerus and Juliet”. Plautus and Brookes might have preferred the mistake but not all authors can be adapted by Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself might not appreciate the sort of edits that we make in his name, just as the creators of Porgy and Bess may not enjoy being forced to take credit for a work that isn’t theirs.
I won’t even mention the chaos in the literary world – Scribner has just published Hemingway’s 47 alternate endings for A Farewell to Arms – but I do think as artists we have an obligation to re-examine the way we “honour” the dead. If we want to honour their work, we should honour it without abridgement, addition or alteration. And if we do change it, let us own up to the fact. If nothing else, we should stop putting the author’s name before the title. Not only is it dishonest, but it dismisses the work of all the other artists involved in the show. The version of Porgy and Bess on Broadway doesn’t just belong to the Gershwins – it also belongs to the cast, the director and the crew.
Or, as Sondheim told the NY Times: “In the interest of truth in advertising….advertise it honestly as [director] ‘Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.’ And the hell with the real one.”