Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Gondoliers #3


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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Gondoliers #2


We – the men's chorus, that is – had just finished our song and dance and were heading off stage, leaving behind several of the principal singers to finish the number. I turned and remarked to Jerry, one of the other guys in the chorus, “It doesn't get any better than this,” a sentiment to which he readily agreed. We in the chorus were performing as flawlessly as we could, the level of talent of the principals on stage was beyond anyone's wildest expectations, the music sounded more infectious every time we heard it, everything about the production was first-rate, and the audience – a full house on that Saturday night – was justifiably enthusiastic. So we weren't just engaging in idle chatter. This may have been the best production of The Gondoliers anywhere on the planet in half a century.

I often try to imagine how things that happen in front of my eyes would look if they were in a movie. If I were going to consider my experience with this production and then create an imaginary version of it for the silver screen – or someone's laptop – I would start with this very conversation with Jerry, and then flash all the way back to an early rehearsal, beginning with a close-up shot of a pair of hands clutching some small sheets of paper. It would, in fact, be the self-same Jerry holding his crib sheets. Jerry has an excellent voice, but he'd be the first to tell you that cannot read music. So what he does when he gets his copy of the score is to copy out our parts onto palm-sized pieces of paper, which over the course of several weeks he commits to memory. Some of you may have noticed that if you remember the words of a song, it's easier to remember the melody; and, likewise, if you know how the tune goes, it's usually easier to think of the words. But what can you do if the baritone part for our entrance on stage in act I goes something like this?

Solo by Antonio: For the merriest fellows are we......
Us: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la la la la la, Tra la la la.......
Antonio: That ply on the emerald sea........
Us: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la la la la, Tra la la la......
Antonio: With loving and laughing, And quipping and quaffing We're happy as happy can be....
Us: Tra la.....
Antonio: With loving and laughing, And quipping and quaffing, We're happy as happy can be......
Us: Tra la la la la la la la, Tra la la la, Tra la la la, Tra la la la la la la la,Tra la, tra la, la la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la la, la la, la la, la la, la la, la la, la la, la la, la la la la la la la la la la la la la la, Tra la!

How would having the “words” written on crib sheets or stone tablets, for that matter, be of any use to anyone? That's the first thing I thought of when we started rehearsing this opening number: Now what is Jerry going to do with that? Somehow he managed. He even did his mini-solo, But what of us, who one and all adore you? Have pity on our passion, we implore you! with suitable aplomb. I always say, when there's a will, there's a way.

There are two other vignettes that I would certainly want to insert somewhere, somehow into my virtual screenplay. The first took place as I was sitting one evening on the Light Rail on my way to rehearsal. (When the entire chorus was rehearsing together, I would get a ride from and to Ma'ale Adumim with Helen, another cast member, and her husband, who functioned as chauffeur. When only the men were scheduled, I was on my own to shlepp back and forth.) I was sitting, minding my own business, perusing my copy of the score. The train pulled into the station near the Damascus Gate, and I was aware that a group of tourists got on. One of them, a guy about fifty, sat down next to me. Seeing me and my score, he asked in English – in an accent unmistakably German – if I was a conductor. No, I replied, I sing in the chorus of a musical production. What part do you sing? I'm a baritone. To which, he replied, I'm a tenor. What are you performing? Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. Sullivan? he inquired. He wrote The Prodigal Son. I sang in that, he asserted proudly. I was the prodigal son. Whereupon he whipped out his smartphone and asked if he could take a picture of the cover of my score to show to the folks back home. He had just enough time to do so, producing an askew copy, before I had to get off at the stop by King George St.

I guess we were even. He had not the slightest notion of who W.S. Gilbert was, and I had never heard of The Prodigal Son. Yes Sir Arthur Sullivan had a life apart from his famous collaborator and had written a whole bunch of stuff that is less than well known today, for example, the song, The Lost Chord, and Ivanhoe, the opera he finally got to write. But The Prodigal Son??? I made some discrete inquiries at the rehearsal. It was not part of Paul Salter's repertoire; Moshe, the resident expert on every patter song from our illustrious pair, assured me that no such piece of music was ever composed. Was the man I had met on the Light Rail delusional? Was this piece of music a product of his distorted imagination, a remnant from his own unhappy childhood? In today's high speed world, anything can be ascertained or verified in a matter of moments. Just go to that expert on anything and everything, Wikipedia. It turns out that Sullivan did in fact write the oratorio in question in 1869, a number of years before he encountered the topsy-turvy world of William Schwenk Gilbert. According to our on-line encyclopedia, “The piece continued in the standard choral repertory until World War One.” (That's the war my late Uncle George fought in.) There have been a couple of recordings in the last twenty years, but if you're waiting for a revival of this piece at your favorite local concert hall, I suggest you bring along a few books to read. Maybe a sandwich or two. A pillow wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

So perhaps there have been a handful of performances of this sadly (?!) neglected work in my lifetime. What would be the chancess of meeting somebody – anybody – who could say that he had performed the leading role? And then, what would be the odds of meeting that person on the Light Rail in Jerusalem in the three or four minutes it takes to get from the Damascus Gate to the center of town? If the world got any smaller, you could fit it into that box I'm always trying to be out of.

And then there's Romeo. Not the lead tenor role in the opera that Sullivan didn't write, but the small “rescue dog” that hangs out with our star soprano, Aviella. Because of this little canine's great appreciation for all things G&S, he got to attend a number of our rehearsals. I should note that our Romeo is not one of these white dust-mops that get carried around all over the place. Our Romeo, must have had a terrier wannabe as a recent ancestor. He is perfectly capable of of self-propulsion and usually arrived at our rehearsal space a minute or so before his co-star, signaling her imminent arrival, something that always brings joy to the hearts of those of us assembled.

Why is his presence, let alone his existence, of any interest to the general public, cano-philes or not? The fact is, our little mixed breed is a star-in-the-making. True, he is somewhat limited vocally, but he can trod the boards with the best of them, especially when he senses encouragement from those humans around. You can only imagine his enthusiasm when he senses that it's his turn to go on. There's the scene at the end of act one when the two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, are about to embark on a journey to Barataria, leaving their two new brides, Tessa and Gianetta, behind. The two women see the need to admonish their husbands to behave themselves when they are separated. Both of them, first the soprano and then the mezzo, get to sing, ...And O my darling, O my pet, Whatever else you may forget...... No one had the heart to tell little Romeo that they weren't referring to him.

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.