Sunday, January 29, 2012

H.M.S. Pinafore Part 3


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 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!)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

H.M.S. Pinafore Part 2

Let's cease and desist from the singing and dancing long enough to focus on another topic: publicity. Some of us were of the opinion that our efforts to sell tickets to the Encore productions did not match the stellar quality of the productions themselves. Both Ruddigore and Carousel were rousing artistic successes, but neither production had crowds breaking down the doors, clamoring to get tickets. With Ruddigore, we were led to believe, people simply weren't familiar with the show. (The opposite seemed to be the problem with Carousel: people didn't come because they did know it. But that's another story for another time.)

Along with a decision to revamp the company's website, a publicity committee was formed to plan a campaign to increase the visibility and recognition of Encore Educational Theatre Company's efforts, starting with H.M.S. Pinafore -- a work that we correctly assumed would be easier to sell to an audience. As you might expect, I was asked to join the committee. What could I contribute? Let me think............. I know; I could write an article!!!!!!!!! How about something to get people's attention and pique their interest and put said article on the website. Then send out the first paragraph through as many channels as possible. If someone was sufficiently intrigued to want to read the rest of the article, a click of a mouse would bring them to the website, where they could read to their heart's content, and so inspired, purchase tickets.

You, of course, are wondering what I wrote. No need to torture yourselves any further. Here it is:


If you told a friend that you were going to see a performance of HMS Pinafore -- or better yet, that you were going to be in such a performance -- your companion might or might not have a clue whom or what you were talking about. But chances are no one today would blurt out, "Pinafore! Isn't that some kind of girls' clothing? What kind of cockamamie name is that for a play about a navy ship?"
In truth, ships in the Royal Navy were more likely to be called Avenger, Defiance, Impregnable, or our personal favorite, HMS Dreadnought instead of Pinafore. It would be like a cruiser today patrolling the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iran called the USS Mini-skirt. (click here for the full article)

It is hard for us today to imagine what the audiences who came to the Opera Comique in London to see HMS Pinafore in 1878 expected to see and hear. The team of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had just begun their celebrated collaboration, having written only a Christmas entertainment, Thespis, in 1871 and the forty minute one-act Trial By Jury four years later. In fact, the kind of English language comic opera which these two men were to create was unknown at the time. But the title, HMS Pinafore, must have been a sure tip-off that what would be going on on-stage would bear little if any relationship to anything which actually occurred in the real British Navy. (Much like a number of American TV sit-coms from decades ago, which purported to be about life on an army base, a P.O.W. camp, or an army hospital.)

So when the curtain went up on Pinafore's opening night to the rousing "We Sail the Ocean Blue," in which a bunch of 'British sailors' prance around the stage reaffirming that they are "sober men and true," the audience must have gotten the joke. Drinking water being hard to obtain and keep fresh, the most common beverage on board any HMS of the time was grog: diluted rum with a little bit of lemon or lime juice -- served twice a day. So much for sobriety!

Following an interlude in which Buttercup, a most mysterious character, announces that she has a secret, which, if the audience is patient and pays attention, she will divulge in due time (meaning near the end of the second act when a denouement is required), the cast of characters and what passes for a plot is revealed: there is the young sailor, Ralph Rackstraw, who is intent on marrying Josephine, the daughter of the captain, a most pompous fellow in his own right, who "never uses a big, big, D -- except that he does -- when he finds his daughter trying to elope with the common sailor! Then there is the meddling Dead-eye Dick, determined to maintain class distinctions and thwart the lovers' plans. Finally, there is the First Lord of the Admiralty, who is himself eager to marry the beautiful, charming, and musically gifted Josephine -- and his gaggle of sisters and cousins and aunts, who join him on board the Pinafore. Needless to say, the sailors are more than eager to "welcome ladies most politely." Generally speaking, as we can be sure the audience was aware, the kind of women who were usually 'welcomed' aboard a ship in port were unlikely to be anybody's sisters and cousins and aunts. As a result, venereal disease was a common occurrence among the sailing men.

Now most of these characters, stock figures from the world of melodrama, were created from whole cloth by W.S. Gilbert, except for the First Lord of the Admiralty. Here is an early example of the biting satire for which the librettist would soon become renowned. His hapless victim was one W. H. Smith (actually W. H. Smith, Jr., the son of W. H. Smith, whose family name survives in the eponymous British chain of book stores.) the qualifications of the second-generation purveyor of novels and periodicals to become the First Lord of the Admiralty (from 1877 to 1880) had eluded most of his countrymen, and there was probably no one sitting in the Opera Comique who couldn't figure out who the inconsequential figure on stage who kept being rewarded until he became " the ruler of the queen's navee" was based on. Smith never lived it down; virtually every time he appeared in public thereafter, he was rewarded with a rendition of "When I Was A Lad...."

Fortunately for audiences today, Gilbert's humor has outlasted the butts of his jokes. We all know about people who somehow rise to the top of the heap without any visible qualifications. Likewise, we are all too familiar with the "sisters and his cousins and his aunts" syndrome, the claques of hangers-on, whose only importance is that they themselves know someone important. And the kill-joys, whose main source of pleasure is by being a constant wet blanket. Gilbert and Sullivan's magic has outlasted the specific foibles they were originally lampooning: the rigid class system, Victorian morality, and a pride in one's country of origin taken beyond the point of absurdity The witty and at times subversive lyrics, the tenderness and vigor of the music along with its wonderful harmonies still have the power to amuse and enchant audiences today. Which is why we, at Encore, keep doing G&S -- because we know that you will have almost as much fun watching a winner like Pinafore as we have performing it -- singing music which is not at all easy, all the while, moving effortlessly (?) about the stage.

Given the zany mad-cap nature of what passes for a plot in a typical G&S endeavor, there is a natural tendency to camp it up, to inject a wink here and a smirk there; to let the audience know that the actors are in on the joke. We will have none of that. We perform it straight (and quite well too). What makes Gilbert's words and Sullivan's music so endearing is that the characters are not in on the joke. They are -- unwittingly -- the joke, for us to enjoy over and over again. Even if we are not always certain what is going on!

Not bad, huh?

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!