"On My Way": The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess
The question is not whether director Rouben Mamoulian ever received the credit due him for his myriad contributions to the original production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (or, for that matter, the production of the play Porgy that it was taken from).
No, the question concerning this particular niche in American musical and theatrical history is this: Is there a book in it?
The answer would be “perhaps not” had author Joseph Horowitz strictly stuck to the parameters identified by that straightjacket of a subtitle.
But he gives us deep cuts instead. There is, for instance, a long deconstruction of Love Me Tonight, an underappreciated, opulent film musical Mamoulian produced and directed that offered Maurice Chevalier the role of his lifetime and sent the critics of its day (1932) into raptures. Like this, written about Rouben Mamoulian, from the Times of London:
“He lifts the squalid yearnings and base humour which the musical comedy is intended to express into another and far more delicate world . . .”
And there is a long consideration of the “Rochester [New York] Rennaissance” and its impact on Mamoulian, himself a longtime native of the city.
And there is an investigation into something more basic, and yet vital, to the genesis of Porgy and Bess. As a Broadway production, composed by George Gershwin and directed (and, to a large extent, shaped) by Rouben Mamoulian, Porgy and Bess was and is a landmark. But as an American opera sung in English, it was an anomaly.
The importance of Gershwin’s decision to stage his production in a Broadway theater and not an opera house cannot be overstated. Just as it is impossible to overlook the fact that, in choosing his source material (the novella Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward, and the play that was created from it), he was choosing something uniquely American in style, feel and content.
And it also underscores the fact that Gershwin knew that, if he wanted to reach the broadest audience possible, he needed to have his work produced in a musical theater, with its blend of vaudeville and Shakespeare, high are and low, and not a gilded opera hall.
Thus, this production of Porgy and Bess underscores a major turning point in American culture.
In dealing with the possible reasons behind Broadway’s ascendancy and opera’s relative obscurity, author Horowitz quotes composer and critic Deems Taylor in writing:
“To realize why opera has never really taken root here, why its audience is one-twentieth of what it should be, and why so few American composers have written grand operas, try to imagine the state of the American theater today if it had faced the conditions under which its sister art has had to struggle. Suppose that, fifty years ago, a group of public-spirited New Yorkers had built a magnificent theater and installed therein a company of first-rank actors, prepared to give the finest plays written. For fifty years, then, this company has been presenting the works of Moliere, Racine, Rostand, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Schiller, Goldoni, Ibsen, Shakespeare, and other playwrights. None of these plays, however, has been done in English. The French plays have been played in French, the German ones in German, Ibsen in Norwegian, Dostoyevsky, and Tchekoff in French or Italian—never English—translations. The company, which at first was entirely European, is not about one-third American. Most of these American actors have received their training in Europe, and know their roles only in foreign tongues; for even Shakespeare, in this imaginary theater, is played in Italian.”
This nicely lays the groundwork for Horowitz’s dissection of the impact that Porgy and Bess had on American theater. Gershwin, who had been offered the chance to debut his work at the Metropolitan Opera, cannily chose instead to offer it on Broadway.
He also chose to combine high (read: classical) music with low (popular), famously noting, “It’s just as difficult to write popular music as it is to write serious music.”
In Porgy and Bess, he took the sounds and rhythms of the Catfish Row and mixed them into high opera, causing music critic Virgil Thomson to exclaim:
“Gershwin does not even know what an opera is; and yet Porgy and Bess is an opera and it has power and vigor. Hence it is a more important event in America’s artistic life than anything American the Met has ever done . . .”
The heart of the book relates a specific moment of creation—the creation of that Broadway production, and of the final composition that would become Porgy and Bess. Thus, it belongs to George Gershwin, with Rouben Mamoulian wrestling him for the left ventricle, due to the fact that he, Mamoulian, beat out the first choice of director—John Houseman—by virtue of the fact he had forged his reputation by powerfully staging the production of its source material, the play Porgy:
“Mamoulian brought a singular authority to Porgy and Bess. Inevitably, inescapably, his production documented his own idiosyncratic techniques and ideals that, having already permeated the 1927 Theatre Guild Porgy, seeped into the themes and aesthetics of Gershwin’s opera. It cannot be regarded as surprising that Mamoulian’s input, at every stage, had the general effect of making the opera more resemble the play he had radically and triumphantly reconceived eight years previous.”
That there was a tug of war between the composer, Gershwin, and the director, Mamoulian, seems undeniable, given the great gobs of evidence that author Joseph Horowitz presents. Rouben Mamoulian approached the material as something of an expert, having worked tirelessly with playwrights Dorothy and DuBose Heyward in the polishing and staging the seminal 1927 production of Porgy (which gave him direct access to the source material, Heyward’s own novella) before he ever met George Gershwin.
Each, then, felt a certain ownership of the material and each had a vision for it.
Author Joseph Horowitz delves into this creative tension at length, and those interested in the process by which concept becomes “art” will find much of interest here. And while On My Way, is not, at the heart of it, a biography of either of these men, but, instead, of the opera that they together created, Horowitz gives his readers much insight into the inner workings of each man’s mind, calling upon letters, interviews, and even the scrapbook that Mamoulian kept on Porgy and Bess to do so.
Gershwin, of course, died soon after the completion of Porgy and Bess. Rouben Mamoulian lived for decades thereafter, long enough to see his career peak and crater. Long enough to direct such classic films as Queen Christina and Golden Boy, and long enough to ultimately be fired off of the production of the notoriously difficult 1963 film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, after which Mamoulian slipped into bitter obscurity.
Even while sketching in the details of the lives of those involved, from Heyward to Gershwin to Mamoulian, Horowitz again and again returns to his central themes: that there is, as Virgil Thomson suggests, such a thing as “America’s artistic life,” and that no work, not a novel or a play or, indeed, an opera, is created in a vacuum, or stands as the creation of one lone person. All celebrate collaboration, as does our author here.
And while On My Way may not be the perfect beach read this summer, it is a thorough and satisfying study of the sometimes combative collaborative process as applied to the creation of an American Classic, Porgy and Bess.