The Master of the Tricky Lyric, W.S. Gilbert

The Master of the Tricky Lyric, W.S. Gilbert

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWSome time ago I was giving a seminar on the history of the American operetta and I thought it would be a Good Thing if I typed out the lyrics and ran off copies for my senior citizens. In doing so, one thing impressed me greatly: the utter banality of the words that composers like Victor Herbert had to set to music.

There was an episode on “The Avengers” (one with Emma Peel, not Captain America) in which a publisher of romances had a machine into which you simply punched buttons that plugged stock situations into a computer and the end result was a novel. Many of the lyrics I encountered seemed to be drawn from a boxful of clichés that were merely shuffled and reshuffled. All of which, I suppose, was okay, since the lovers in one operetta could not be distinguished from those in most others.

Example from “The Desert Song”:

                   Why waste your time in vague romancing

                   When life itself is at your call?

                    I come to you, my heart advancing.
Oh, come to me and be my all.

One from “The Red Mill”:

                    Only because you are you, dear.

                    Not that you are fair, dear,

                    Not that you are true.

                    Not your golden hair, dear,

                    Not your eyes of blue, etc.

Of course these horrible examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. But to be fair, so could many fairly clever lyrics that are found in the satirical (usually anti-feminist) songs of the period. But the great majority of songs from early musicals have lyrics that would have given a D to any student in a poetry writing class; and the reason for this situation is the same as that for today’s television fare: (1) the public did not demand any better and (2) it is simpler to write poor stuff than good stuff.

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Opening night program for the first authorized production

Now in 1878 something called “HMS Pinafore” happened in London that got people very excited. Here was a work in which the music was superb and the lyrics were actually intelligent, clever, and amusing all at once! Now the team of Gilbert and Sullivan had already created three works before this, but “Pinafore” was the first to reach these colonial shores and the theatergoers went wild. In New York City alone there were about 10 productions in competition with one another, all using pirated scores that had been  hastily jotted down in London by agents from America in those days before international copyright agreements had been achieved.

Did you ever notice in most composer-writer teams, the composer always comes first? Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, for example. In fact who can really name off the cuff the lyricist for any given Romberg musical? I know that P.G. Wodehouse did the lyrics for several Kern shows in 1917 and thereabouts. But I could not tell you for certain who wrote the lyrics for (say) “Sally” or “Sitting Pretty.”

Now a lyric can be “clever” in what it says and how it says it. “Tea for two and two for tea” is not a very profound remark but its beautiful symmetry makes it clever in one sense. “When I’m not with the girl I love I love the girl I’m near” is even better though less palindromic. On the other hand, the rhymes with the lines I have not quoted are nothing special.

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The entire cast of “Cox and Box”

Except in the lyrics of the few writers being considered in this series of articles, you can go far and wide before finding any truly clever rhyme in American lyrics. On the London stage, however, Sullivan had words like this in the non-Gilbert “Cox and Box”:

 My master is punctual always in business

          Unpunctuality even slight is in his

          Eyes such a crime that my showing my phiz in his

          Shop I thought there’d be the devil to pay.

Not only do we get a triplet, but also the single word “business” is rhymed with three monosyllabic words in the next two lines. On top of that, Larry Hart is anticipated by several decades in that the rhyme words are broken off from the words to which they grammatically belong, thereby increasing the humor even more.

The miracle is what wonderful music was set to even the low-grade lyrics in so many of the operettas that have remained favorites because of the memorable melodies, certainly not because of the words. In fact Romberg boasted that he never cared what words were set to his music. (“Who knows for lyrics?” was his remark.) And that alone brings out a very interesting fact. Many if not most composers wrote the music before the words. The lyricists then were duty-bound to match their meters and moods to already existing notes. Note too that the great teams, especially the two with Rodgers as composer, were not so rigid in their collaboration: sometimes a musical idea would present itself, sometimes a verbal one. And of course, composers like Berlin and Porter, who wrote both music and lyrics, had no such problems!

[Notice that just about every other composer-lyricist team are referred to in that order: George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so on. But with Sullivan and Gilbert, they are forever Gilbert and Sullivan. Strange.]

On the other hand, only on one occasion did Gilbert ask Sullivan to write the music first, but that was for a quick revision of the finale of their penultimate work. In all other cases, the words came before Sullivan’s music.

So it would be a valuable thing to examine the lyrics of the man who began it all, and now we shall examine the tricky lyrics of  William S. Gilbert.

