September 18, 2006

Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

Terry Teachout on the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan:

One of the reasons why G & S (as they're known to buffs) are so enduringly popular is because their works are technically simple enough to be performed by amateurs. Alas, such performances tend to be…well, amateurish. [.....] Contrary to the impression left by the 1980 Kevin Kline-Linda Ronstadt Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance and the 1983 film based on it, the G & S operettas are not musical comedies avant la lettre. Yes, Arthur Sullivan had a sense of humor, but he was still a classical composer through and through, and much (if not all) of his music must be sung by classically trained vocalists in order to make its full expressive effect. It is also gorgeously orchestrated, and cries out to be played with the same elegance and euphony you’d expect to hear in a professional performance of a piece by Mendelssohn—or Mozart, for that matter.

I think this is exactly right. I also think that another aspect of the amateurism that TT speaks of which detracts from the full flavor of a G&S production is the urge felt by so many producers to camp it up as much as possible. (The local community theatre production of Pirates of Penzance I saw not long ago, for example, featured a great deal of mugging at the audience by cast members and silly visual gags such as pirates carrying rubber chickens and lightsabers.)

This is wrong, wrong, wrong. The actors have to play their parts as straight as the musicians have to perform the music. Gilbert's libretti are quite witty and clever enough without the cast nudge-nudging the audience that they think the whole thing silly, too. The impulse so many producers seem to have to invent more funny off their own bat in this way only serves as an infuriating distraction.

BTW, I finally saw the Kevin Kline Pirates movie and thought it a thoroughly rubbishy performance from soup to nuts. On the other hand, Eric Idle (of all people) can be seen in a surprisingly charming modern production of The Mikado.

Posted by Robert at September 18, 2006 11:46 AM | TrackBack

I didn't think the Kevin Kline version was all that bad. Though I agree, it should be played as straight as possible. It's hard enough to follow the words without being distracted by the mugging -- and Gilbert's jokes almost never need improvement.

And Sullivan was a truly, truly gifted composer -- I think there is more beautiful music in the G&S canon than in most composers' "serious" works.

My wife and I usually go to one G&S performance a year; usually the winter show put on by the Harvard-Radcliffe players, who are usually pretty good.

This year's winter performance is HMS Pinafore, which I've never seen staged. Next spring is my all-time favorite of the Savoy operas, the Yeomen of the Guard.

Posted by: The Colossus at September 18, 2006 12:21 PM

I think that Kevin Kline was the only good thing in the movie. The rest of the cast - yick.

I agree that G&S should be done without the caricature of the roles, but the Broadway version has brought that into vogue. I wonder sometimes if people would "get" the operettas without the overplay.

My two childern 7 and 5 have been exposed to the Savoyards of D'Oly Carte and know G&S for the brilliant collaborations they are. At 4 my daughter was able to sing "Three Little Maids".

Posted by: Margaret at September 19, 2006 09:32 AM