Portrait of John W. Bubbles, as Sporting Life in Porgy & Bess by Carl Van Vechten
OVER THE STAGE DOOR at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, home to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, hangs a sign reading, “For Residents of Catfish Row Only!”
Going by the exclamation point, it’s all in good fun: there’s no latter-day Lester Maddox at work in the show’s marketing department. Performers from the original 1935 production, who knew harsh prejudice and “For Colored Only” signs, and many of whom disliked wearing bandannas (choral director Eva Jessye recalled telling them, “It’s just a custom, honey.”), would probably not enjoy that sign. Instead, they would likely have joined Maria, the matriarch of that South Carolina ghetto, in shouting, “Oh, hell, no!”
Gershwin purists, upset by the production’s many liberties, are shouting it now, too, but audiences new to this latest incarnation of George and Ira Gershwin’s “folk opera,” based on the 1925 novel and 1927 play Porgy, are unlikely to care much about any of the substantial alterations to the score and book. Even Anthony Tommasini, the classical music critic of The New York Times, observed, “I cannot be sure, but a good third of the original Porgy and Bess seems gone in this adaptation.” Terry Teachout, near the end of his eviscerating review for The Wall Street Journal, stopped to claim, “I’m no Porgy purist,” but his litany of complaints, including the lack of the original dialect, screams otherwise.
I’m not a Gershwin purist either, but I am a Rouben Mamoulian purist — by necessity, since I’m writing his biography. While Mamoulian may be best remembered for directing the original Broadway casts of Oklahoma! and Carousel or Hollywood classics like Love Me Tonight and Silk Stockings, it could be argued that he had more to do with the evolution of Porgy and Bess than any other single artist, excluding, of course, the opera’s composer. His influence on Porgy and Bess is often under-emphasized, which is perhaps inevitable when one works with a genius such as George Gershwin.
Born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1897 to an Armenian family, Mamoulian relocated to London at age 25 and almost immediately began directing plays. The following year he arrived in America, and by 1927 he was directing the stage play Porgy (adapted by Dorothy Heyward from her husband DuBose Heyward’s novel), which would become the basis of the 1935 Gershwin opera.
Today, when critics talk about the “original” version of Porgy and Bess, they are discussing a phantom work, since the original production slashed away at the script as well. A complete version of the opera would run about four hours; the 1935 Boston premiere ran three and a half, from which Mamoulian and the Gershwin brothers cut another 45 minutes before bringing the show ...read more