AWESOME TALENTS AND VULGAR FRACTIONS
As I have mentioned more than once, when rehearsals begin for a new Encore! Production (may there be many more!), those of us in the chorus always start out by learning our parts without the soloists. We get a lot done that way, but we are often left wondering for weeks or months who the principal performers are going to be. Even knowing their names doesn't always help if we haven't a clue who they are.
There are roles for – count 'em – nine principal soloists in The Gondoliers, taking the work out of the talent range of most theatrical companies. Three of the performers in our production were veterans of the company, including Aviella, she of the enchanting voice, the sunny disposition, and Romeo. The other six? We would get to meet them one by one, although rumors of their ability might proceed their actual sighting. For example, one of the women in the chorus mentioned a tiny soprano with an extraordinary voice who had appeared at their latest rehearsal. Ah, she must be taking the part of Cassilda; that's the only other soprano part besides Gianetta, and Aviella is doing that. Sure enough, on cue, Maria showed up several weeks later, probably about one-third the size of some legendary Wagnerian sopranos of the past but with a voice out of proportion to her petite stature.
I remember vividly the day when a number of us male choristers showed up for rehearsal a few minutes early, in time to hear Rafi singing one of the tenor solos and for our jaws to drop in unison. I waited patiently until set-painting on Friday to interrogate Robert Binder, as he sat at his sewing machine, preparing someone's costume. Who's that guy, and where did you find him? Turns out he found Rob. The son of a chazan in Leeds, this remarkably gifted young man had made aliyah on his own, recently finished the army, and was singing on the streets of Tel Aviv. He had called RB and asked for an audition. I asked Rob exactly how many bars Rafi had to sing before they tackled him, gave him a score and rehearsal schedule, and told him he was hired. My guess would be between four and six notes.
Jay, with his stentorian bass-baritone, absolutely perfect as the Grand Inquisitor, was found via RB's extensive network of friends and talent scouts. He is a conductor, a voice teacher, a composer, a writer about things operatic, and when he has nothing else to do, treks in Northeast Albania. (I couldn't and wouldn't make that up.) By way of contrast, Michael, who works in the legal profession by day and had previously led a band that played at simchas, never before appeared on stage. How did Rob know in advance that, as the comic Duke of Plaza-Toro, he would bring down the house as he trod ever so lightly through I am a courtier, grave and serious? How does a swallow know anything about Capistrano?
Because of Encore!'s growing reputation for the best in English-speaking theater, it became possible to pluck talent from JAMD (Jerusalem Academy for Music and Dance). Hence the appearances of Hanan (as Luiz, the drummer boy who winds up as king), who aspires to be be the chief hazan of the IDF, the aforementioned Maria, and Maya, the other principal contadine opposite Aviella.
All of these wonderfully gifted soloists, including returnees Daniel and Claire, would be introduced in my imaginary screenplay (the one I “created” in the previous article), probably as they made their appearances one by one at rehearsals. If one were to make a real live documentary of an Encore! production, a good way to do it would be to select one number from the show and film it, from the first rehearsal with the chorus fumbling through, then mastering the music and movements that are essential to any G&S performance, later rehearsing with the orchestra, up to an actual performance, with everyone is costume and stage makeup. Such a film might give a glimpse of what those of us in the cast already were aware, that Encore! rehearsals are themselves the best show in town, but that's another story.
But in my make-believe scenario, the performance would be filmed from the vantage point of the chorus, from the back of the stage when we were performing or from the wings when we were waiting to go on. Unlike My Fair Lady, when we were rarely on-stage and were often busy changing our costumes, here we got to see a lot of theatrical magic as well as a remarkable level of consistency each of the six (alas, only six) performances. Which brings me to a series of questions I had as I watched and participated in the production. How did I, with my legitimate yet modest talent, get to be on stage with such extremely gifted performers? Was I only dreaming, or had I arrived in musical heaven? Ultimately, I was asking myself how was it possible for this production to be so close to perfection, given its provenance in “community theater?”
This last question got somewhat revised last week, several weeks after the sets for the Encore! production were struck for the last time. I was able to find a competing version of The Gondoliers that I could download (and wouldn't disappear like other versions on Youtube), one of a series of G&S performances that were produced for British television. My revised question goes something like: how is it possible for a theater company in Israel (of all places!) with a very limited budget to do a better job with something so quintessentially British than an English TV production? They have a lot more money to spend. They should have a bigger and better talent base. They ought to have an almost proprietary sense of what to do and how to do it. So why is the British version so mired in mediocrity as opposed to the scintillating performance that 1800 patrons – give or take – got to witness at the Hirsch Theatre in downtown Jerusalem?
Some of it I simply can't figure out. The performers that RB assembled are at least as talented – and sometimes clearly superior to their British counterparts. That shouldn't be, but it's true. Six of the nine main roles are for characters in their twenties, and in the Hirsch Theatre production they actually were that young. (Hint to British production crews, whoever and wherever you are: if you're photographing the future Queen of Barataria, who “at twenty-one is excelled by none,” i.e., the most beautiful young lady in the land, and your performer is in fact closer to thirty-five, nor is she as attractive and ingenue-ish as our tiny Maria – then reconsider all those close-ups of your bored-looking prima donna.) For the life of me, I can't imagine why our rivals could not find in the British theater world a bass-baritone who could actually sing the role of the Grand Inquisitor – instead of reciting it à la Professor Higgins – or come up with a comic actor energetic enough to bring a bit of brio to the role of the Duke of Plaza-Toro.
But there's something else. The world of G&S is not only topsy-turvy, but in constant motion as well. If you're going to go onstage in one of their roles, be prepared for some high-stepping and cavorting. We're not doing Madame Butterfly here! You can't just stand there like a statue and trust your vocal pyrotechnics will carry the day. Not a chance. Also, if you're given a line or two to recite that's supposed to be funny, don't declaim it as if it were one of Cicero's orations against Cataline (O tempora, O mores). Finally, for the director, feeling free to ignore or edit the script is not, generally speaking, not a good idea – unless, that is, you have a better theatrical mind than William Schwenck Gilbert.
There were a few things in the British production that got me to start yelling choice expressions at my computer screen (as I'm working on my new pre-owned iMac with a 27” monitor, that's a lot of yelling). For example, it's time for the two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, to choose their brides from among the twenty-four contadines. Being chivalrous, the two of them declare, “As all are young and fair, And amiable besides, We really do not care A pref'rence to declare, A bias to declare would be indelicate...” They will let themselves be blindfolded and “...let impartial Fate Select for us a mate!” Of course, a fix is in, and they're not really blindfolded, or at least they don't stay blindfolded. Surprise, surprise, they will wind up with Tessa and Gianetta, just the very girls they wanted. Everyone on stage can spot the deception. The women are singing, “You can spy, sir! Shut your eye, sir!” And the guys are singing, “You can see, sir! Don't tell me, sir!” With that amount of prompting, everyone in the audience at the Hirsch Theatre, even the legendary Mrs. Cohen in the twelfth row, who doesn't see or hear too good, soon figures out what is going on. But in the British production, Marco and Giuseppe must have missed their cue; they're standing stock still, with their blindfolds firmly in place, posing for their portraits in the National Gallery. A big Bronx cheer for that one.
During the course of the first act, the Grand Inquisitor reveals that one of the two gondoliers – but he's not sure which one – is actually the heir to the throne of Barataria. Until they figure out which one it is, the two of them must rule jointly as the king. As Act I comes to an end, the two of them, along with all the other gondoliers, are setting out for that island kingdom. “Away we go to an island fair, that lies in a Southern sea: We know not where, and we don't much care.......” At the Hirsch Theatre, a long, white ladder is brought out and placed on the stage. The men, in effect, climb into it; the ladder is lifted and transformed into a boat. Then they march off stage, setting out to sea (“.......away, awayyyyyyy!”); the contadines, left behind, sorrowfully wave good-bye to them. It takes a minute, but the audience – except for Mrs. Cohen in the twelfth row who by this time has woken up and is on her way to the Ladies' – figures out what just happened. At every performance, the audience burst into applause, exactly what you want to have happen at the end of an act. In the film version, the two men sidle into a boat that you can't really see. The other gondoliers silently drift away one by one. (Wait a minute, guys! You're going the wrong way; you gotta get in the boat. You're supposed to be going to Barataria along with Marco and Giuseppe. They're going to need you in the second act. If you don't believe me, ask Gilbert. He'll tell you.) The last thing the audience sees before the curtain descends is a shot of one poor shlub, the one who, whenever the gondoliers are on stage, is shown at a table in the café working his knife and fork; he's now finishing his plate of pasta. That'll send the audience out to the lobby abuzz with excitement!
There are many other examples, but I think I've made my point. As Abba Eban said about our Arab neighbors, the directors of this British version of The Gondoliers never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Every time there's a bit of comic dialogue, these guys either cut it completely or found a way to make it not funny. Every time there's a place to do something distinctive, these folks looked the other way. Every Encore! performance, I was in my place at the back of the stage (where I would be anyway in my imaginary screenplay),watching as Maya/Tessa would vehemently twist Daniel/Giuseppe's ear as she reminded him not to forget “You've married me.” Or in Act II, when the women finally arrive in Barataria, as she would take a flying leap into his arms from half-way across the stage. Or rebuke him with heartfelt indignation that “one cannot marry a vulgar fraction” (this after the discovery that three women, Tessa, Gianetta, and Casilda, are married to two men – hence two thirds of a husband per wife). That's what theater is about, a little excitement.
Maybe I should re-refine my question. Is it possible that Messrs. Binder and Salter are the only ones left alive capable of putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan production – with a little style, a little panache, a soupçon of gusto? Will Jerusalem become the G&S capital of the world? Only time will tell.
As for “time,” it became time when our six performances were over and done with. Just in time for three more performances of My Fair Lady, one of them in Givatayim, where our daughter Tina and her charming husband, David, live. As wonderful a show as that is, it was still anti-climactic after the once-in-a-lifetime production of The Gondoliers. It would be wonderful if Encore! could top that one, but I don't see how. Their next venture will be the musical version of the children's story, The Secret Garden, for which my services will not be required. I have other things to do and say, but not about a production that I may not get to see.