By Steven Suskin
11 Aug 2013
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.
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.Continued...