 During a televised colloquy of funnymen, Milton Berle brought up the difference between a “comic” and a “comedian.” The first, he explained, says funny things while the latter says things funny. Gilbert, of course, did both. No one before him had turned out such intricate rhymes to better comic effect; and almost always the humor of Sullivan’s music kept in step with the librettist.

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Program for the “lost” and first G&S opera

Their earliest collaboration was “Thespis,” in which Gilbert was already dealing out such “weak” rhymes as “function-junction/exceeding-breeding/Directors-inspectors/fivers-drivers/compunction-unction-function-junction” in a single stanza of a patter song. [In case your English 1 is far behind you, a “strong” rhyme comes on the last syllable as in “today-replay” while a “weak” one comes on an earlier syllable as in any of the above examples.]

“The Sorcerer” was a spoof of  “The Elixir of Love” and had to contain a patter song to match that of the quack in the Donizetti work. Now since Italian has more vowels per linear foot than does English, very weak rhymes were called for. As witness this:

                         Barring tautology

                         In demonology

                         ‘Lectro-biology

                         Mystic nosology

                         Spirit philology

                         High-class astrology

                         Such is his knowledge he

                         Isn’t the man to require an apology!

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Rutland Barrington, the first Pooh-Bah

Many times, Gilbert will set himself a challenge and rhyme where no man had rhymed before. For example, in “The Mikado” he forces himself to find rhymes for “executioner” in Pooh-Bah’s Act I song. So Nanki-Poo is called a “very imperfect ablutioner” (which rhymes but makes little sense), Pooh-Bah calls himself “Of your pleasure a diminutioner,” and ends by advising “so you shun her!”

And witness how he rhymes proper nouns in the Major-General’s Song and the “Private Dragoon” numbers, which are too long to quote here.

When he does use strong rhymes (and how can one avoid them?), he will often make a triplet in a single line as when Pooh-Bah sings “Now though you’d have said that head was dead.” Or he will alternate two strong with two weak as in the Nightmare song:

                            When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose

                                       is taboo’d by anxiety,

                            I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in

                                       without impropriety.

In “The Grand Duke,” a most inferior libretto compared to what has gone before, he rhymes “lowest” with “ghoest” and compounds the groaner with the explanation

    When exigence of rhyme compels

                         Orthography forgoes her spells

                         And “ghost” is written “ghoest.”

Getting back to “The Mikado,” Gilbert gives us one of the greatest tongue-twisting alliterations of all times:

                          To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock,

                          In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,

                          Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,

                          From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Possibly one of his happiest thoughts is a seldom quoted song from “Patience” in which the titular heroine claims she never loved except in babyhood  and “He was a little boy.” Her confidante insists that “He WAS a little boy”; to which Patience replies that “He was a LITTLE boy”; to which the friend retorts that nevertheless “He was a little BOY”–proving how the same sentence can mean so many different things depending on the accent.

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One of the expanding and shrinking Lady Jane’s

One typical Gilbertian trick is to prove one thing in one stanza and to prove quite the opposite in the next. In “Princess Ida,” the tenor wonders how he was twice the age of his intended when they were betrothed at ages 2 and 1 respectively, and now that he is 22 “she has gained upon me since.” In “Patience,” Lady Jane manages to convince us how the ravages of time will result in “little will be left of me in the coming by and by” while at the same time her spreading shape will result in “too much of me in the coming by and by.” The funny thing is that both cases seem quite valid.

For once, in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” this antithesis is used seriously as a prisoner condemned to die ponders that if life is a “boon” we should be glad to live even one extra day, while if life is a thorn we should be content to leave it as soon as possible.

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A true blue Englishman–but by choice?

But when he seems at his most serious, you can never quite be sure if his tongue isn’t firmly in his cheek. When he has the chorus exclaim, “He is an Englishman” and praise him for not choosing to be “a French, a Turk, or Proosian,” it might take us a moment to realize how silly some real patriotic songs are if analyzed semantically. In fact, in his salute to the English Girl in “Utopia” it is still being debated whether he is praising her or … heaven knows what Gilbert might have had in mind.

At any rate, I would need a book to really do a thorough job on the subject. But when you see what the other Masters of the Tricky Lyric have done in the decades after Gilbert, you will clearly see the influence of this Victorian innovator.

 

 

 

Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

61Fkw5KeniL._AA160_Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” possibly play Polonius in “Hamlet,” which seems to have been written soon after?

