The Songs Remain the Same, but Broadway Heirs Call the Shots

The Broadway adaptation of “Porgy and Bess,” opening Thursday, is just one of a series of attempts by composers’ estates to get the most out their work before copyrights expire.

Comments: 50

  1. Of course the heirs are doing it for money. Duh. The copyright law is insane, in that it protects the income but allows the mutilation of the work if the heirs see a buck in it.

    Any Savoyard will understand the mixed feelings the 'udating' question evokes. I've seen productions full of mothballs and cobwebs, and also re-imaginings that make you glad Gilbert and Sullivan are both long dead, because it would kill them to see it.

  2. Even shows by legendary authors become dated and insipid. This squeezing more juice out of shows that have minimal appeal is boring.

  3. "Executors can decide to withhold rights altogether or else demand contractual approvals over actors, directors, orchestrations and other artistic elements." So what? This is true for every show ever done on Broadway - the authors, or copyright owners, always get these approvals. The point here, which is somewhat buried, is that the copyright owners are trying to extend the already very generous term of copyright by creating a new version of a musical that is finally about to go into the public domain so they can continue to reap the benefits of work they did not create, to the detriment of the public. It is time to amend the copyright law to permit greater fair use of older works that have gotten a free ride on the coattails of Mickey Mouse.

  4. Porgy & Bess is an American opera and part of our American cultural heritage. Thankfully, the original production score, direction notes, etc. still remain available.

    I am certain whoever George and Ira appointed as their literary/musical executor(s) is long gone and replaced by the heirs with someone who will approve anything that will not damage the Gerswhin "franchise". The disapproval of South Pacific in a mental institution is a good example of an executor protecting the Rogers & Hammerstein "franchise."

  5. What is interesting is that the "creative updates" usually are not successful. The classic became a classic because it was great. It holds its charm because of its basic artistic worth. Eventually, public domain works will remain available "forever" and the public will be served.

    A very interesting example in another genre is P.D. James' reworking of Jane Austen's _Pride and Prejudice_ with her new novel _Death at Pemberly_. Good book, and it drove me back to reread P&P, with much greater insight than before.

    I recently saw a Wayne University production of _Much Ado About Nothing_ with the soldiers in modern camo uniforms and the girls in current street dress -- spandex and ruffles and cargo pants and whatever. The set was a redo of "Laugh-in" with the pop-open windows. All very charming and effective. (But of course no one ever changes Shakespeare's language. That helps.)

  6. I saw the NYC Porgy and Bess last week with some friends. We all thought it was a wonderful production and we hope that everyone who loves Bway will go see it. It was filled with beautiful voices and great emotional scenes. Lighting was dramatically effective!

  7. "The Grinch," which was the top grossing movie of 2000, would have appalled Dr. Seuss, who wasn't entirely crazy about the much superior 1967 animated special (he felt the interpolated gags got in the way of the poetry). Bob Fosse, likewise, probably would have complained about the imprecision and mugging that compromised his work in the revue "Fosse."

    As for the Gershwin heirs, it seems hypocritical of them to present an altered version of "Porgy and Bess," citing preservation, when they've been suppressing the (admittedly dreary) 1959 film version for so many years. (The movie, actually, has recently been admitted into the Library of Congress, so it'll probably resurface in the not-too distant future.)

    There's a difference between preservation and bastardization.

  8. Please. This can be about money or about art. It cannot be about both. The creators should have the option at the time of creation to enter their creations into perpetual protection via the Library of Congress, a sort of "dead hand" approach like currently exists when someone signs over something to the Church. That way, if the creator doesn't want his or her creation molested by those too untalented and unimaginative to "roll their own" (as Rex Stout said), the creation enters a limbo. The original is still protected, but nothing derivative using those unique elements can be "created" by the graverobbers of the future.

    If the creator doesn't do the aforementioned, then it should be a universal free-for-all when the copyright expires. I almost look forward to the libraries of Harry Potter knockoffs in the far future. Some of them will, no doubt, be better than the originals. Granted, that is a very low standard ...

  9. You should look to China, where some entrepreneurs produced their own "Harry Potter" novels that had, to say the least, tenuous connexion to Rowling (poetic justice seeing as how her opus, like Star Wars, was a pastiche/ripoff of many more established myth cycles, most prominently though not exclusively King Arthur). Or fan fiction, where copyrighted characters (incuding the Potter folks) have long been up to some pretty outrageous things. Tough for the estates to stop these scofflaws, and in some cases it's not in their interest to try. You could credit fans, including unauthorised fiction, for keeping Star Trek alive after NBC and Paramount had dumped the original show. (That may not be a recommendation to you.)

