Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gilbert & Sullivan In The Key Of Aaaargh!

One of the most curious aspects of the fabled innocence of youth is its lack of historical perspective. The historical significance of certain events (the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963) were hammered into our minds by a shocked media. Otherwise, children mostly wanted to go outside and play.

When Richard D'Oyly Carte asked William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan to write a short comic opera in 1875, he had no idea they would be making history. Following the success of Trial By Jury, The Sorcerer, and H.M.S. Pinafore, the three men formed a producing partnership known as the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Flush with success, D'Oyly Carte then built the Savoy Theatre which, when it opened on October 10, 1881, was the first public building in the world to be entirely lit by electricity. In 1889, he built the Savoy Hotel right next to his theatre.

The Savoy Theatre, built in 1881 by Richard D'Oyly Carte

Richard's son, Rupert, not only managed the theatre company, he rebuilt and modernized the Savoy Theatre in 1929 (just prior to the Great Depression). Rupert's daughter, Bridget (who died in 1985), was the last member of the Carte family to remain active in the management of the legendary opera company.

By 1961 all of the copyrights on Gilbert & Sullivan operettas had expired. In 1982, the company was forced to close due to its inability to meet rising costs. After many years of attending theatre and opera, I now have a very different historical perspective on Gilbert and Sullivan than I did as a teenager.

As an adolescent, I spent a lot of happy hours listening to the 33-1/3 rpm vinyl recordings of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas that London Records had reissued on its Richmond budget label. Most of those recordings were made in the early 1950s, when Martyn Green performed most of the G&S patter roles for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and Isidore Godfrey conducted most of its performances.

I was fortunate enough to see the D'Oyly Carte perform at New York's City Center during their 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, and 1968 American tours, when the great comic baritone, John Reed, and bass-baritone Donald Adams were onstage. This was back in the days when Trial by Jury was performed on a double bill with H.M.S. Pinafore.

After moving to San Francisco in 1972, I was delighted to discover The Lamplighters, a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to keeping the Savoyard flame burning brightly. I have enjoyed many of their productions.

Charles Martin as the Pirate King in The Lamplighters'
recent production of The Pirates of Penzance

In 1978, when the D'Oyly Carte visited San Francisco's Curran Theatre on one of the company's last tours, I wrote:
"The remarkable thing about the D’Oyly Carte is their freshness. Many of the company make a lifetime career out of Gilbert and Sullivan, and boredom could easily set in. However, each evening’s work was fresh, clean, and (with the exception of some slow cue pickups by the local orchestra) immaculately performed. One source of joy is their diction. In an age when most performers rely on a microphone and still manage to produce only mush, the D’Oyly Carte’s singers enunciate with a crispness that is remarkable.
A certain awareness of the nonsense of it all has crept into the proceedings -- and not just in the cherished encores that follow favorite songs. These encores are legendary bits of shtick, many of them well memorized by the audience of adoring Savoyard fans. But a certain air now surrounds these sacred bits of business that is an admission by the company that 'We know that you know that we know that you know ...' In The Pirates of Penzance, the Sergeant of Police (after several encores of 'When the Foeman Bares His Steel') comes onstage and mouths the lyrics silently, leaving the audience devastated with laughter."
The D'Oyly Carte's Donald Adams  as The Pirate King

Another treasured piece of stage business in the D'Oyly Carte's production of Pirates occured early in Act I, during a discussion about Frederic's impending departure from pirate life. In the libretto, the Pirate King states "It's only half past eleven and you are one of us until the clock strikes twelve." But in the D'Oyly Carte production the words "It's only" were followed by a brief pause as the Pirate King performed an elaborate flourish, held his hand above his eyes, looked out into the auditorium as if squinting at the sun, and said "half past eleven."

In 1980, Joseph Papp staged a new adaptation of Pirates at the open-air Delacorte Theatre in Central Park that was directed by Wilford Leach and featured a new musical adaptation (and instrumentation) by William Elliott. The cast starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, George Rose, Patricia Routledge, and Tony Azito. In the following clip, George Rose performs the most famous song from Pirates: "I Am The Very Model of a Model Major General."

The Public Theatre's production was a huge hit, which transferred to Broadway in 1981, ran for 787 performances, and was subsequently filmed with Angela Lansbury as Ruth. The production also included the "matter patter" trio from Ruddigore ("My Eyes Are Fully Open"). In the following clip from the film version, Kevin Kline and Angela Lansbury explain the curious paradox of Frederic's apprenticeship to the pirates.

Over the years, Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas have been subjected to all kinds of reinterpretation. Australia's Essgee Entertainment has had lots of fun updating G&S favorites. In the following clip from a 2001-2003 revival of The Pirates of Penzance, "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" gets a refreshing new twist.

And there can be no doubt that Australia's beloved Gerry Connolly is a Major General Stanley like no other:

Yiddish adaptation ("Di Yam Gazlonim") that received a 2006 production by The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene was nominated for a 2007 Drama Desk Award for Best Revival. Consider the following version created by Lego enthusiasts:

I recently watched a rollicking good production of Pirates from Opera Australia (available on Netflix) in which the Pirate King bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp's characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Delightfully designed by Richard Roberts, the production includes a pirate ship on wheels as well as a paper moon that momentarily turns into a portrait of a sullen Queen Victoria looking down on the proceedings. After the pirates are pardoned, they reappear dressed as the richly-robed and crowned Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Barons, and Viscounts from Act 2 of Iolanthe.

But what truly caught my attention was this clip (from the 2008 Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton)  which shows Martin Milnes displaying his fierce falsetto while singing Mabel's entrance aria, "Poor Wand'ring One."

