In an age of endless squabbles over nothing, from the debt ceiling to foreign aid, New Yorkers know what’s worth fighting over: We clash, titanically, over an art that rivals scrimshaw in mainstream impact. In August, Stephen Sondheim wrote to the Times in response to a feature about a new production of Porgy and Bess—now titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. “What happened to DuBose Heyward?” he asked, referring to the co-lyricist and librettist. “Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone (‘Summertime,’ ‘My Man’s Gone Now’) … If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed.” He tore into director Diane Paulus and her adapter-collaborator, Suzan-Lori Parks, who’d discussed adding a happy ending. “They confidently claim,” he roared, “that they know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.”
The aftershocks were felt as far away as South Park, where an animated Sondheim got into a “Broadway bro-down” at a Colorado Hooters. Paulus & Co. have dropped their new ending and were judicious about the fracas (on the record, anyway) in a Times interview. Thank the theater gods that the fabulous invalid is still up for a good fight.
But don’t call it a “feud” in Sondheim’s exacting presence. “[A] feud requires shots from both sides, and continual ones at that. The only response from the subjects of my letter has been passive deflection, built on the approval of the greedy Gershwin Estate. But yes, I was both surprised and encouraged by the public response.” Look, I made a spat.