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Sondheim slams ART’s Paulus and ‘Porgy’

Stephen Sondheim Stephen Sondheim
By Mark Shanahan & Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim is none too pleased with American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus’s plans for a reimagined version of “Porgy and Bess.’’ In a scathing 978-word letter sent to The New York Times, Sondheim attacked everything from the title of the upcoming ART production, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ (“what happened to [‘Porgy’ co-writer] DuBose Heyward?’’ he asked) to the new dialogue, characterizations, and happy ending given to “Porgy’’ by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.

Paulus, who is directing the musical, was not available to respond to the criticism, as she was in rehearsals for the show, which starts previews at the ART’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge on Wednesday before heading to Broadway later in the year.

In his letter, Sondheim blasted what he called Paulus’s “condescension toward the audience,’’ citing a quote she gave to The New York Times in which she said, “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires having your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.’’

Sondheim defended the original opera, writing, “These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.’’

He wrapped up his screed by suggesting his own title. “In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’ nor even ‘The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.’ Advertise it honestly as ‘Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.’ And the hell with the real one.’’