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Dramatic Visionary, Brilliant Director

Rhythmic innovations, seamless transitions typify Mamoulian style

Joseph Horowitz ’70, “On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2013, 304 pp.


Musical theater productions in America typically come to life in a creative frenzy of collaboration, usually in

hurried preparation for a New York debut. While the names of composer, lyricist, and original stars are immortalized on marquees and cast albums, many other creative personalities help to shape a musical at its inception but gradually are forgotten. Trude Rittman, the composer and conductor whose inspired transformations of Richard Rodgers’ tunes are heard throughout South Pacific (and many other shows) as dramatic underscoring, comes to mind. I find it difficult to imagine the characters Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque falling in love without Rittman’s inspired contributions.

Joseph Horowitz’s evocative new book, On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess, shines a light on another neglected figure from musical theater’s golden age. Rouben Mamoulian made his directorial mark in the 1920s with intensely concentrated productions, often driven by precisely designed rhythmic and kinetic stylization. (In addition to Porgy and Bess, Mamoulian also directed the first productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel). By focusing on Mamoulian’s work as the stage director of both the play Porgy (1927) and its 1935 musical adaptation (Porgy and Bess), Horowitz reveals Mamoulian not only as the dramatic visionary who saw the original productions through to unified performances, but as an important designer of the tone and shape for both works.

Horowitz’s descriptions of Mamoulian’s stagings of the play and the opera are tantalizing. The original productions were never filmed, but Horowitz, in rhythmic, imaginative prose, carefully pieces together contemporary accounts, interviews, photographs, and Mamoulian’s production notes to arrive at vivid theatrical descriptions.

As a sound designer 40 years before the term was invented, Mamoulian was particularly innovative. He used noise as a rhythmic undergirding for dramatic action, and the careful manipulation of sound and tempo became a Mamoulian trademark. (Mamoulian directed rehearsals with a metronome and baton!)

Though the precise rhythms of the original stage productions may be lost to us, Horowitz helps us imagine the effect by examining the similarities between Mamoulian’s Porgy staging and one of his first films, the 1932 musical Love Me Tonight. In a detailed analysis of the film’s opening sequence (which is readily available on YouTube), Horowitz gives us a taste of how Mamoulian’s rhythmic innovations and seamless transitions might have been realized on stage.

Mamoulian developed these rhythmic principles in his early years directing opera in Rochester, N.Y., which in the 1920s was a hub of experimental artistic activity funded by George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Co. Horowitz’s accounts of these bold productions (some of which premiered, one act at a time, between screenings of silent movies) make for inspiring reading. These years of intense collaboration and experimentation remind me of the Festival of the Creative Arts founded by Leonard Bernstein at Brandeis University in the early 1950s: In both cases the seeds of cultural innovation were sown far from the commercial pressures of the New York stage in an environment that was enriched by maverick minds who embraced what Horowitz terms “cultural fluidity.”

Horowitz convincingly links Mamoulian’s early Rochester direction of Maurice Maeterlinck’s morality play Sister Beatrice with his later work, particularly with Porgy. He credits Mamoulian with transforming the “local and resigned” tone of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy into a play at once “epic and sanguine.” (The same tone was adopted in the operatic version.)

While Mamoulian’s direction often took liberties with the text, his changes to the ending of Porgy are downright authorial. By “recasting the novella’s dour ending as a redemptive mass finale, Mamoulian nudged Porgy toward a ‘miracle play’ paradigm,” writes Horowitz. Vital changes were made to the original script in Mamoulian’s hand, including many of the final scene’s most powerful lines (particularly memorable once George Gershwin set them to music). Beyond the brilliant direction of the original production, Mamoulian is, in the end, responsible for the redemptive tone of both play and opera.

—Andrew Hauze ’04, associate in performance, is a conductor, pianist, and organist, who has taught at Swarthmore since 2006.


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