51vXsWzszeL._AA160_In the final scene (before the epilogue) of “Don Giovanni,” the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart’s time, the last of which is the “Non piu andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The servant Leporello complains “I’ve had too much of that one!” While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.

Another self-reference comes in the third act of “La Belle Helene,” when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach’s own “Orphee aux enfers” to underscore their complaint.

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This video has some bad cuts but it does have Vincent Price!

But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Based on an earlier play written for private performance, “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of “Ruddigore” and is a non-singing delight.)

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All but the most patriotic British vampires would fear this

One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the “Savoy” operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiance but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is only audio recording of this work with all the dialogue (Ohio Light Opera on the Albany label) and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.

So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called “The Vampyre” in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named–hold on–Ruthven and…!

Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original “Ruddigore” audience must have laughed since “The Vampyre” was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert’s day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.

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Sorcerer + incantation + teacup = spoof of “Der Freischutz”

But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons. Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in “The Sorcerer” (in which case the drink is tea) and in “The Grand Duke” (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the “Ruddigore” lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from “The Vampyre”: “In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good.” In “Ruddigore” we have: “In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep.” A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.

Yet another joking reference is in the “Incantation” scene from “The Sorcerer,” in which the music and offstage chorus is very similar to that in the Von Weber opera “Der Freischutz” in which the magic bullets are cast. It is only the situation that make the Gilbert scene funny, while Sullivan’s music is magnificently serious.

Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.

Gilbert Was There First

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWGilbert Was There First

The more I listen to my Gilbert & Sullivan records and attend all too rare performances of those “Savoy” operas (operettas? musical comedies?), the more I marvel at how William S. Gilbert anticipated so many bits that show up in musicals written long afterwards.

For example, we have what I call the Negative Love Song. Tired of composing lyrics of the I-love-you variety, Oscar Hammerstein II decided to let the male lead in “Oklahoma!” tell the female lead “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much” and so on, as you well know. That done, he could not return to the clichés of yesteryear; so when “Carousel” came along, the smitten male lead had to sing “If I loved you” in what we might as well call the Conditional Mode Love Song.

However, Gilbert had already invented that sort of thing in “The Mikado.” Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum cannot be intimate in any way, since she is already engaged to Ko-Ko. Therefore the best he could sing back in 1885 is “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I would say in tender tone….” and set the standard that Hammerstein was to take up half a century later.

To end the film version of a particularly plotless musical called “Roberta,”it was  decided to accompany an extended fashion show sequence with a new Jerome Kern song titled     “Lovely to Look At.” In much the same way, the Ascot sequence in “My Fair Lady” opens with what amounts to a fashion show in which the Very Very Rich parade to the tune of “The Ascot Gavotte.” Again Gilbert was there first.

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Act II costumes for “The GrandDuke” in the original production

The second act of “The Grand Duke” opens with these stage directions: “Enter a procession of the members of the theatrical company (now dressed in the costumes of Troilus and Cressida), carrying garlands, playing on pipes, citharae, and cymbals….” In short, a costume parade–and this in 1896.

Praising a character for his bad traits goes back at least to Aristophanes. One of the more memorable numbers in “L’il Abner” is Marryin’ Sam’s hymn to Jubilation T. Cornpone, whose cowardly conduct during the Civil War made him into a local hero in Dogpatch. Yet who is this Cornpone other than the Duke of Plaza Toro who sings his own praises in “The Gondoliers” like this:

 

In enterprise of martial kind

When there was any fighting,

He led his regiment from behind–

He found it less exciting.

But when away his regiment ran,

His place was at the fore, O–

 

and like that.

Of course, any playwright worth his salt must know his theatre history; and certainly anyone working on the book or lyrics of a musical must know his Gilbert & Sullivan. Few lyricists, however, can stand in the same class as Gilbert when it comes to tricky rhymes. Now and then, he would set himself a rhyming challenge such as that in “The Mikado” when Pooh-Bah has to come up with perfect rhymes for the word “executioner.” Results? “Ablutioner,” “diminutioner,” and finally “you shun her.”

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Cole Porter learned a lot from Gilbert

Cole Porter decided to see what he could do with the word(s) “Can-can” in the musical of the same name: “If a sultan in a caravan can” and “If a kilted Scottish clan can” are only two of the incredibly many he produced. (I was urged to mention also “puberty/Schubert-y” from “Kiss Me Kate” by a Porter fan.) And do not forget what Larry Hart did in “To Keep My Love Alive,” in which he rhymes “possibilities/ill at ease/kill at ease” and most notably “a wreck to me/horse’s neck to me/appendectomy.” Now that is in the same class as Gilbert’s “din afore/Pinafore” “strategy/sat a gee” couplings in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

And speaking of patter songs, the only one that is worthy of that description in a 20th century musical is the polysyllabic list of wonders to be seen under the big top in “Barnum.”

