The controversy over the revised version of Porgy and Bess was a bit unexpected to me, since "revisals" have been par for the course for a long time (since 1962, when Guy Bolton rewrote the book of Anything Goes for a successful revival, there have been many revivals and rewrites of that show, but never a revival of the original). I used to be rather strongly against revisals. But then I sort of came to accept them as superior to what goes on in the world of opera, where revisionist productions are done with no changes whatsoever to text or music, essentially making the text irrelevant. Changing the text, in an odd way, respects the power of the words more than simply ignoring them.
But Porgy and Bess, which was routinely done with heavy revisions for about 40 years after Gershwin died, seems to have set off some sparks. Stephen Sondheim, offended by the director's comments about the original, sent off a now-famous New York Times letter to the editor. And that letter has brought the issue of revisions, respect for the past, and all the rest of it back into the spotlight, as this article in the Washington Post discusses.
As I said, I'm more tolerant of revised or shortened books than I used to be. (More tolerant than of, say, the actors playing their own instruments onstage.) I do think that revisals usually do it wrong; no matter how much rewriting they do, they rarely seem to work better than the original books, which at least have the benefit of period charm. One of the biggest problems when it comes to musicals, I think, is that the books are rewritten around the songs, which are sacrosanct -- the ones that are left in, anyway. But the way an original musical is written is different. The musical numbers are shaped in conjunction with the book. One of the "revisals" that really made an impact was the 1971 No, No, Nanette, and in that show, not only was the book rewritten (very hastily, out of town) but the whole project had a sort of overall concept: to make this '20s musical sound like an old Hollywood musical, sort of a '40s dream of what the '20s were like. That idea was applied to the staging of the numbers and the sound and look of the show. I've seen other revisals of older musicals that had no such overall concept, and so the book scenes were in a different world from the songs.
With musicals done before the 1940s, there's an even bigger issue: except for operettas, or musical comedies with operetta influence (like Show Boat), there was almost strict division between dialogue, dance and music. Look at a musical comedy from the '30s and you'll see that there is very rarely any talking once a musical number starts; the pattern of a scene was speech, leading into song, leading into a dance. The post-Oklahoma! musical changed the shape of a typical number: now you'd often have dialogue during the song, or a new refrain after the dance break, or some other way of blending the elements together. And one advantage of this idea was that it could make a number feel like it finished in a different place from where it started.
A song like "Send In the Clowns" has that shape: Desiree sings the refrain to Fredrik, there's a dialogue scene where he excuses himself and leaves, and then she sings the last part of the song alone. The words have been slightly changed for the ending, but they still make the same basic point as before -- yet the meaning of the song seems to have changed a lot because the stage situation has changed. Once you have dialogue within a number, the number doesn't feel static.
But Pal Joey, to give a random example of an important old musical, rarely does this: numbers are closed off from dialogue, and dance is closed off from song. So while many of the songs are theoretically integrated into the story, they don't play that way, because as written into the show, they're completely static numbers: a song that makes one point for four or five minutes (and 32-bar songs can rarely make more than one or two points: either they say one thing, or they add in a twist at the end) is not a theatrically-exciting song.
My point, I suppose, is that rewrites of old musicals may often need to go beyond the book; in fact, sometimes the book may not even be the problem. (A great song can sometimes hold up a show more than a corny but effective book scene.) Re-shaping of numbers, re-mixing and blending of different elements, may be required to really get a show into shape. Can this be done without destroying the songs? Would the estates even allow this? I don't know. But I think it's a mistake that revising of musicals focuses mostly on the dialogue scenes, as if they're completely separate -- they're really not, even in frivolous and loose musicals.
With rewrites of Porgy, I always find a separate but related problem: when you remove the recitatives and replace them with dialogue, you find the show doesn't have enough big musical numbers to sustain it. (Of course Porgy used the dialogue format for its successful '40s and '50s revivals and the movie,so it can work. I'm just not sure it works for me.) Because Gershwin wrote it as an opera, he didn't intend most of the songs to be stand-alone numbers, and accordingly, most of them are quite short: they come out of the musical texture, happen, and go away. The finale, "I'm On My Way," is extremely short, but the brevity gives it its power (also the fact that it's a new tune being introduced at the end, mixed with statements of songs and motifs we've heard earlier in the evening). But coming out of a dialogue scene, it would just seem short. Porgy's first solo, "They Pass by Singin," is not a song at all, just a little arioso that is set up by -- and in a way is part of -- the recitative that precedes it. "I Loves You, Porgy" is a short number that seems to start out of nowhere when (as in the movie) it starts with dialogue.
Only a few numbers, like "It Ain't Necessarily So" or "My Man's Gone Now," have the length and the structure that we associate with a stand-alone Broadway number. Making some of the other songs work as stand-alone numbers, I think, really requires some re-thinking: adding dances, interludes, dialogue, things that can give them a satisfying wholeness that they don't need to have in the original context. That's something I'll be more worried about, in the new version, than the act of rewriting or changing the setting.
The one thing I definitely agree with Sondheim on is that the Gershwin estate's insistence on billing it as "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" is ridiculous. They started this sometime in the '90s, and I thought it was stupid then -- Ira Gershwin, who was for many years the only living writer of the show, never asked for that kind of billing, and would have considered it absurd. It was always billed as "George Gershwin's" Porgy and Bess." After Ira died, the Gershwin estate started to push harder for him to be recognized as an equal contributor to the songs he wrote with his brother, and that is totally fair in the case of individual songs or scores. Not with this score, which was George's project first, DuBose Heyward's second, and where Ira never claimed to have contributed more than he did. (He actually downplayed his contributions a bit: though "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is an Ira Gershwin lyric, he gave Heyward co-lyricist credit on it because the title, and some of the phrases, were taken from Heyward's libretto.) Sondheim is very invested in the idea that all the best lyrics in the show are by Heyward. And it's certain that Heyward, who wrote "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now" alone, should be recognized for that. But even for Ira Gershwin admirers like myself, the knee-jerk equal billing devalues the work where he and George were equal partners.