Monday, January 16, 2012

H.M.S. Pinafore Part 1


Some of the guys were sitting around in the men's dressing room -- or at least the passageway to the backstage of the Hirsch Theatre which is used for a men's dressing room -- during one of the last performances of Encore Educational Theatre Company's production of H.M.S. Pinafore; and someone, I think it was Jerry, started talking about what we would do the following week. Once the show was over, we would have this huge amount of time on our hands. Maybe we would have Pinafore withdrawal symptoms? - all these songs to sing and no one to sing them to. This could be a serious problem, random cast members standing at bus stops or while sipping a cafe hafuk, suddenly bursting out in song: "gaily tripping, lightly skipping, flock the maidens to the shipping...." We can't have that now, can we? Perhaps we should form a support group; we could meet in front of the theater or our rehearsal space and sing the music over and over until we got it out of our systems.

Needless to say, that didn't happen. I was, in fact, by myself the evening after our last performance in Zichron Yaakov with the Pinafore music that we had spent so much time learning and then performing still drowning out every other bit of music in my cranium. What I thought to do to relieve the symptoms was replay a DVD of a 1982 British performance, singing the baritone chorus part while the young men in the film pranced around the set. I had originally watched the film over the summer, when I had gone on a Pinafore marathon, listening to an old LP of musical highlights of a D'Oyly Carte version probably from the 1950's and a CD of Encore's original production from about five years ago. All of the above then was to prepare myself, or my alter ego, Able Seaman Roger (Groggy) Grogson, for a tour of duty in the Royal Navy, c. 1880.

It goes without saying that the film that I watched in January was exactly the same as the one I had seen in August. What was different was me, or at least the "critical me," looking at the movie. Perhaps my thoughts about what I was watching were gleaned from what I had learned about Gilbert and Sullivan performance technique in the intervening months.

After the auditions the beginning of September (If anyone is keeping track, I gave my rendition of "Freckles" to secure a spot in the cast), a gallant crew of seamen and a bevy of sisters, cousins, and aunts were assembled shortly thereafter. Much to my delight, there were now two other cast members from Ma'ale Adumim, and both of them had cars at their disposal, meaning that most of the time I could get a ride to and from rehearsals. Twenty minutes to get back home after a long rehearsal instead of waiting for a bus at 10:30 at night. What joy!

We in the chorus started as we always do, laboriously learning one song at a time under Paul Salter's patient but demanding direction. I'm not sure if anyone of us can sightread music (pick up a vocal score and sing it as easily as you can read what I'm writing), but a fair number of us can read music to one degree or another (for me, once I've heard the music a number of times, the musical notations will help me remember what I'm supposed to be singing). The rest? They must memorize the words and somehow remember the music that goes with it, which can't be that easy. To make it "funner," we soon discovered that the person doing the printing had managed to leave out about twenty pages of our music, which we didn't get until a month later. Hard to learn our parts that way!

In the middle of one of our chorus rehearsals, Paul began intoning something to us. (He doesn't remember exactly what he quoted, but it might have been, "To clarity of pronunciation must now be added intelligence of delivery, and in singing we must give the same syllabic stress to a sentence, as would be given were that sentence spoken.") It seemed that he was reading from the inside of a brown paper bag. Needless to say, I was intrigued by the pronouncement and the format in which it came. So I sidled up to Paul after the rehearsal and initiated an inquiry. He was kind enough to place in my hands the text from which he was quoting, "Training the Gilbert and Sullivan Chorus," by William Cox-Ife (don't you just love those hyphenated British names!), who served as chorus master for the D'Oyly Carte Company in the 1950's (for those who don't know, that's the theatrical company which produced the original G&S and which had a virtual monopoly on their work until comparatively recently). The reason I thought Paul was reading from a paper bag was because the cover of the original edition was a medium brown; the cost of the tome in 1955 was seven shillings and sixpence. In case someone has a sudden urge to acquire a copy, it is available today for 6.99 British pounds from British Amazon, along with his other books, "The Elements of Conducting" and "How to Sing Both Gilbert and Sullivan" -- presumably at the same time.

