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

By Steven Suskin
11 Aug 2013

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?