- "On My Way": The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and "Porgy and Bess." by Joseph Horowitz
Porgy and Bess is a canonical text in American culture—beloved, berated, repeatedly revived, and endlessly researched, prodded, and interpreted by musicologists, historians (including the author of this review), and cultural critics since its 1935 debut. Everybody wants a piece of Porgy and Bess. A certain amount of jostling for artistic credit has long accompanied the opera as well. In 1952 Dorothy Heyward, widow of DuBose Heyward, complained of a celebrated revival that "my pleasure in the grand reviews was marred by the almost total absence of any reference to DuBose."1 In 1976 the Houston Grand Opera announced a new production that reinstated much of the music that had been cut from the 1935 debut by George Gershwin, who was, in their view, "sadly accommodating to his producers," and rhetorically distanced its production from the revivals that had preceded it.2 Joseph Horowitz has entered this fray with "On My Way": The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and "Porgy and Bess," making a bid to reclaim Mamoulian's underappreciated contributions to the opera. This sprawling, anecdotal book ranges widely, covering the careers of Mamoulian and Gershwin both before and after their 1935 collaboration on Porgy and Bess, along with deep dives into the staging of that groundbreaking production and its predecessor, the dramatic play Porgy. Horowitz also delves into Mamoulian's early work directing English-language operas under the sponsorship of George Eastman in Rochester, New York, and his work as a director of Hollywood films from the late 1920s through the late 1950s.
Horowitz explores Mamoulian's contributions to Porgy (the dramatic play adapted from DuBose Heyward's novel of the same name; both preceded the opera) and Porgy and Bess and persuasively makes the case for his significant artistic imprint on these famous productions. Using an annotated rehearsal script in the recently cataloged Mamoulian papers at the Library of Congress, Horowitz analyzes Mamoulian's directorial choices for Porgy and describes his use of musical and extramusical sound, as well as his precise stylization of each actor's movement and noise. Horowitz dissects some of the play's—and later the opera's—most famous scenes, including the picnic, the hurricane, and Robbins's funeral, all unquestionably shaped by Mamoulian's distinctive choices. (He repeated the use of this kind of staging, with Gershwin's approval, in Porgy and Bess.) Horowitz also claims, based on a comparison of differences between the rehearsal script and the published version, that Mamoulian was solely responsible for the play's key changes in plot and characterization from the original [End Page 261] novel. While briefly conceding that Theresa Helburn of the Theater Guild also worked with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward on script revisions, Horowitz ignores the possibility that the Heywards themselves, understanding the different imperatives of page and stage, might have initiated any of these changes. (This is perhaps a pitfall of relying too heavily on Mamoulian's own recollections as source material.)
As convincing as this forensic analysis of Mamoulian's staging decisions is, Horowitz's argument for the director's unique talents would be strengthened by better situating him among his peers. Horowitz enthusiastically supplies all manner of musicological and music history context for different aspects of the book (opera in the United States, Rochester's music scene in the 1920s, Dvořák and ideas about American music, to name a few examples) but provides almost no context for Mamoulian as a stage director—for example, how stage directors functioned in the 1920s and 1930s and how critics and the public understood their work—that would help readers assess what was unique about Mamoulian's career. Particularly in assessing his legacy and influence on Porgy and Bess, a hybrid work of musical theater and opera, it seems important to know how it departed from standard practices in those forms...