A New Biography Ponders the Controversial Director of “Porgy and Bess”

 My Wall Street Journal review of Kurt Jensen’s new Rouben Mamoulian biography takes stock of a unique near-genius, perhaps the least known and appreciated American theater and film director of consequence.  

I came to Mamoulian (1897-1987) while writing my book on immigrants in the performing arts: Artists in Exile. The juxtaposed magnitude of his successes and failures confounded comprehension. Because Mamoulian was chronically meddlesome, it became obvious to me that more could be learned about his role in directing the premiere of Porgy and Bess on Broadway in 1935. 

When the Library of Congress finished cataloguing its vast Mamoulian Archive in 2007, I felt certain to find a smoking gun. And I did, almost immediately. It was the working script for the precursor to Gershwin’s opera: the Dorothy and DuBose Heyward play Porgy, directed by Mamoulian in 1927. All published versions of that script, I realized, omitted Mamoulian’s crucial changes. The outcome of my discovery was a book: “On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess.”

One of those changes was the ending, where Porgy picks himself up and exclaims “Bring my goat!” It was entirely Mamoulian’s. In effect, Mamoulian rewrote the character Porgy to make him an agent of redemption. (The Heywards’ Porgy sinks into obscurity.) Many blogs in this space have pondered the ramifications of this discovery – on how to understand Porgy and Bess; on how to (and not to) perform it. As I write in my review of the new Jensen biography: “We wind up with a different Porgy altogether: he’s become the moral compass of the community. And so he remains in Gershwin’s opera. In fact, Mamoulian wrote the words for the ending of play and opera both. Though the Gershwin Estate insists that Porgy and Bess be billed as ‘the Gershwins’,’ Ira Gershwin shared the lyrics with DuBose Heyward. And Rouben Mamoulian was no mere director.” 

I also write: 

“Mr. Jensen’s biography is to date the fullest account of his life and career. He has assiduously scoured the sources at hand. He has scrutinized the self-serving reminiscences Mamoulian recorded and re-recorded in retirement. He has amassed a trove of anecdotes deftly told and judgments reasonably rendered. He calls Mamoulian ‘a loner who constructed a sturdy veneer of imperturbable sangfroid,’ a man ‘mostly hidden, occasionally revealing himself in bitter recollections of being pushed aside in Hollywood.’

“The bitterest of Mamoulian’s recollections were of Sam Goldwyn, who crudely removed him from the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess in favor of Otto Preminger. Mamoulian’s elaborate Catfish Row set and detailed script revisions were mis-utilized; he deserved to have masterminded this abandoned labor of love. Then came Cleopatra (1963), whose producer, Walter Wanger, blamed Mamoulian for a series of legendary delays. Mr. Jensen, however, blames bad weather complicated by the moodiness and ill health of Elizabeth Taylor. Mamoulian was ousted and never directed for Hollywood again. Mr. Jensen’s detailed accounts of these twin debacles make painful reading. . . .

“In Rochester [where he directed at the Eastman Theatre], Mamoulian had registered as a precocious genius. Somehow his genius dissipated in the decades to come. What happened? Was he corrupted by Hollywood banality and glamour? Was he the victim of a socialite spouse who succumbed to alcohol and dementia? Mr. Jensen is the right person to ask – and he supplies plenty of possible answers without volunteering finished verdicts. 

“Another question: how would a Mamoulian production play today? In Peerless, we can revisit his once famous rhythmic staging of ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’,’ with its soap bubbles, rug-beating, shoe hammering, and knife sharpening — not to mention vacant rocking chairs controlled by invisible threads. Startling in 1935, this rendering – memorably compared by Mr. Jensen to ‘the casual syncopation of a Disney cartoon’ — would nowadays likely seem artifice run amok. Mamoulian’s most tangible legacy was the integrated musical – an art in which he tutored Richard Rodgers, whom he instructed to write both songs and an abundance of incidental music for  [the subversive 1932 film musical] “Love Me Tonight.” But when Oklahoma! and Carousel came along, Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Agnes de Mille got all the credit for using music and dance as dramatic engines. And Rouben Mamoulian, who always kept score, more than knew it.”


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