One last reminder. Gilbert was at his best in social and political satire. The one musical worthy to stand beside the best of the Savoy series was written in respectful imitation of G&S by the brothers Ira and George Gershwin and is called “Of Thee I Sing.” But that is worth an article all on its own.

The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 4

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
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“The Gondoliers”

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Productions

If many people think the works of Gilbert & Sullivan to be silly stuff, they are probably basing this conclusion on too many poor productions that they have seen, not only by well-meaning amateur groups but by some of the television versions shown over the PBS networks and introduced by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

When an actor suggested to Gilbert a piece of “comic” business that would get a laugh, the author’s reply was “So would sitting on a pork pie.” No one knew better than Gilbert that a comedian who tries to be funny simply isn’t. (How many of you get annoyed when comics begin to laugh at their own material?) The funniest of the silent comedians, Buster Keaton, took life on screen very seriously indeed, never losing his Great Stone Face for a moment. Red Skelton, on the other hand, and even the venerable Harry Lauder, lessened their routines by laughing far too often.

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Mabel gives marching orders to the police in a 1909 production

Probably the best example of thwarting Gilbert’s intentions is the entrance of the Police in “The Pirates of Penzance.” If they come out looking and deporting themselves like ordinary English Bobbies, then their cowardice is all the more funny because it contradicts the visual impression. But when a noted New York company sent them out onto the stage dressed as circus clown-police, complete with big flowers pinned to lapels, the humor of what they were singing was expected and simply silly. Even the filmed Papp version has them looking and acting like Keystone Kops; and the Sergeant’s rubberleg dancing is wonderful to behold but as far from the spirit of the play as could possibly be.

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Sir Joseph keeps his dignity even with his amorous cousin Hebe

The point is that an idiot like Sir Joseph Porter is not supposed to know he is an idiot, and fortunately he is seldom played incorrectly. When a certain local production had him enter and sit in a beach chair supplied by his loving cousin Hebe and put on a shaded monocle, followed by a second one for the other eye, it was clownish but still in keeping with the character’s sense of self-importance. When George Rose played the Major-General in a Nigel Bruce voice, it still “worked” as a valid interpretation. But when he was directed (as I suppose he was) to tell his terrible story about being an orphan with a stage-Irish accent, the humor of the pirates believing the lie simply fell flat.

When the video version of “HMS Pinafore” opens with the crew twirling in a dance routine–bringing unfortunate memories of a similar routine in “Blazing Saddles”–all feeling of the Nautical is washed away (shall we say?) and the crew never can be looked upon as human characters for the rest of the show. Constables do not wear big daisies on their uniforms and sailors do not spin around en point aboard a ship.

The character, I think, who suffers the most in poor productions is Ko-Ko. As it turns out, he IS something of an idiot but does not pretend to be a great intellect. (Follow any political campaign for a counter-example.) Ko-Ko knows he is out of his depth and one should really feel sorry for him when he has to woo Katisha. Martyn Green tells us that for years he sang “Tit-Willow” as a comic song until a little old lady berated him for ruining such a lovely melody. Since then, he found he got a much better effect by treating it seriously. (My point exactly.)

Here is another abuse of G&S intentions. There are many “asides” in Victorian plays, moments in which a character acknowledges the presence of the audience. This is a time-honored tradition and accepted by the audience. But more and more I see byplay between a character on stage and the orchestra, usually the conductor, in which a cheap laugh is achieved at the loss of all credibility.

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Eric Idle (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) as Ko-Ko

Another way to get cheap laughs is to insert modern references, such as those to all things Canadian in the Stratford, Ontario “Mikado,” in which all these “jokes” fell very flatly on non-Canadian ears. Now it is fine, I suppose, to make the entire production an anachronism, such as the “Mikado” that takes place in the lobby of an English seaside hotel in the 1920s. But even here Eric Idle’s Little List song was filled with references to audience-contemporary rather than period-contemporary customs and foibles. Now, while they were mostly quite clever and truly funny, it was Gilbert who suffered. Yes, I know Gilbert himself allowed updating of some of the lyrics to that song; but the Idle version was a complete rewrite and something too much of an “improvement.”

