One of the enduring questions about George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's folk opera Porgy and Bess is, quite simply, how did it get to be so good? A naive question, perhaps, and a loaded one. But just how, and why, did it get to be as good and as durable as it is?
George Gershwin, writing what was to be his last theatre piece, was, of course, no novice by the time he picked up his pencil in 1933. He had, arguably, by this point outpaced his elders (Kern and Berlin) and was at the head of his pack of contemporaries Youmans, Porter and Rodgers. But if you consider the 25 or so full Broadway and London musicals Gershwin wrote over the 16 years he was active, you will find only one that remains theatrically viable. Yes, Porgy and Bess.
Enlarging on this statement: the Pulitzer-winner Of Thee I Sing reappears occasionally, as a museum piece. The plots of Oh, Kay! and Girl Crazy have been reformulated, in jukebox style, into "new" Gershwin musicals, but these only tangentially represent the actual shows George wrote. Porgy and Bess has undergone some tinkering over the years — sometimes radically, the reader might have noticed — but no matter what they do to it, it remains Porgy and Bess. So far, anyway.
This question, rather surprisingly, has been taken up by former New York Times music critic Joseph Horowitz in "On My Way" [Norton], and he has come up with some compelling answers. Horowitz's subtitle — "The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess" — suggests the path he takes. Working from Mamoulian's extensive archives, Horowitz sheds light on just how Porgy and Bess came to be. While these things are always subject to interpretation, and while it can be dangerous to base your theories on one man's opinion — especially when that one man, Mamoulian, might have an axe or two to grind — my guess is that Horowitz has a good take on the subject.
First, though, I suspect many readers might need some background on that exotic Armenian director from way deep in Georgia. The Russian Georgia, that is. Mamoulian was born in 1897, which made him just two years older than Gershwin. He went to Moscow in around 1915, where he studied at Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre and started directing. Displaced by the Russian Revolution, he made it to London in 1922. He was brought to Rochester, in upstate New York, by industrialist and inventor George Eastman (as in Eastman Kodak). Eastman was involved in numerous cultural projects, and Mamoulian was imported in 1923 to help start the Rochester American Opera Company. Mamoulian had his biggest Rochester triumph in January, 1926; by June, the director — never exactly easy to get along with — was gone, moving to a new position as a director at the Theatre Guild School in New York.
Part of his deal with the Guild, then the preeminent producing company of new plays, with Shaw, Molnar, Sidney Howard, S. N. Behrman and others on the roster, was the promise to direct a Broadway play. There was nothing on the current slate, though, deemed suitable for a Russian director. Among the group was Porgy, Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's stage adaptation of the latter's popular 1925 novella. When the director assigned to the project dropped out, unable to figure out just how to do it, the play was temporarily shelved. With Mamoulian continually hounding the Guild board for his promised Broadway chance, the 30-year-old Russian was given this play of the Deep American South, which opened the Guild's tenth season in October 1927.
We will get back to the Porgy play, but let us just say here that it was a supreme triumph for Mamoulian, resulting in instant fame. He directed a handful of plays through the end of the decade, including Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions for the Guild. When talking pictures arrived, Mamoulian quickly established himself as a movie genius. First came "Applause" (1929), a dark backstage tale starring Helen Morgan (recently of Show Boat). "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" came in 1931, winning Fredric March his first Oscar, without the sort of special effects we have now. Mamoulian more or less created effects as he went along; Horowitz tells us that he devised the split screen, the wipe, the voice over and other items. "Love Me Tonight" (1932), a Rodgers and Hart musical starring Maurice Chevalier, garnered Mamoulian stunning reviews. He continued to work in films through 1942 and thereafter, with three famous firings (from "Laura," the film version of Porgy and Bess, and the Burton/Taylor "Cleopatra") making him ultimately unhireable.
Mamoulian's theatre career, meanwhile, picked up after his first flurry of early-'30s films with the musical Porgy and Bess in 1935. Following another respite, he returned to Broadway in 1943 for the Guild's production of Oklahoma!, followed by Carousel in 1945. These two musicals with Rodgers, Hammerstein and choreographer Agnes de Mille were instant classics, with the latter — especially — filled with grand Mamoulian touches. Unfortunately, the director grew increasingly difficult to work with, restricting him to B-list opportunities. His remaining musicals failed, the most interesting being Kurt Weill's 1949 Lost in the Stars — featuring Todd Duncan and Warren Coleman, who had created the roles of Porgy and Crown in the Gershwin opera.
Mamoulian's days on Broadway ended in 1950, with the lackluster Guild musical Arms and the Girl. Hollywood, which recognized Mamoulian as a prime innovator in the early days of sound, gave him a couple of more shots, but after he was fired from the Porgy and Bess film (in 1959) and "Cleopatra" (which was eventually released in 1963), he was washed up. Mamoulian lived on in Beverly Hills until 1987, the director of Broadway's glorious Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! and Carousel, but virtually forgotten.
