Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013

Porgy and Bess and Rouben Mamoulian

A second look at an underrated director

By David Luhrssen
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This past January, as the University Press of Kentucky was publishing my biography of director Rouben Mamoulian, Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen, I learned that another book on the neglected auteur was scheduled for publication this spring. I must confess I was a bit nervous over reading Joseph Horowitz’s “On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess (W.W. Norton). My copy sat for months, buried under a lengthening stack of paperwork, as I hesitated to have a look.

Finally, I read “On My Way” and was happy to find that it makes a congenial companion for my biography. If books could be friends, they’d be pals. As the subtitle announces, “On My Way” focuses on Mamoulian’s role in that pinnacle of American musical theater, Porgy and Bess, its predecessor Porgy (which Mamoulian also directed) and Mamoulian’s failed effort to turn the musical into a film. Life on Stage and Screen looks at the director’s entire life and career, including Porgy and Bess.

One of Horowitz’s earlier books, Artists in Exile, influenced my understanding of the creative Europeans that streamed into the U.S. in the first half of the last century, often as a result of persecution. Mamoulian was among their number, and was able to leverage his new nation’s sense of cultural inferiority. An exotic accent could be an asset.

Horowitz had the luxury of extensive time in the Library of Congress’ Mamoulian Archive, only recently catalogued. Otherwise, “On My Way” and Life on Stage and Screen draw from many of the same sources, eyewitness quotes and contemporary reviews. Our conclusions are identical: More than just a good director, Mamoulian was an active collaborator who helped fashion Porgy and Bess into a classic.

The subtle difference in tone between “On My Way” and Life on Stage and Screen comes down to this: Immersed the director’s entire life, I actually like Mamoulian, while Horowitz response stops with respect.

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