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How Did “Porgy and Bess” Originate?

“Where did the big set pieces of Porgy and Bess originate? With Rouben Mamoulian, it seems,” writes Steven Suskin in his copious review of my new book “On My Way” – The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess.”

Well, thank you, Mr. Suskin. As a book has no fixed meaning, it’s often informative (and sometimes not) to discover how others read what you yourself thought and wrote. My book is about many things. It’s a Mamoulian book (arguing for his rediscovery as a forgotten hero of Broadway and Hollywood). It’s a Gershwin book (arguing that we must stop patronizing him as a dilettante of genius). And it’s a Porgy and Bess book (revealing that the opera’s most famous line – “Bring my goat!” – and the entirety of its redemptive ending were fashioned by Mamoulian eight years before the premiere in 1935).

Yes, the opera’s big set pieces – Robbins’ funeral, the hurricane, “O Lawd I’m on My Way” — actually originate with Porgy the play as directed and refashioned by Mamoulian in 1927. The reason we didn’t know that before is that all published versions of the play omit Mamoulian’s crucial revisions – which have only now come to light with the opening of the Mamoulian Archives at the Library of Congress.

As an author, I’m grateful for any attention I get, and the reviews of “On My Way” have been uniformly gratifying. But the core of my book, as I myself read it, happens to be those set pieces, and the revelation that it was Mamoulian who transformed what had been a snapshot of a regional black subculture (DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, with its languorous depressed ending) into an epic human saga (with a redemptive finale utterly at odds with Heyward’s sentimentality and anthropological verisimilitude).

Porgy and Bess as we know it could never have happened without Rouben Mamoulian.

an ArtsJournal blog