COX-IFE SAYS A MOUTHFUL
To the novice, to the uninitiated eye watching an Encore rehearsal of H.M.S. Pinafore several weeks before opening night, it would have seemed impossible for the assembled troupe to be ready on time. The principals still didn't have their lines fully committed to memory. The chorus -- at least the male part of it -- seemed thoroughly confused as to where we should be standing at any given moment, wandering around like a herd of distracted water buffaloes. However, the folks in charge (Robert Binder, Paul Salter, and Arlene Chertoff), while directing appropriate reproofs to the offending parties, did not seem to be anywhere near panic mode. They seemed to be confident that, by the fateful Tuesday when the curtain would rise for the opening performance at the Hirsch Theatre, all these warts and blemishes would be surgically removed and we would give a flawless performance.
OK, almost a flawless performance. The little secret I have figured out for myself is that it is virtually impossible to put on a "flawless" performance. Somewhere in a two hour show, somebody will flub a line, or someone in the chorus will be in the wrong place, gesture with the wrong hand, or come in a tad too early. What any theatrical director worth his salt will tell you (and our people are worth a lot of sodium chloride), is "Just keep going." Nobody in the audience is going to realize that I'm standing next to Raymond when I should be standing next to Tom; unless in the middle of things I decide to elbow my way to where I'm supposed to be.
Once in a while, though, there will happen a semi-catastrophe that the audience cannot fail to notice. Take, for example, our opening night. H.M.S. Pinafore starts with all the sailors on deck singing the aforementioned rousing "We Sail the Ocean Blue." In our production, everyone is involved in something nautical (I'm one of four guys knotting and unknotting a rope). Two sailors, who were previously strapped into harnesses around their mid-sections and raised to the rafters, are lowered when the curtain goes up, giving the effect that they are climbing down a rigging. A wonderful touch, certain to wow the audience! Except that on opening night one of the sailors could not get out of the harness and had to continue the scene attached to a rope. There is no way we could have rehearsed this particular activity until we got to the theater for the dress rehearsal the previous night -- when there was no problem. Our production team fixed the difficulty, and by the second performance, the two sailors were raised and lowered properly -- except that, as they were going up, they managed to dislodge several bags of silver glitter confetti which must have been left there from a previous engagement. So as the curtain went up, a flurry of silver glitter gently descended onto the stage. Other sailors who were "swabbing the deck" made a valiant effort to sweep the stuff away with their mops, but most of the stuff remained there until intermission. Here, however, the audience assumed that Encore had pulled off a marvelous visual effect to make the opening scene even more impressive and wondered how we had done it. Little did they know!
H.M.S. Pinafore is a known crowd-pleaser, and given Encore's reputation for quality, for once it was not hard to sell tickets. I don't think any of the performances were completely sold out, but there were very few empty seats. And the audiences were, by and large, highly receptive. Especially one evening when an Encore alumna was in the audience, whooping at anything that was even remotely funny. All you need is one person to get the crowd into it, which, of course, gets the cast even more into it.
There is, however, a proverbial fly in the ointment. For us, it's called Out of Town. For financial reasons and also to spread "the wealth" around, We always spend the Sunday in the middle of our performance schedule traveling to Ra'anana to give a performance there. This time, however, the theater in which we usually perform was unavailable, so RB reserved another venue there, the local concert hall. Now if you're not sure you can tell the difference between a theater and a concert hall, it's just this: a concert hall is designed for musicians to perform, not for actors to act. A concert hall doesn't need a curtain to go up and down; it doesn't need "wings," areas on the side for the performers to enter and exit and where the actors props would be kept; it doesn't need a large backstage area where forty or fifty performers can congregate when there not on stage; it doesn't need dressing rooms or a place for a makeup crew to do its work; it may even have limited lavatory facilities. It also may have excellent acoustics, as the place in Ra'anana did. But that glorious feature could not atone for our having to turn the one backstage restroom into the makeup area, thus making those of us with weak bladders nervous wrecks. No, no. I should also note that, because the theater was smaller, we wound up giving a matinee and an evening performance, making the day even longer. We expect to get on the rented tour bus in the early afternoon and get back well after midnight. This year, because others from Ma'ale Adumim were in the cast, I was able to get back that night to my wife, my warm bed, and the two felines who share our pillows -- instead of camping out, as I have before, at Hotel Glazer in Jerusalem. Of course, the hardy souls (not me!) who left at 7AM to unload and set up the set and who, after the performances, unloaded the set back in Jerusalem at (shudder) 1AM had an even longer day than the rest of us.
