Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lerner and Loewe. Gershwin and Gershwin. Lloyd Webber and Rice. Since drama was first set to music in ancient times, the relationship between composer and librettist has been a sacred partnership, resulting in some of the greatest works of opera and musical theater. Without the dynamic duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, we would not have “The Sound of Music.” Without the incomparable pair of Lorenzo da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, there would be no “Marriage of Figaro.”
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There is something unique about the joint enterprise of two artists. What makes this relationship so special is the common mindset of the two parties involved — the composer must highlight the beauty of language in the librettist’s text, and the librettist must challenge the composer and bring out the best in his music. When two artists “click,” the works they generate are unparalleled.
While time has produced hundreds of such partnerships, one pair seems to stand above the rest — librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. For 25 years, these comedic gods of the late 19th century had British theater-goers in stitches with their zany, madcap operettas.
To this day, Gilbert and Sullivan’s works are cherished by music lovers worldwide. Societies across the globe — from Spain to Israel to South Africa to New Zealand — are devoted to performing the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Ann Arbor happens to boast the oldest of North American societies: the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
When it was founded in 1947, UMGASS made its mission clear: its first-ever program reads, “In time we hope to get through all their works, the less well-known ones as well as the ones to which everyone comes already humming the tunes.”
Since its founding year, the society has reached its goal of performing the entire 13-work canon of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. UMGASS puts on at least two shows a year, and sometimes even a third during the summer. Starting this Thursday, UMGASS will present an earlier G&S operetta, the 1877 hit “The Sorcerer.”
“LOVE LEVELS ALL”
For newbies unfamiliar with Gilbert and Sullivan, UMGASS’s upcoming performance is a perfect starting point.
“The Sorcerer” takes place in the small English town of Ploverleigh, where lead characters Alexis Pointdextre and Aline Sangazure have been engaged to be married. Alexis, enthralled with the matrimonial bliss his engagement has brought him, wants all of the villagers to share in his joy.
“So (Alexis), who has more money than sense, hires a sorcerer to give a love portion to the entire village so they can enjoy the same happiness they have,” said “Sorcerer” director Mitchell Gillett, an electron microscopist in the Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences department of the Medical School. “After the potion is given, hilarity ensues, as it were. Everything is all confused — old men are with young ladies, rich with poor, lower class with upper class, etc. People who were in love with other people are now in love with different people, and some of them are not too happy about it.”
When the situation becomes serious, Alexis realizes the potion must be reversed and the village returned to normal. However, this requires a sacrifice from the sorcerer, resulting in a hilariously dark ending.
Gillett pointed to an important theme of the work that appears in several other G&S operettas — that love levels all ranks. In class-conscious Victorian England, society was governed by the laws and etiquette of social status. Gilbert and Sullivan, however, radically challenged these social norms by pairing rich characters with poor characters. Gillett explained that this is especially true in “The Sorcerer,” in which social distinctions are totally obliterated when the villagers are given the love potion.
“Even though Gilbert returns everything back to the status quo, he’s kind of shown that the status quo isn’t necessarily always the very best thing,” Gillett said.
Gillett made the decision to update the production to the 1920s, mentioning that this was one of the last time periods in England when social status was still important.
“Within a few years we were going to have the Depression and world war, and by the end of all that there was no problem with a duke marrying a chorus girl in a West End show,” he said.
FROM FAILURE TO FARCE TO FAME
But who are the two men behind “The Sorcerer” and the 12 other wildly popular operettas? The story of Gilbert and Sullivan’s legendary partnership begins in late 19th-century England.
Before joining forces with Sullivan in 1871, Gilbert had made a name for himself collaborating with another composer for a series of comic operas. Likewise, Sullivan had had at least one experience in operetta, in addition to composing oratorios, a symphony and a cello concerto.
Yet when these two relatively successful artists came together in 1871, their alliance resulted in an operatic flop called “Thespis,” whose score has been lost to time. But what seemed an unpromising partnership blossomed into a viable one when, four years later, theatrical agent and impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte brought the two men together to pen the one-act opera “Trial by Jury.”
“The Sorcerer” followed “Trial by Jury” in 1877. By this time, Gilbert and Sullivan had developed a model that would serve as a template for their later works.
“It’s really just a little gem,” Gillett said of “The Sorcerer.” “It was their first full-length show that was going to be in the style (of their later works). They’re kind of working out some of their style at that point.”
This style largely consists of musical and social satire. G&S operettas take a tongue-in-cheek look at British society, spoofing politics, social norms and current events.
“Every single one of their shows is a huge farce,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance junior Matt Peckham, who plays one of the principal characters in “The Sorcerer.” “It’s all basically ridiculous satire of aspects of English life at the time … You get to kind of look back through that.”
Surprisingly, one of the most satirical of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works is set in a land far away from jolly old England. “The Mikado,” which premiered in 1885, paints an exaggerated portrait of British law and rank under the disguise of imperial Japan. The work, which ran for 672 performances, is arguably the most popular and best known G&S operetta. It will also be UMGASS’s spring production, slated for April 2011.
Propelling the political and social satire of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas is W.S. Gilbert’s witty dialogue and hilariously impossible storylines.
“The plots are so ludicrous, but somehow you believe it, and it works,” said UMGASS president Ali Kahn, a senior in the Ross School of Business. “At the end they always throw in this giant twist that somehow is logical but just doesn’t seem practical, and it solves every single problem.”