    Also not sure 'untalented and unimaginative' is fair; Euripides, Shakes, Shaw, and many others have grazed on the creative commons. My problem with the revised Porgy is more that I don't like the specific changes than that they made them at all.

    About money OR art? Don't quite follow. Most artists not only need but want to make money from their work, for as long as possible. As old Sam Johnson said, no one but a damned fool ever wrote a word except for money (quoth the unpaid commenter typin' away on her own time and dime ... ;} )

  10. ACW,

    My objection to JKR isn't a business one. God Bless EVERY author who can make money. I object to the blah of the Potterverse. Creative commons is one thing.

    A limp, dead, done-a-thousand-times plot and second-rate characters (Go through the characters. Are ANY of them NOT cliches? The brainy girl who isn't quite up there with the social skills, the economically disadvantaged best friend, the hero who undergoes transformation but still remains humble and lovable? The idiot handy man who loves animals -- tell me about the rabbits, Harry, I mean George?)

    Literature is filled with lively characters who, easily, can be linked to a prior creation. In TV, these things are rampant: Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden begat Fred Flintstone, begat Homer Simpson. But what makes Ron, Ron? What makes Hermione uniquely Hermione? Harry is Harry is Harry. The few frills simply don't justify the slavish fanaticism. Rowling lifted from public domain freely to create a Dickensian/Shakespearean/Scooby-Dooian universe with magic in which, Jinkies, the kids stop the adults, who would have gotten away with it otherwise.

    But the writing? Meh. I read them because everyone in the media became incapable of presenting any contemporaneous event without filtering it through the Potter Prism. Voting irregularity in Florida became a Horcrux wielded by Dumbledore over a butterbeer or something.

  11. A reconciliation scene at the end? What's next; they make friends with the mixed couple upstairs ala "The Jeffersons"?

  12. As long as the copyright laws allowing the original work to enter the public domain within a reasonable time frame are protected it's OK with me what the estates do to the work.The public will own the writers true intent.When estates of distantly related people try to retain indefinite control of the material and attempt to bypass the rights of public domain then we must all be concerned and stop it.

  13. Gosh, wonder what Shakespeare's heirs would have yay'd or nay'd.

  14. Give me a break ... this is about money. Simply greed by people with no creative lineage to the work. Will it make money seems to be the only concern, . Bogart's interpretation was respectful of the songs and wildly imaginative. Kanter and Sondheim are right ,, write into your will how you want your work presented allowing theatrical creativity while perserving the integrity of the songs/

  15. For Christmas I received a $100 credit to buy tickets at San Jose Broadway. I scanned the upcoming offerings and would like to exchange the credit for cash. Two of the six offerings are adaptations of musicals I have seen live already. One is a musical I saw on film. One is "Beauty and the Beast," but I am youngster-free. Of the remaining two, one seemed very old hat also. That leaves only one that I have to research, but I do not have my hopes up. Unfortunately, I missed "Stomp" recently, which had leant an air of excitement to the theatre's reputation.

    As to adaptions I might deign attending, I never got to see "Phantom." Where is all the new stuff?

  16. We had the good fortune to see "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" last fall in an out of town tryout in Cambridge. What do New York critics (most of whom haven't even seen it yet) have to fear? That the Gershwin/DeBose/Heyward estates (which asked for this production) won't approve? That a younger generation which may not have any knowledge of the original production will not enjoy this one? (Unlikely). That opera-goers may never see "Porgy and Bess" (the opera) again? Now that it is about to open on Broadway, my advice to nay-sayers is just go and enjoy yourselves.

  17. The trustees are doing what they are paid to do, maximize value to the trust or estate. That is their job.

    I just hope we don't see another copyright law extension for the sake of Disney and Mickey Mouse (I believe the rights expire in 2036).

  18. Just saw the production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway this past Saturday Night and thought the performance was wonderful. The voices and the production were top notch and is an event not to be missed! I am anxiously awaiting the comments of the critics to get their take!

  19. The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act: allowing idle grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live in Malibu since 1998.

  20. Copyrights expire? No longer, despite the Constitution's authorization of copyright only for "limited terms": Every twenty years they are extended for twenty years.

  21. "Forever" copyrights conflict with Art. I, Sec 8 [8] provision that they are to be "for limited Times," and extending/renewing them to near-infinity seems a major reason for pirating copyrighted material.

  22. The copyright regime in this country is nuts. Apparently even the Mickey Mouse Protection Act wasn't enough. It's a total misconstrual of how culture has always worked, from time immemorial.

  23. Nothing wrong with making money and here's a fresh idea - the songs will always be the songs.

  24. I think they should repackage Tosca. It's such a downer when Tosca jumps to her death. Instead she should manage to escape, meet up with Cavaradossi, get married, and then honeymoon off to Tahiti!