We normally end our run with the second Thursday evening performance in Jerusalem -- which this year would have been a glorious finale -- the performance was that good. We would strike the set for the last time. The young and the young at heart would go out to celebrate. The kvetchy and the weary among us would go home to bed. But hanging over our heads like the sword of you-know-who was a trip up to Zichron Ya'acov, again on Sunday. Again by bus -- an even longer ride to and fro. Again the hardy crew (not me!) heading up at the crack of dawn to unpack and assemble the set, trying to reconfigure it to fit a different stage. The theater in Zichron was delightful -- if you were in the audience. If you were in the cast and had no place to change into costume (some of the guys actually got dressed in the lobby) and no place to wait between numbers (the backstage area is slightly wider than my dining room table), the thrill somehow got lost somewhere along Route 6.
Then it was over, just as we knew it would be. H.M.S. Pinafore as presented by Encore was now nothing but a memory, and there I was the next evening, doing what I started to do in Part 1, inserting the DVD to watch the 1982 film version (one of a series of filmed G&S productions from that period) all by myself. Except I wasn't completely alone (I don't mean Moby and Cookie, who are always willing to share the couch with me). I could have sworn that the disembodied spirits of Robert, Paul, and Arlene were with me, rendering their opinions about what was on the screen. And even though I couldn't hear him, so was William Cox-Ife of "Training the Gilbert and Sullivan Chorus" fame. (Remember him, the hyphenated chorus master whose acquaintance we made awhile ago?) My suspicion is that, of the group, Paul would have been most satisfied. By and large, the soloists on the DVD were quite good vocally, as was the chorus (although with the latter, the folks "on stage" were not actually heard; the voices of the Ambrosian Opera Chorus were dubbed in). Arlene would have been impressed with the skill level of the dancers (the ones pretending to sing), although she might have wondered about the choreography. Robert may or may not have walked out in the middle (not scaring the cats, I hope), but he would certainly have been mightily displeased. First of all, the principal performer who was most seriously miscast was the one playing Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (he's the guy whose in charge of the entire British fleet even though he's a confirmed landlubber.). Frankie Howerd was apparently a well known British comedian, but he could not sing and he did not even bother trying to move around the set. Now for someone like Robert Binder, who, in addition to being the company's artistic director, has been performing this very role ever since he was nineteen, to see someone else do it as if he were on the set of "Carry on Doctor," would be unbearable.
"Only by intense thought and thorough rehearsing can a performer step out of his own personality into that of the character he is portraying. (You hear that Frankie, wherever you are) This creative effort, and it is an effort, both on the part of the performers and directors, is as necessary for the humblest members of the chorus (that's us!) as for the star........... In G. and S operas the chorus is never used as padding or merely spectacular effect. Their every appearance on the stage is an integral part of the story and their presence and performance......is absolutely vital in building towards the climax of the finales."
Intense thought. Thorough rehearsing. Watching the movie and singing the baritone part for the male chorus as it went along, I could remember every bit of "business" that we had to learn to make the performance come alive -- every movement, every gesture, every expression (although the latter we had to create from our own understanding of who we were). Now it would be ridiculous to expect the production I was watching to be similar to ours; but I noticed that almost every time there was an opportunity to insert a little "oomph," the director missed the boat -- which is not a good thing to do if you're supposed to be aboard H.M.S. Pinafore. Padding. Merely spectacular effect. That sounds about how the chorus was used in the film, beautiful young things gliding effortlessly about the deck, too busy enjoying themselves to be seriously involved in the story line. Even if they had, it wouldn't have mattered much. For the camera rarely focused on the gallant crew or Sir Joseph Porter's sisters, cousins, and aunts to any great extent. "With the exception of scenes in which one person is on the stage, all scenes consist of action and reaction between the actors, and in large scenes between the action of principals and the reaction of the crowd."
So Robert Binder, artistic director and a stern critic par excellence, would not have been satisfied with this other version; nor was I, now that I know what a good production is like. (Actually, it's not just us: the film has been roundly panned by G&S cognoscenti.) And the question might be asked (in fact, I'm asking it now): How is it that a financially threadbare company in the G&S boondocks can mount a successful production of H.M.S. Pinafore, whereas a well-heeled British group has made a mishmash of the same work? It has to do with starting out with a good conception, assembling the best possible cast, and working tirelessly to bring it to fruition. "The chorus master (and the artistic director) must show by his whole approach an impassioned sincerity and belief in the work being prepared, and a never-failing striving for perfection. In this lies the secret of artistic achievement." You just said a mouthful, Cox-Ife. (Don't you just love those hyphenated British names!)