As an example, Kahn cited the duo’s 1879 sensation “The Pirates of Penzance.” The operetta’s leading man, who believes he will be free to leave the band of pirates he serves once he turns 21, realizes that he was born on February 29 of a leap year. He must therefore remain a pirate until his actual 21st birthday, which will occur sometime in his eighties.
“(G&S have) got this witty humor that still appeals to modern audiences even though (the shows) are from the late 1800s,” Kahn said.
Sullivan’s music also has elements of satire, as it parodies grand opera of the period. G&S operettas are packed with musical jokes that reference the operas of Wagner and Verdi. Kahn, who has studied these references, noted that Sullivan lifted a passage from Verdi’s “La Traviata” and jokingly recycled it in a soprano aria in “The Pirates of Penzance.”
“Sullivan took (music) out of the opera of the time or the opera right before that and just placed it right in the score,” Kahn said. “So people in the audience would have gotten those jokes. Now people don’t necessarily get it. But I think the music is just so beautiful because it’s a nice mixture of the high opera of that period and the way music was going into operetta.”
Interestingly enough, Sullivan’s ambition was to write a serious operatic work that would rank among the operas of the composers whom he parodied. Even Queen Victoria herself once remarked to the composer, “You ought to write a grand opera, Sir Arthur, you would do it so well.” Although Sullivan did compose an opera — without the help of Gilbert — it never gained the same recognition as the operettas he produced with his longtime partner.
Despite Sullivan’s unfulfilled dream, even the composer himself could not deny the tremendous success of his joint ventures with Gilbert. The partnership of Sullivan’s playful melodies and Gilbert’s incomparable wit helped the entire canon of G&S operettas to stand the test of time.
One hundred fourteen years after their final collaboration, Gilbert and Sullivan still remain household names. Their operettas continue to be performed internationally by societies dedicated to preserving the topsy-turvy world of G&S.
G&S AT THE ‘U’
Founded in the late ’40s, the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society is one of the most esteemed and respected of its kind. Since its first performance, the society has offered top-notch amateur performances of G&S, while at the same time educating modern audiences of this all-too-neglected artform.
“I think it’s necessary to keep Gilbert and Sullivan going,” Kahn said. “It’s a very important genre and time in history to present to audiences. I think that if societies like us didn’t do it, (Gilbert and Sullivan) would have a hard time finding a home in other theater companies.”
Gillett believes UMGASS is especially important because it provides local audiences a chance to see quality Gilbert and Sullivan performances without leaving Ann Arbor.
“This is the only company, unless you go to Toronto or New York or Chicago or San Francisco, that you’re going to see this level of quality of production,” he said. “For a student organization, they produce about the most professional production of G&S that you probably are going to see.”
At its most basic level, UMGASS is a community of members joined by their love for G&S, whether they are University students, faculty or Ann Arbor residents. The society offers a special niche for operetta lovers who continue to participate even after they graduate.
“It’s got a ton of alumni,” Kahn said. “Over time people come up to us and say, ‘I was in UMGASS in the ’70s when I was a Law student here.’ And then they come back later and they can still participate.”
Kahn went on to explain that members of UMGASS often form a supportive and close-knit family — both figuratively and literally.
“We’ve got second-generation UMGASS-ers, believe it or not,” Kahn said. “I guess at some point, there have been one or two marriages that have resulted. It’s very much a family.
“I feel like I’m a part of the Ann Arbor community, not just the University,” Kahn added. “I feel like the relationships I’ve made are so lasting and will definitely carry into the future after I graduate.”
While UMGASS makes an effort to pull in longtime G&S fans, the society also tries to make the works accessible to first-time operetta-goers. Gillett pointed out that while they may focus on a time and place far from our own, the universal themes and intellectual humor of G&S will appeal to modern-day audiences and, in particular, students.
“It’s kind of lucky that Gilbert chose, most of the time, universal subjects,” Gillett said. “So these aren’t stories about gods and kings — like in opera where nobody can really relate to it.”
Though the universality of G&S operettas attracts a wide audience, first-time G&S attendees are often intimidated by the outdated and antiquated language that can make it difficult to follow the story. Archaic British expressions like “at sixes and sevens” and “yam for toko” can throw even the most experienced audience member for a loop. UMGASS tries to get around this barrier by providing definitions of old-fashioned idioms and vocabulary in the program. In addition, supertitles are projected above the stage during musical numbers.
“We usually try to get the singers to enunciate really clearly, but I think (supertitles are) an advantage for those who are brand new to it.” Gillett said.
Kahn pointed out that Gilbert and Sullivan may not be as foreign to college students as one might think. In fact, pop culture is filled with references to G&S operettas.
“I was watching a ‘Family Guy’ episode the other day, and one of the songs from ‘The Sorcerer’ came on,” Kahn said. “It’s one of those references that just appear, and if you know what it is, it’s one of those great moments.”
Kahn’s run-in with G&S on primetime television shows just how widespread and well known Gilbert and Sullivan’s works are. While these two artists would have most likely made names for themselves had they worked independently, it is fortunate that they worked together to produce the some of the best-loved works of musical theater in the English-speaking world and beyond. When a student begins to experience for himself or herself the pair’s perfect balance of theater and music, it becomes evident why societies like UMGASS continue to perform the works of G&S to this day.