So let me end this mini-series with the caveat: Never judge a work from its production. And you local groups out there who love G&S, please do not ruin it for those unfamiliar with the original works.

The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 3

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
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The original three little maids from school

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Leading Ladies

W.S. Gilbert always had an eye for the pretty young ‘uns. Indeed he and wife Kitty legally adopted one of them who was the soprano lead in his “Utopia, Ltd.” after practically ruining his own scenario by adding extra songs for her. He repeated this error to an even greater degree when he did the same for a Hungarian beauty whom he cast in “The Grand Duke.” So like his fellow satirists, Wilde and Twain, he could be so perceptive in his writings and so reckless in real life. A victim, one might say, of his own topsy-turvydom.

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Ruth Vincent as Josephine

We have the usual Victorian spotless maidens in some of the Savoy plays. Aline Sangazure in “The Sorcerer” is willing to stand up to her fiancé for only so long concerning his demand that she partake of the elixir even though she already loves him, but yields in the second act because the plot demands it. Josephine Corcoran in “HMS Pinafore” is simply in love with a simple sailor lowly born, but she shows a little more intelligence than most of her Savoy sisters in realizing what life would be like living with him “in some back street.” Gilbert will never again lead us to such murky waters, except for a song in “Iolanthe” that was dropped very quickly.

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Marion Hood as Mabel

Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” is as good as gold and accepts the ex-(he thinks)-pirate apprentice despite his background; but her sisters ask “had he not been / A thing of beauty, / Would she be swayed by quite as keen / A sense of duty?” On the other hand, she is willing to  wait until 1940 when his 21st birthday finally comes around–and those are points in her favor.

Patience is also a Good Girl, but something of a dipsydoodle when it comes to ideas about love having to be entirely unselfish and she offers herself to a man she cannot abide as a “logical” consequence. And we must give Phyllis credit in “Iolanthe” for rejecting riches and remaining true to her swain–that is, until he insists that the pretty woman he was with, though younger than him, is actually his mother. But who can blame her for that?

Princess Ida, alas, is something of a well-educated moron, to whom it does not occur that posterity without men would be impossible. But at least she is true to her convictions, mistaken or not as they might be. In the next play, “The Mikado,” Yum-Yum can be played as an opportunist who has a chance to marry the heir to the crown; but again we must excuse her for retreating when she finds out that burial alive awaits her after a month. At any rate, she realizes “that I am more attractive than anybody else in the whole world,” and she will always find another.

Tessa and Gianetta share “lead” status in “The Gondoliers”; and like their Japanese predecessor they are not at all averse to becoming Queen of Barataria. They are understandably indignant when they learn that one of them is not really married to her gondolier—[you really have to go over the full plot yourself]—and are quite human about their plans for dealing with the third woman when the time comes. In “Utopia, Ltd.,” Zara already is a princess, but that does not stop her from making a very fatal error in her Anglicizing of her native land. Just what that is will have to wait for another installment in this series.

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Angelina, in her working clothes, does her thing

Now, lest you think that all of Gilbert’s leading ladies are Very Nice Little Women, consider Angelina (what a wonderful name) in “Trial by Jury.” The Breach of Promise suit was the only bit of power (other than the sexual one) that Victorian women were allowed; and if you recall the sequence in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” concerning such a lawsuit, you will realize how absurd it is to place a monetary value on “what love and caressing I’ve lost” by the altered affections of the Defendant. At the end, she certainly gets more riches than she bargained for…but at what a price!

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Geraldine Ulman as sweet Rose Maybud

Just a tad less greedy is sweet Rose Maybud in “Ruddigore,” whose life is ruled by a book of etiquette that is her constant companion and frame of reference. On the other hand, she will easily switch her engagement from young Robin to the British tar Richard because of the latter’s good looks (he is a tenor, you know) and back to Robin because of his “considerable dairy farm” and other assets.

Many have criticized Elsie Maynard in “The Yeomen of the Guard” for her callous treatment of Jack Point. Now this is the play with the “human interest” that  Sullivan insisted on for their next collaboration after “Ruddigore” proved a disappointment. The leading tenor role, Fairfax, is almost on a moral plane with Pinkerton in the Puccini opera, while Elsie’s conduct concerning her engagement to Jack Point the jester might be defensible in light of how the latter has made light of whatever love he might have felt for her for all those years. Unlike the other high-born Savoy sopranos, she really needs the money that is offered her to make a mock marriage…. But read the script for yourself and consider. Sullivan wanted human beings and Gilbert gave them to him: warts and all.