As a reviewer from London's Time Out noted:
"Why have the Union Theatre's all-male Gilbert and Sullivan revivals been so successful? On the evidence of this year's Pirates of Penzance, it's because the daftness of the endeavour is precisely in tune with the daftness of G&S themselves. Casting men as women, you don't sacrifice credibility, because there's none to begin with. What you attain is another level of play, another opportunity for the type of nonsense with which this operetta -- with its cast of cissy pirates and red-faced buffoons of major-generals -- already teems."
Because 2012 is a leap year, it's no surprise that Pirates is receiving special attention from Bay area fans of Gilbert & Sullivan. On Sunday, March 11, The Lamplighters were holding a Pirates of Penzance Sing-A-Long to honor young Frederic's birthday. That afternoon I attended a new production of Pirates directed by Jon Tracy for the Berkeley Playhouse.

Terry Rucker as Major General Stanley (Photo by: Larry Abel)

An extremely talented director/playwright with a fertile imagination, Tracy opted to rewrite parts of Sir William S. Gilbert's libretto ("Our story opens with Frederic reading poetry on the pirate ship..." ) As he explains in his program notes:
"When I first read through through the opera and listened to its music, I was struck by two words "Hail Poetry," a simple yet sublime message that resonates not only in the show's theme, but in the desires and actions of every character within.  We all have a poem inside us that we are constantly rewriting in hopes to finally, one day, find the person or persons who will not only listen to it, but will give us their own poem in return.  The struggle to find the poem within and to search out its potential audience can truly create a world of the most memorable characters you are ever to witness.
Berkeley Playhouse challenges its artists to tell classic stories without the formal trappings of previous productions or being locked in to the long-held beliefs that 'such and such musical' should be done in 'such and such way.'
To honor that notion, we have created a world that looks nothing like the classic staging but that can still hold all of the lunacy inherent to the story. In fact, our concept of a future where 'strict is stricter' and 'crazy is crazier' has given us more room so that the hearts and minds of our earnest lot of characters can balloon and burst with new vibrancy."

Joan Paul Gonzalez as Frederic (Photo by: Jason Mongue)

In other words, "This ain't your father's Pirates of Penzance."  Nor, for that matter, is it Gilbert & Sullivan's. Marketed as a "slapstick punk, set in a post-atomic future" production, this version of Pirates is aimed squarely at the Red Bull (adult) and Corn Pops (children) audience that borders on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is designed as a raucous and rowdy romp whose gimmicks include:
  • Frederic (John Paul Gonzalez) wearing a rubber ducky "floatie" around his waist as he jumps from the pirate ship.
  • Ruth (Rana Weber) sounding and acting a lot like Fran Drescher.
  • One young pirate wielding a chainsaw.
  • Major General Stanley (Terry Rucker) riding around the stage on an assistive mobility scooter.
  • The Sergeant of Police (Jon Barcellos) speaking with a German accent.
  • The show's music director (Jonathan Fadner) playing his electric guitar while holding a plastic fish in one hand.
  • Pandering to Berkeley Playhouse's youngest audience members by following references to Frederic's "sense of duty" with smirking reiterations of the word "doody."
  • A female Pirate King (Cathleen Riddley) who ends up kissing Ruth at the finale.
Rana Weber as Ruth (Photo by: Jason Mongue)

Much like Berkeley Rep's recent adaptation of Moliere's farce, A Doctor In Spite of Himself, Tracy threw lots of shtick onstage in order to keep an audience (that was clearly split between the under-10 and over-30 crowd at the matinee I attended) fully entertained. With all due respect to Tracy's attempt to focus on poetry, I found myself more impressed with Frederick's thighs than with his sighs.

The emphasis on poetry, however, brings up an important point. In any new interpretation of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, the creative team is bound to come up with fresh topical references and design ideas. Because the copyright on these pieces has long since expired and they now reside in the public domain, Gilbert's libretti are considered fair game. In fact, there's quite a tradition of rewriting his lyrics, as evidenced by this wonderful clip from Opera Australia's recent revival of The Mikado (the same production that I saw at the Sydney Opera House in 1985).

Early in this weekend's performance, I found myself wondering whether Jonathan Fadner's musical rewriting of familiar melodies (in the style used by Seth MacFarlane) was done because his young cast might not be up to the challenges of Sir Arthur Sullivan's music (a throbbing rock beat doesn't always enhance a lyrical piece of writing).

My question was answered when it came to the "Hail, Poetry" ensemble near the end of Act I, which is sung a capella. Suddenly, there were beautiful young voices with secure upper ranges showing exactly how glorious Sullivan's music can be when someone has the courage and confidence to respect the original score.

That moment also clarified an issue which has been roundly debated in the wake of Stephen Sondheim's criticism of recent efforts to rewrite Porgy and Bess. The Pirates of Penzance -- which received its world premiere in New York on New Year's Eve of 1879 --  is now more than 132 years old (or 33, if you're going by birthdays). Great works of art deserve respect, even if their creators are long dead.

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Sullivan is often underrated as a theatre composer because he wrote so many memorable tunes. What many people don't understand is that his music was also very well placed for the human voice, which is one reason why The Pirates of Penzance is still being performed more than 130 years after its premiere.

Coaching singers requires a very different talent from composing and/or arranging music. If you lack the musical chops to enhance another composer's work, rather than hacking away at it to show what a sorry mess you can make of someone else's very good art, have the good sense and humility to leave well enough alone.

Music that has survived for more than a century can stand on its own merits. While theatre may often be described as a fabulous invalid, there's no need for the patient to die of improvement.

No comments: