Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Gondoliers #1


It’s never easy putting on a musical production, but for Encore!, one of the hardest parts of the process is deciding just what show to put on -- which task ultimately falls to Robert Binder, the artistic director, and the maestro, Paul Salter. Choosing an American musical comedy to put on each spring is especially problematic. First of all, both of these gentlemen need to have some affection for the work in question. I’m told that Paul, for example, is less than enthused about anything with Cole Porter’s name affixed to it, and RB shares my aversion to The Sound of Music. There’s also the issue of suitability. For obvious reasons, our company would have a hard time doing Showboat; and something like Cabaret might also prove problematic, for different reasons. That’s just for starters. Will we get enough of an audience, especially when a lot of people won’t go to see either anything they’re not familiar with or have seen too often, which narrows down the field considerably. Then there are all sorts of other matters you might not expect. Has any other company here in The Land done the work in question in the last few years? Encore! has competition -- not in terms of quality -- and there are others out there working the same standard repertoire, even mounting their productions to be in direct competition with ours. Finally, can we even get the rights to do the show here in The Land? Sometimes not. As I said, it’s no picnic in the grass deciding what to do.

Happily, it’s a lot easier with Gilbert and Sullivan. There are no longer any copyright issues, so we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, without worrying about being politically correct or age appropriate or if anybody else has “the rights” to put on the particular show we want to do. The best part is that there is no competition. We’ve had the field all to ourselves for years now. The last time anybody besides Binder-Salter did any G&S here in The Land was somewhere around 1995, and the last time The Gondoliers got performed was about ten years before that.

The plain truth is that The Gondoliers is not exactly a household name in most parts of the civilized world; in fact, when word got out that last spring that this would be Encore!'s next production, I had never heard even one song from the score. Part of “my job” is to do a little publicity for the company, and I thought it might be useful to put together a little promotional piece entitled, “Introducing The Gondoliers,” which could be inserted into the programme for My Fair Lady. Well, I thought to myself, I'd better get cracking. Start surfing the web for information; find a recording or a video of somebody performing it and give a listen. Even though the work is not often performed, there were enough versions – excerpts and the whole score – available on Youtube and the Naxos catalog to get a good idea of what I had been missing in the first seventy years of my life on this planet. Gadzooks, what a lot of great music! After reading a few article, I even figured out what the story line was supposed to be – no mean feat, even for someone like me, growing up with the Marx Brothers.

With the tune of the Cachuca, Fandango, Bolero to inspire me, I put together the following little piece, slightly re-edited from what appeared on page twenty-one of the programme (I know it should be spelled “program,” but sometimes you gotta go with the flow).

There comes a time when a creative team, no matter how productive, can no longer work together. Each one feels his work is undervalued; each one has a different idea of where the two of them should be heading. That about sums up the situation for our heroes, Sir Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, in 1889. Sullivan was eager to abandon the comic opera format that had made the two of them so successful, wanting instead to write a grand opera based on Scott's classic, Ivanhoe. Gilbert wanted no part of such a project, sensing that his lyrics would be “swamped” by the music. He could not understand Sullivan's intimations that the composer had submerged his talents over the years to showcase the lyricist's rhymed verses.

Fortunately, a compromise was achieved. Sullivan agreed to write his grand opera without Gilbert, and the two of them would collaborate on a comic opera – assuming that they could mutually agree on a subject. Venice, and life therein, somehow appealed to both of them, and the two of them began work on The Gondoliers, which premiered on Dec. 7, 1889. Even though the team collaborated on two additional works, Utopia Ltd. In 1893 (“a modest success”) and The Grand Duke in 1896 (a complete failure), The Gondoliers was, in effect, their curtain call.

And what a finale it was! It was as if they were heeding Alfred P. Doolittle's advice to “Pull out the stopper, let's have a whopper...” Gilbert must have opened up his goody-bag of topsy turvy notions and pulled out every last unused (or slightly used) idea. This is what he came up with for a plot (as best as anyone can describe the story line of anything by G&S):

Marco and Giuseppe are two young, handsome Venetian gondoliers, except that one of them is actually the heir to the island kingdom of Barataria, stolen away in infancy by the Grand Inquisitor himself, who gave the infant to an inebriated gondolier to raise along with his own son. Of course, only one person still alive knows which one is which; and whichever one really is the heir to the throne was actually married in infancy to the equally young Cassilda, daughter of the Duke of Plaza-Toro. As you would expect, none of these young people was made aware of this complication until after both men have taken brides from among the local maidens, and Cassilda has fallen in love with her father's attendant, Luiz (whose mother, Inez, it just happens is the woman who nursed the infant prince and is the only one alive who can identify which gondolier is the rightful heir). Add to this mix the Duke of Plaza-Toro himself, who arrives in Venice, along with the duchess, his daughter, and his attendant, to place the unsuspecting Cassilda upon the throne of Barataria and incidentally repair his rather threadbare finances.

Since no one knows which Gondolier is the rightful heir to the now vacant throne, the Grand Inquisitor decides that both of them should return to Barataria and rule jointly, but without the distraction of their new brides. Both men are firm republicans (with a small “r”) and are determined to treat everyone equally, a situation which affords Gilbert ample time to satirize the British class system and, of course, the monarchy. (“When everyone is somebody, then no one's anybody.”) By the end of Act II, the rather awkward situation of three women married to two men is sorted out in typical Gilbertian fashion, thus allowing the young people to bring down the curtain properly matched with their hearts' desires, so that the entire company can reprise the enchanting Cachuca, Fandango, Bolero.

It may have been the exotic Mediterranean setting for the work, the fact that the composer finally had a a libretto to work with in which he was truly interested, or just the feeling of exhilaration that he would soon be free from all things Gilbertian, but Sullivan was in rare form. Talk about a truly inspired score, as light-hearted, as fun filled as Gibert's libretto was zany! Melody after melody flowed from his pen, enough music to engage the talents of nine principal singers, each on a (presumably) equal, republican footing.

One can only wonder if the audience leaving the stellar world premiere at the Savoy Theatre that December evening in 1889 had any idea that the string of magical theatrical pieces that G&S had created over a span of almost two decades had come to an end, as all things must. Would those ecstatic theater-goers have been so happy? However, our audiences need not worry. Encore! has a substantial repertoire of G&S and other musicals to present in the coming years and, with your continued attendance and anticipated financial support – and G-d's help – may the music keep on playing!

I have no idea if this little promotional piece got anybody else's juices flowing, but it sure got me revved up, ready to start rehearsing. But that's for next time.

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