And so much for the briefest of looks at the leading ladies.

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 1

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert

 

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWThe Topsy Turvy World of W.S.Gilbert: an Overview 

Now that we have all seen the film “Topsy Turvy”–and read no more of this until you do!–we can consider the reason for that title and how it defines a unique type of satire that started with Aristophanes, was perfected in its English form by Gilbert, and is still popular today in Monty Python and its imitators.

[Side note. Edith Hamilton, in her study of “The Greek Way,” devotes an entire chapter comparing the Greek and the British dramatists.]

You recall from the film Gilbert’s consternation at reading a newspaper review praising his genius at the “topsy turvy.” Well, it was his own fault. From the very beginning William Schwenck Gilbert delighted in paradoxes and championed a format in which the perfectly absurd was considered the norm and all else followed logically. Nowhere is this more explicit than in his early “Bab Ballad” piece called “The Dream.” Here “I dreamt that somehow I had come / To dwell in Topsy-Turvydom” in which place babies teach their elders, only the virtuous are arrested, all sailors suffer from seasickness, and similar inversions of our norm are normal. His conclusion is that he would be very happy there “Where greatest fools bear off the bell / I ought to do extremely well.”

Gilbert, with his military background and bearing, was quite a bully with an acid sense of humor–and like all such men he was basically a big baby. Consider as only one example that he picked his childhood nickname, Bab, as the adjective for his collection of Ballads! And as another, how when he became a Justice of the Peace in his latter years he delighted in being called Your Honor. More important was his conduct during the arguments and lawsuits he filed against Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte after the so-called Carpet Quarrel pitted Gilbert against the other two at the time of the run of “The Gondoliers.”

My favorite Ballad is called “Etiquette.” Here two Englishmen are stranded on a desert island; but not having been introduced on board ship, they cannot converse now. One of them, Peter Grey, winds up on the end of the island that has oysters a plenty, “But oysters were a delicacy Peter couldn’t bear.” The other, Somers, found himself surrounded by turtles, which “always made him sick.” Naturally each of them dotes on the delicacy indigenous to the other’s turf but are content to let things rest rather than break “the arbitrary rule of etiquette.”

250px-Bab_BalladsAfter quite some time, one hears the other invoke the name of Robinson, a common acquaintance! So now they may speak, both knowing the same person, and delight both in each other’s company and in each other’s food supply. Their bliss is finally interrupted by the sight of a ship, which sends out a launch to rescue them. But, alas, it is a prison ship bound for Australia–and quite unacceptable to these gentlemen. However, far worse, the convinct in the launch is none other than Robinson, “Condemned to seven years for misappropriating stock!!!”

Alone again, the two men are shocked to have consorted with the friend of a criminal, and the two slowly gravitate toward the original state of things: without verbal conversation, they return to their own original ends of the island, and a steady diet of the food they most detest. You see: a perfectly normal consequence of an absurd premise.

imagesNow let it be understood that Gilbert was not a G. B. Shaw. He was no revolutionary who wanted to reform the system. His target was those who carried certain features of the system to absurd lengths and his method is well expressed by Jack Point in “The Yeomen of the Guard”:

When they’re offered to the world in merry guise,

Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will–

For he who’d make his fellow-creatures wise

Should always gild the philosophic pill.

 

Which, I think, is a pre-echo of Mary Poppins’ “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”!

The problem for Americans watching the Savoy Operas is that so many of Gilbert’s barbs fall on blank areas of our understanding. What exactly is he making fun of, we wonder? Oh, much of his satire is universal enough and we don’t have to know about each person mentioned in the Major-General’s patter song to appreciate that his head is filled with facts that have nothing to do with the military–which he admits anyway in the last stanza; or about Oscar Wilde and the pre-Raphaelite Movement to appreciate how young women can go mad over oddly dressed celebrities with long hair who spout nonsensical lyrics. And with our way of electing officials, we don’t have to look eastward across the Atlantic to know what it is like to have authorities totally unfit for their High Offices and yet be praised for those very qualities that make them unfit!

(Did not one Republican contestant for the Presidency of this country say in 2015 that he could find out what is going on the world each morning by Googling it? Pure Gilbert.)

I can see two approaches to studying this fascinating Sir William and his methods: play by play or area by area. Since many books are available using the first format–and I have limited space anyhow–I think the second would be best. So in our next article, we will consider the Very Important Person.