    I just hate sad endings!

  25. If copyright is death plus 75 years why is the copyright on a 1926 play good to 2021? Gershwin died in 1937, so the copyright on his music expires this year. Ira died in 1983, so adding 75 goes well beyond 2021.

  26. i am glad loving Broadway asI do.. Hopi all who love show respect what was done and why

  27. Whenever anyone protests that something isn't about the money, it usually IS about the money.

  28. The heirs did not write the shows and songs. This American trend to turn everything into cold cash is sick. I would not pay to see any show that has been restructured for a bunch of no-talent heirs to get even richer . Art is sacred. Did any of these heirs even KNOW the original writers? Sick, sick, sick.

  29. Well, I have a problem with inheritance per se, but the case of grand nieces and nephews intentionally modifying a property so that they can renew their rights to the cash flow is downright self serving. Copyright law should protect the property as per said lengths, but the money stream should end upon the death of the creator.

    The case of Mrs. Seuss should be a lesson to us all. We would have had to wait 25 more years to see Long Day's Journey, but if we are to honor the creators, let's do it right.

  30. Porgy and Bess is an *opera*. It's way too bad that the "greedy heirs" (I think Sondheim is being kind to them) don't try to do more to promote the operatic version of their show, rather than turning it into something it isn't for the sole purpose of extracting money from a product which they were not responsible for creating.

    At least the opera goes into the public domain in 2031, at which time we'll be able to see more versions produced, and in which people can then play around with it as much as they want - as it should be with public domain works. In 2031, no one will care about this version - anyone will be able to make their own version.

  31. There's no "business" like show "business."

    It's just sad that the originators of theatrical events in question were in that art form for the excitement of the live performance, artistic expression, and (hopefully) applause. Now their heirs are strictly looking at the cash register.

  32. Agree with your last sentence, but if you think artists don't care about gettin' paid, you are subscribing to an idealistic fallacy. It's not *only* about money. But if it's only about the 'excitement of the live performance,artistic expression, and (hopefully) applause," they could all be street buskers. And you'll notice the street buskers all have a hat or an open instrument case on the ground, and aren't giving away those homemade CDs for free for the joy of sharing their artistic vision.

  33. George Gershwin was the only person who ever wrote a note of Porgy and Bess. He wrote every note that is sung by the soloists and chorus, and each note played by every member of the orchestra. After the opera's failure he went to Hollywood to earn some money (he’d taken two years off to write his opera) and a few months later died there of a brain tumor. He died intestate. He never willed his music to anyone. The great irony is that control of his Porgy and Bess fell into the hands of the Strunskys. It was Leonore Strunsky, Ira Gershwin's wife, who made his final days even more miserable than they otherwise would have been. When he lost his balance and fell to the ground she ordered Ira not to help him back to his feet. When he fumbled his eating utensils, she sent him from the table. Finally, she kicked him out of his own house and exiled him to a bungalow where he lived out the final week of his life. Proprietorship of Porgy and Bess eventually fell into the hands of this woman, who, in turn, passed it along to her nephew, Michael Strunsky. Since then the latter and his team of lawyers have worked tirelessly to have the opera re-billed and rewritten so they could endlessly re-copyright it. The current new production, which should be called Strunsky's Porgy and Bess, is just the latest and most egregious example.

  34. I've just spent my lunch break playing old youtube clips of Robert Morse singing "I Believe in You" to get the Darren Criss version I witnessed Saturday night out of my head. The Glee star, a like-able young guy with a pleasant-but-thin voice that simply can't fill the Hirschfeld Theater, played to an ecstatic, shrieking audience of young girls.

    Christopher Hanke's fabulous Bud Frump owned the production, not that anyone appeared to notice, and in a different world he probably would have been the original Finch, or at least moved into the lead role when Daniel Radcliffe moved on. (Can you imagine any movie producer casting the young Robert Morse in that big screen role today?)

    So, yes. Art suffers because money matters.

    That said, the Porgy & Bess version I saw in previews two weeks ago was gorgeous, even with noticeable script changes and a minimalist set. So now we know that Porgy was born with a bad leg. It was not an unforgivable addition to the script. Audra McDonald is a heartbreaking Bess: That glorious voice. The murderous Crown was masterfully performed by Philip Boykin. This is one of this season's Broadway highlights.

    The producers could have cast pop stars and filled the house. They could have opted for a happy ending, which thankfully they did not. Given the other insults to Broadway we've suffered in recent years, this does not deserve the negative attacks it's endured.