I took the book home with me, promising Paul to be as careful with it as I possibly could; and I decided to photocopy a number of the most intriguing pages and return the original to him forthwith (that's ASAP on the western shore of The Pond). Where did Paul get this copy? Did he inherit it from his father, who I have been told was also a musician? Actually, no. It seems it was given to him by a clarinetist who is part of the "New Savoy Orchestra," the group which Paul conducts for our Jerusalem performances. This elderly musician actually played way back then with the D'Oyly Carte company and later with symphony orchestras in Israel. What really got to me was a little card, say 2x4 (inches not centimeters) that was stuck in the book. It had been a hand-out, advertising the D'Oyly Carte tour in Manchester the year the book was published. What were they performing? Everything. If you wanted to see The Mikado, come this night; Pirates of Penzance, the next night; Iolanthe, the following night, and so forth. That meant shlepping the sets for each production. It also meant that the soloists and the chorus had to know, not their part for one show as we were struggling to do, but the music and the movements and the staging for perhaps eight different shows -- which would be put on in succession with precious little time to rehearse and review. Whew! As they say in Latin: kol hakavod.

Unfortunately, knowing the skill level of the D'Oyly Carte troupe did not make it any easier for me to learn my part. Listening to the music over the summer made me realize how much music there was in Pinafore for the male chorus. Unlike Ruddigore or Carousel in which we were often asked to run on stage, do our little number, and vanish into the wings, here the men's chorus plays an important role, especially in the first act. In fact, when the curtain goes up we would be on stage, lustily singing, "We sail the ocean blue, and our saucy ship's a beauty, we are sober men and true, and attentive to our duty." As Paul reminded us on a number of occasions, the fate of the performance rested on that opening number. Either we got the audience's rapt attention, or else they might fall asleep. In which case, we all might as well go home.

Learning the music, as I have mentioned before, is only the first part of the process. The next step is learning the staging and the movement that Robert Binder and Arlene Chertoff have devised. There are several inherent difficulties. First of all, the initial conception has to be tentative; the proposed staging (where you're supposed to be standing at any given moment) may not work and may need to be revised. So you may have to unlearn what you've been taught. Then, we are taught the staging as we learned the music, not in sequential order, which is difficult for someone like me who needs to learn something from start to finish. The most obvious problem is that the faster the music you have to sing, the faster you have to move. If you're doing, "Carefully on tiptoe stealing, breathing gently as we may....." you are slowly tiptoeing onto the stage. If you're doing, "His nose should pant and his lips should curl, his cheeks should flame and his brow should furl...." you're going at a faster clip. In other words, the faster your lips are moving, the faster your little legs have to be flailing, making coordination at times a tad problematic.

Now take someone like me; I do not dance ever -- well, hardly ever. For Tina and David's wedding, I did move around for the first four minutes -- it was sort of expected of me. But that's the only time in about ten years. Recently, Barbara and I were invited to a sheva brachot, celebrating the marriage of a woman who Barbara had met a while ago. One of the fathers, relatively new to Torah learning, had finished studying a particular part of the Talmud and was therefore for the first time "making a siyum." When he had finished his presentation, the other ten men present got up and started dancing around the table. I sat in my chair. Have they commenced construction on the Third Temple? That might get the juices flowing in my veins.

Fortunately for all concerned, the characters I have impersonated on stage so far love to dance; even old Roger (Groggy) Grogson -- sent to sea, according to his bio, when he was a lad, some sixty years ago. ("Only by intense thought and thorough rehearsing can a performer step out of his own personality and into that of the character he is portraying. This creative effort, and it is an effort, both on the part of the performers and directors, is as necessary for the humblest member of the chorus as for the star....") So when old Groggy was called upon to dance the hornpipe, he was up to the task -- more or less -- you'd have to ask Arlene!

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