Ruddigore

“Ruddigore” is Performed with Cuts Restored

A-SGS-Ruddigore               When “Ruddygore” premiered in 1887, it suffered from being a let down from the fabulous “Mikado” that appeared before it and from spoofing a genre of melodrama that had fallen out of favor years before. So Gilbert and Sullivan made several cuts and respelled the title to “Ruddigore.” When revived by the D’Oyly Carte Company in 1920, even more cuts were made and the overture was changed.

The BBC version stars two non-singing male leads and makes even more cuts. But now the excellent Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, an amateur group with pretty professional productions, has on DVD a “Ruddigore” from 2011 that not only is a great performance but has the most complete score to date on video,.

Drawing from an opera by August Marschner, “Der Vampyr,” and mostly from Gilbert’s own earlier work, “Ages Ago,” the plot concerns a family curse in which each Lord of Ruddigore must commit a crime a day or “in torture he shall die.” I will not dwell upon the scenario (it is easily gotten from several websites). It is the Seattle production I wish to dwell upon.

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Original program. Note the spelling.

The voices are more than adequate for Sullivan’s score. On the other hand, some of Gilbert’s dialogue jokes could be delivered with a bit more speed. Petite Jenny Shotwell makes a properly gold-digging Rose Maybud, John Brooks successfully changes from timid Robin Oakapple  to reluctant dastard Ruthven, and Derek Sellers as Dick Dauntless nicely shows how his “heart’s dictates” always seem to work in his favor.

Note: The vampire in the Marschner work is named Ruthven.

Highlights are the double chorus to welcome the “bucks and blades,” the salute to the 4 seasons and of course the fastest patter song of them all.

Dave Ross is a short but villainous Sir Despard (although he could never pass for Ruthven’s younger brother). The priceless contralto Alyce Rogers comes into her own when as Dame Hannah she confronts Ruthven with dagger and sword; while Hollis Heron is properly loony as Mad Margaret. William Darkow makes an impressive ghostly Roderic, and Ron Gangnes’ (Old Adam) basso nicely supports the ensembles.

Many comic touches, not overdone, are created by Director Christine Goff; and Conductor Bernard Kwiram makes the most of the score. I wonder, however, why he does not use the original overture. See this company’s website at www.pattersong.org for information about ordering this and other DVDs in their catalogue. A warning though. The troupe sometimes plays fast and loose with Gilbert’s lyrics. Anachronistic ad libs are not funny and Gilbert does not need help. This “Ruddigore,” however, is free from that nonsense.

The running time is close to 150 minutes and one does miss subtitles!

Gilbert & Sullivan, Greatest Hits

More Gilbert and Sullivan from Vintage Television

A-VAI-G and S Greatest Hits

VAI DVDs clearly demonstrate that Gilbert and Sullivan were not entirely neglected by American television in the 1950s by issuing the complete broadcasts of abridged performances of “The Mikado” (with Groucho Marx) and “The Yeomen of the Guard” (with Alfred Drake). The former includes 12 minutes of Martyn Green as Sir Joseph Porter in selections from “HMS Pinafore.”

I was taken by surprise by the arrival of yet another VAI disc, titled “Gilbert & Sullivan, Greatest Hits.” It includes four selections from the earlier “Yeomen” and three from “The Mikado” sets, as well as the Martyn Green “Pinafore” excerpts. So much for mild duplication.

There is also a delightful “Gilbert and Sullivan Medley” in which Martyn Green and Cyril Richard share fairly complete versions of six songs from four of the G&S works as they change hats and wigs.

But what makes this set a treasure are the opening and closing sequences taken from “The Ford Show” in which…

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Mr. Ford, an unlikely casting bet for Ko-Ko

Well, let me start again. Thimble Theatre versions of “The Mikado” are given from a 1959 telecast and “HMS Pinafore” from a 1960 telecast. Running a breathless 25 minutes each, both are hosted and narrated by—okay, let me say it, Tennessee Ernie Ford! And not only that, he sings the comic leads in both!

As for his narratives, who else would describe a tenor being “as happy as a woodpecker in a furniture store” when he meets his soprano? I leave all the other folksy examples to those who purchase this DVD. As for his singing, he did start as a classically trained baritone before he turned to another style of singing. In fact, most of the singing of the other roles is quite good, and Ford manages to keep up nicely.

As for his acting, his Ko-Ko lacks character but his Sir Joseph Porter is quite good, especially when he sings a refrain in that stuffed-shirt upper-class British accent that works so well in farce. In fact, Ford is far better than Green, who seems to sleepwalk through his “Pinafore” songs.

