Rebecca Paller

Associate Curator

August 16, 2011

The Re-Imagining Syndrome: Sondheim, The Goat, and Jane Tennison

by Rebecca Paller

“She may be a little gruff and her methods may be out there but you can’t argue with her results.”

Am I the only one who finds the promos for the upcoming NBC series Prime Suspect ANNOYING with a Capital A? If I see that darned spot—you know, the one where Maria Bello threatens to shoot a cab driver because he won’t put out his cigarette—one more time this week I think I will scream. Also, what’s with that black ski cap she’s wearing a la Belker in Hill Street Blues? (Not to mention that other, "jaunty" hat that she wears at an angle…)

The British series Prime Suspect was a success because it was a truly realistic  look at a female police officer in the UK and because it gave us Helen Mirren’s brilliant, nuanced, all-too-human portrayal of that officer—Jane Tennison.

But the new American network series with the same name appears to be a dumbed-down, gunned-up version of the original, starting with the coy printed copy (“From director Peter Berg comes the re-imagining of the British television hit starring Maria Bello as the tough-as-nails detective who doesn't know when to quit.”) and moving on to those hyperkinetic spots with Ms. Bello running frantically down the street one moment and getting beaten up the next—and later flashing her million-watt smile as she explains her bruises and broken bones to friends with the one-liner, “Good day at work.”

Though we’re still a month away from the series premiere, NBC is already touting Bello’s character, Jane Timoney (mercifully they changed the character’s surname from the British version), as an “iconoclastic female detective.” Well, at least they're not calling her an icon.

Maria Bello in the upcoming NBC series Prime Suspect:

“Reimagining Fever" seems to be rampant these days. Now we’ve learned that the director Diane Paulus has gotten her paws on Porgy and Bess—and is revising the Great American Opera by having the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks “flesh out” the main characters and turn the heartbreaking ending into a happy one.

“I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of Porgy and Bess and made changes, including the ending,” Ms. Parks arrogantly said in the New York Times a couple of Sundays ago.

The thing is, the hero of Porgy is actually based on a real-life individual that DuBose Heyward—the author of the 1920s novel Porgy, as well as the libretto and most of the lyrics for Porgy and Bess—had encountered on the streets of Charleston. That man, Sammy Smalls (aka “Goat Sammy”) had lost the use of his legs and traveled around in a small cart that was carried by a goat.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a scathing letter to the New York Times (published August 14), taking the artistic team of the “new” Broadway-bound Porgy and Bess to task: “It’s reassuring that Ms. Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him, and that she thinks he would have taken one of the most moving moments in musical theater history—Porgy’s demand, “Bring my goat!”—and thrown it out. Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane. So now he can demand, “Bring my cane!” Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.” 

Anyone who has seen Porgy and Bess—on Broadway (where it’s been revived several times though not since the Eighties), at the Metropolitan Opera, in a concert version or on a bus-and-truck tour—cannot fail to be moved by the glorious music (“Summertime”; “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”; “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”; “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon”; “I’m on My Way”), by the romance between the title characters, and by the stirring choral music.

We don’t need a new Porgy and Bess. We simply need outstanding singing actors who can empathize with the characters—and a director who understands the humanity and depth of feeling in the music and words that George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin put down on paper more than three-quarters of a century ago.

But still, in spite of my qualms, I will be checking out Porgy and Bess when it arrives on Broadway sans goat in December. And what the hell—I’ll also watch the first few episodes of Prime Suspect. Hey, you never know…

The original Porgy and Bess, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, sing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”


  • I'm still not certain why they feel the need to capitalize on the "Prime Suspect" name--why they didn't just create a completely new character/storyline for Maria Bello, who was so darn wonderful on those two guest appearances last season on "Law & Order: SVU"...

    Becky, August 18, 2011 at 10:37 am

  • The "Prime Suspect" promo playing in movie theaters, with the song "Sandman," also seems wrong. Too damn smug. But after "Friday Night Lights" I'm going to give Peter Berg the benefit of the doubt and check it out.

    David, August 17, 2011 at 6:20 pm


Rebecca Paller

Associate Curator


Before joining the Paley Center in 2000, Rebecca Paller was associate editor of Where Magazine in New York and Northern Ohio Live in Cleveland. She has written about the arts for publications including Opera News, American Theatre, Vogue, and Playbill.


Performing Arts


Rebecca Paller

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