THE BOOK SHELF: "On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess"

By Steven Suskin
11 Aug 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This month's column looks at Joseph Horowitz's fascinating chronicle of the birth of America's great folk opera in "On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess."


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.