I only wish VAI had come up with a better title. The one chosen has been attached to at least two CDs to my knowledge and possibly to a DVD. And not all the songs heard here could be counted among Gilbert and Sullivan’s “greatest” hits. But the contents are such a pleasure, why quibble with the title?

Mikado

Groucho as Ko-Ko is a Thing to Behold!A-VAI-Mikado TV

What to say about a telecast of “The Mikado” from 1960 that is now available on a DVD from VAI? It is part of the old Bell Telephone Hour series and crammed into 50 minutes, once commercials are taken out, and two of the lead singers cannot sing Sullivan’s music. Why bother, since it amounts to a series of selections, only five of which are complete?

Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko is the reason for why this disc will be immensely popular—and indeed why I purchased it for my collection. Fulfilling a lifelong ambition, Groucho put his heart, soul, and what little represented his singing voice into the role—and the results are strange.

His “singing” pays little heed to pitch, rhythm, or what the orchestra is playing; and when push comes to shove, he hits a low note of indeterminate value. But of course, that is the point of giving him the role. As with Hyacinth Bucket, a bad voice can be endearing (in Groucho’s case) or very funny (in Patricia Routlege’s case). The strange thing is that his dialogue scenes are simply not funny. Now and then, he breaks into a Charleston or plays with a fan. But for the most part, he seems not sure what to do and gives a straight performance where one expects hilarity.

The other non-singer is English Music Hall veteran Stanley Holloway, who finds his basso role of Pooh-Bah beyond his vocal abilities. Tenor Robert Rounseville (Nanki- Poo) and soprano Barbara Meister (Yum-Yum) make a good pair of lovers, while veteran operetta star Dennis King makes a colorful and full-voiced Mikado.

Another reason to buy this disc is Helen Traubel as the ugly Katisha. Her contralto is a wonder to be heard and she is given her full solo in Act II. Her great scene in Act I is cut entirely, so her “Alone and yet alive” is doubly welcome. The character of Pish-Tush is omitted entirely and his explanatory song “Our Great Mikado” is spoke-sung by Pooh-Bah.

This production was originally telecast in color; but that kinescope has been lost and a black and white one is substituted. But a bonus on this disc is a 12-minute sequence from another Bell Telephone Hour in which Martyn Green appears in highlights from “HMS Pinafore”—and that is in color. Why Green is costumed as a visitor to the Ascot races rather than the “Ruler of the Queen’s Nahvee” is beyond me.

Yeomen of the Guard

A-VAI-YeomenAn Early Telecast of “Yeomen of the Guard” is Preserved on DVD

One of the better releases in the VAI DVD series of vintage television productions of musicals is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard.” It is the team’s work that is closest to opera, it does not involve topsy-turvy situations, and the characters are fairly believable.

Part of the Max Liebman Presents series, this 1957 “Yeomen” was allowed 80 minutes of running time, the rest dedicated to commercials and station breaks, and therefore is by no means complete.  (The missing commercials can be seen as an extra.) But it does keep quite a bit of the dialogue and score (a full performance would run a bit over two hours) and serves as a good introduction to the complete work.

A caveat at this point. The original telecast was in color; only a black and white copy was found. Also, the picture is a bit more wobbly than are other VAI discs in this series. But there is no other (as far as I can tell) decent video of “Yeomen” available to us, so this one is a valuable addition to the history of television and to G&S productions. (The one from BBC is simply bad.)

A synopsis of the plot would take up too much space here; but I want to comment that the so-called Happy Ending is quite different from those in the other G&S plays: two characters wind up engaged to the very people they hate and the main comic character (like Bunthorne in “Patience”) gets what he deserves.

Alfred Drake makes a very good if not overly subtle Jack Point the jester, while popular singer Bill Hayes looks and sounds good as the not very admirable Colonel Fairfax. Barbara Cook has an operatic voice that suits her role as Elsie, but Celeste Holm in her opening song sounds too Broadway-ish for the young Phoebe; but she can hold her own with Cook from that point on.

The show begins with some background information about the Tower of London, which might interest the audience. But a second introduction by Jack Point is utterly superfluous and the time could have been better spent with a stanza from at least one song that had been removed.

Other operettas in this VAI series are Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta” and “The Dessert Song.” “The Chocolate Solider” stars Rise Stevens (a big plus) but does not follow the original in Acts II and III (a bad minus).