Director’s Notebook (Four Weeks into The Mikado)

The Earlville Opera House
The Earlville Opera House

We’re about midway into The Mikado now, and I’ve gone through most of the stages of directing: optimism, exasperation, depression and exhaustion. These are not linear – sometimes all four come during the same day. (I’m still waiting for euphoria.)

A director needs to be an organizer, cheerleader, sounding board, sometimes a tyrant. Scheduling can be a nightmare, taking into account vacations, rehearsal locations, and which scenes need to be rehearsed on a given night. For The Mikado, we have singers coming from the Mohawk Valley region, Syracuse, and from Clarks Summit, PA. I almost lost it when somebody said, “Please let me know the exact time I will be used at each rehearsal. I don’t need to sit around for 45 minutes listening to other people when I could be home finishing my dinner.” A fair request, except the person had only been called for two rehearsals at that point. Another asked to be excused from Monday and Tuesday rehearsals: “I didn’t expect we’d be working so many weeknights.”

But what a collection of talent. Our music director John Krause brought in some people he’s used to working with, I brought in others, and we all mixed with a bunch that have been singing Gilbert & Sullivan at Earlville for years. Whenever we’ve had the big group together, it has been striking how well everyone seems to get along. There is none of the diva attitude – “I’m the best.” Instead, most of them bend over backward to insist somebody else puts them to shame.

I came to this production a Gilbert & Sullivan virgin. I knew them by reputation and by their influence on so many things I love, but I’d never seen a live show. Recordings rarely do them justice – the words muddle together and the chorus seems miles away. To hear G&S live, with singers invested in creating distinct characters, is a treat. The wordplay and the melodies in perfect synch, songs instantly recognizable because they’ve long been assimilated into popular culture.

Somebody said to me, “Gilbert and Sullivan has to be done by the book. Gilbert insisted that performers do things exactly his way. Who are you to change it?” True enough. W.S. Gilbert was a genius and a difficult man – he and Arthur Sullivan rarely got along. Gilbert loved to torment performers, even months after a show had opened. He was argumentative and litigious. One of Gilbert’s favorite refrains was, “I will refer this matter to my solicitor.” Sullivan was accommodating. He loved good food and drink, and regularly indulged in prostitutes. Gilbert would write the words and send them on to Sullivan, who had an uncanny knack for the perfect musical complement. (Although Sullivan was knighted long before Gilbert, critics regarded him as wasted potential – the light comedies he remains known for were equivalent to modern-day sitcoms.)

The Mikado happened when the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership seemed on the brink of ending. They were under contract to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which had been created to exclusively produce their works. Sales for Princess Ida (1884) were slowing, and Richard D’Oyly Carte requested a new piece, contractually required within six months of the notice. Gilbert had long been toying with a plot about a “magic lozenge,” which would make a good man bad, an honest man a liar, a virtuous woman a whore, etc. Sullivan hated the idea, and pronounced their partnership finished. Legend has it that while Gilbert sat in his study, a ceremonial Japanese sword fell from its mounting on the wall, and The Mikado burst into his mind fully formed. He sent the outline to Sullivan, who replied, “As I don’t see any mention of a magic lozenge, I’m your man.” It’s a good story.

The Mikado is set in Japan but remains quintessentially English. The “exotic” setting allowed Gilbert to more effectively satirize the politics and customs of his native England. It has been noted that not a single plot point or joke really applies to Japan at all, but every one applies perfectly to England. The exotic setting is merely a disguise, although it often remains lost on the audience. (When she saw the original production, the Queen of England remarked, “It’s all a bit silly, isn’t it?”)

The piece quickly became Gilbert & Sullivan’s most popular operetta. Copyright law at the time was weak – although competing companies weren’t allowed to use the original printed scores, they were free to transcribe them from memory. At every performance, agent musicians would listen in the audience and later write down what they’d heard. Gilbert knew they had to get the jump on an American production, so he took extreme measures. First, he ordered the D’Oyly Carte company to buy all of the silk from all the suppliers they knew of, to prevent rival companies from making costumes. Second, he arranged a touring company and had the performers and musicians sign non-disclosure agreements; they got on a boat for New York at midnight and weren’t allowed to say goodbye to friends before they left. A Broadway theater was booked under a false name, and the “official” Gilbert & Sullivan Mikado managed to open weeks ahead of the knockoff competition. By some estimates, The Mikado has never not been in production, somewhere in the world.

Art cries out to be reinterpreted. This is what we bring to contemporary audiences – an outline that bears a fresh creative stamp. I told my performers (they are certainly “my” performers – let nobody criticize or attempt to bring them down) that they are responsible for creating a character. The formula is something like 30% script/60% actor/10% director. I will shape what they offer into a cohesive story. We’ve learned the music. Now we’re at the point where we’re building the story and scenario. I hoped you stay tuned, because it’s going to be good.

The Mikado - Rehearsal