  35. The problem with "Porgy and Bess" is that by cutting the libretto to make it palatable to Broadway audiences makes it fairly inaccessible emotionally. The current production, while musically thrilling, suffers from this truncation and, more egregiously, a poorly-thought-out physical staging that creates a huge void where scenic context should be. It's more like an elaborate concert version.


  36. It is perfectly logical that the heirs want to milk this for everything they can. It's in their blood. While Gearge Gershwin was alive, and afterwards, he was the family's meal ticket, with his brother and especially his sister-in-law taking shameful advantage of it.

  37. With few exceptions, Broadway seems to be a collection of re-worked revivals designed to attract out-of-towners. Look at this sample of current shows:
    Godspell
    How to Succeed...
    Phantom
    Anything Goes
    Mary Poppins
    On a Clear Day...
    Chicago

    Broadway has lost it's edge. It's rare to find a new production that is innovative and new.

  38. Disney has commandeered the Grimms' fairy tales (to name one) as their own, both for the screen and for the stage. There are almost no original Broadway productions at all - Book of Mormon being a rare exception.

  39. If Stephen Colbert's PAC is looking for a place to spend money, there's a Gershwin show [about politics] that won the first Pulitzer for a musical. "Of Thee I Sing," since you asked.

    And it's about electoral politics.

    Maybe he should produce a one-night version for the weekend before the election, in the same way that SNL does election specials?

    As comedies go, it's great. And it IS a Gershwin score.

  40. Oh here we go again! They are still "improving" Porgy and I think they are intending to make Bess a more "modern" woman. A new happy ending?

    Oh, Puhleeze!

    I will stay away in droves!

  41. Great argument for limiting the public domain to the old 28 years.

    If you can't make a return on investment in that time- well no bank would lend you money for such a business plan.

    Somehow we have to get the bought-and-paid-for congress to save the public domain from the huge media companies.

    I won't hold my breathe.

  42. Most of the comments here seem to be inspired more by jealousy than by any knowledge of the Gershwin family. An acquaintance of mine who knows some Gershwin heirs says they have real jobs. They live in real places, including New York, not in Malibu.

    In general, those who don't like the extended legal protection of intellectual property have never created any intellectual property.

  43. Don't demonize the heirs too quickly. The original creators were very much in it for the art... and the money. (See Cahn, Styne, Berlin, etc.) And why not? The shows and songs were their livelihood. As for Rodgers and Hammerstein, in their lifetime they exercised enormous control over future productions of their works after they left Broadway.

  44. Saw this in Cambridge last summer. At the performance I attended, Bess had an interminable new scene with Sportin' Life and decided not to leave for New York, which the audience knew when Porgy returned from jail. So his entire last number "Bess, Oh Where's My Bess" was completely stripped of any drama or emotion. Uh... she's right there, Porgy, this whole thing is just a little misunderstanding. Then more scenes, and some sort of "Bess-is-really-a-responsible-strong-woman-now-that-contemporary-women-can-feel-good-about" sort of travesty of an ending. My mouth was on the floor. I heard this got changed, and the original ending more or less restored. I don't know. I'd love to hear if that's true.

  45. Let's have a revival of The King and I with Anne Hathaway and Yun-Fat Chow (can he sing kinda?)!

  46. "Anne Bogart’s memorable student production of “South Pacific” at New York University in 1984, which was set in a rehab ward for psychologically damaged war veterans."

    This is exactly the reason we need to reform copyright so that ancient works like these are in the public domain. On the one hand we could have new and interesting and exciting variations of these plays that I might actually want to see (and can afford to produce), or we could be stuck with only the versions the heirs approve, even while they're butchering the works themselves in an attempt to give them new life (and new copyright).

    You can't adhere to the wishes of a playwright if they're dead. The script is just raw material from which creativity springs, and locking down rights to a work for a century is abominable.

  47. I thought the revised ending with the reconciliation scene was out, after much negative reaction! This article makes it sound as if they have put it back in. I hope not.

  48. I don't know what happened to my comment but I will try again. I thought that this issue of the new ending (a blasphemous betrayal, IMHO) had been resolved, and that they were not going to use it.

  49. I dread the day when Phantom goes into public domain. So far, Hal Prince provides quality control over the productions and that's why it's passed the 25 year mark. I hated what Cameron McIntosh did with the Royal Albert Hall production, it looked like a Superbowl Halftime show, I was waiting for the Irish cloggers to appear. Some tinkering was done to provide a bridge to the much-maligned sequel- that's- not -a- sequel, Love Never Dies. That was horrid enough. I suspect Tim Burton is chomping at the bit to get his hands on Phantom with Helena Bonham Carter as Mme. Giry and the cast of Twilight playing the other parts.