But let's get back to Porgy and Bess.
As is not untypical of a novel-to-play-to-musical adaptation, Gershwin and Heyward for the most part followed the action of the play version. Closely so; the play had been filled with music, in the form of spirituals. Here the spirituals became new, Gershwin spirituals, but the pattern was set. But where, in the first place, did the pattern and the use of those spirituals come from? Where did the big set pieces of play and musical — the funeral scene, the hurricane, the grand finale with Porgy departing Catfish Row to follow his Bess to Harlem — originate?
With Mamoulian, it seems. Horowitz plays detective, working from various manuscripts. He explains how the original production script of the play incorporates certain changes from Heyward's novella. Mamoulian's working script, though, is heavily annotated in the director's own hand with more changes, additions and deletions. This doesn't necessarily mean that these were in fact made by Mamoulian; he could have just jotted them down. But they are described elsewhere, by Mamoulian, the Heywards, and Theresa Helburn of the Guild, as Mamoulian's suggestions. One of the too few pictorial illustrations offered in Horowitz's book is a page of the typescript on which Mamoulian has written in lines and direction for the final scene, including that immortal line, "Bring m' goat!" Mamoulian goes on, with words that any lover of Porgy and Bess will be able to sing right back at you: "Ain't you say Bess gone to Noo Yawk, dat's where I goin', I gots to be wid Bess." Mamoulian continues into "Oh, Lord, I'm on my way to heavenly land" — and this is in 1927, long before Gershwin's involvement.
If this key material was indeed devised and written by Mamoulian, then we have a new element to consider when we think about the Gershwin/Heyward collaboration. (While the various estates now call the piece The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Ira is hardly mentioned.) According to Horowitz, this final scene pulled from Mamoulian's promptbook was used in the 1927 production of Porgy. These lines do not appear in the published version of the play, he says, although this wouldn't be the only time that a published script — authorized by the playwrights — did not include changes forced upon them by directors or playdoctors. There was, indeed, some ill feeling between DuBose and Mamoulian; when the Guild agreed to produce the Porgy and Bess, Heyward insisted they offer it to other directors before finally agreeing to go back to Mamoulian.
Horowitz has plenty more to say about the adaptation, but I'll leave it to you to discover. He offers separate sections on the play, the opera, and the film version. What I find most remarkable about "On My Way," though, are the descriptions of Mamoulian's staging. These, too, are taken from the director's working scripts, where he meticulously denoted the blocking. Porgy and Bess had an enormous ensemble — a cast of 82, including 27 children, and Mamoulian describes the staging using the names of the individual ensemble members.
We learn how, in the fight between Crown and Robbins, the crowd "weaves in and out like a serpent, following them, coming in close and backing to walls again." Mamoulian directed the male ensemble members to individually act as if he feared that he himself would get in Crown's way and be stabbed. The same sort of staging can be found in the hurricane scene, when the terrified ensemble is "thrust forward in supplication or propelled backward by Crown."
Most remarkable is the extended discussion of the funeral scene. This was built on four musical episodes: the opening lament for the chorus, "Gone"; "Overflow," in which the crowd pleads for people to fill the saucer with coin for the burial — and in which Porgy arrives at the wake, bringing Crown's Bess despite objections from the God-fearin' women; "My Man's Gone Now," Serena's soaring and haunting aria (a section not found in novella or play); and "Leavin' fo' de Promise' Lan'", in which Bess leads the mourners to exultation.
Horowitz gives us four pages on this. As "My Man's Gone Now" begins, Mamoulian has the chorus, standing, "lean backward, heads to heaven, swaying slowly with eyes closed"; Porgy and Bess sit together back-to-back, "heads together like masks." The number builds to Serena's haunting wail near the end. Everybody leans forward, heads to their knees. As Serena starts the glissando, "she sweeps the floor with her right hand as she circles and rises to a standing position." As she sings her final keening descent, "Ross, Yeates, Hines, McLean fall flat on the floor." Finally, Serena collapses sobbing.
The net result is that readers who are reasonably familiar with the material will get a much clearer picture of just what the original Porgy and Bess was like. Mind you, this was the only Porgy and Bess ever seen by Gershwin (who died in 1937) or Heyward (who died in 1940).
Horowitz also presents us a telling description of Porgy's banjo song, "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'". Gershwin had given Mamoulian a note: "entire stage affected by rhythm of Porgy's song." This Mamoulian did, complete with actors using dishrags, hammers, beating rugs, and more. During the final refrain, where the full chorus joins in, Mamoulian had empty rocking chairs pulled in rhythm, by strings and soap bubbles coming out of the upper windows.
Hal Prince once told me that he saw the original Porgy and Bess at the Alvin — it closed three days before his eighth birthday — and he was thoroughly overwhelmed with wonder. Hal has created some breathtaking stage pictures himself, in his time. One has to wonder if Mamoulian's empty rocking chairs remain imprinted on his theatrical memory.
(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)