Producer’s Notebook – The Gondoliers

Photo: Chris Bord / Concept and Artwork: Patti Robinson

Tonight we open Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers at Earlville Opera House. Every opening morning finds me exhausted, after late nights in the theater touching up the lighting and other production details. This morning is no different – there isn’t enough coffee in the Mohawk Valley to clear my head.

I was asked by Earlville Opera House to direct their biennial fundraiser the summer of 2014. Unfamiliar with G&S (my wife is a fan – the complete librettos are in our library), I chose The Mikado. The production wiped me out – two months, performers from all over Central New York, two different venues (we performed one night in Herkimer, in addition to Earlville.) I said if I did another G&S, I’d produce instead of directing.

What does a producer do? I’ve been asked a bunch of times, and I think my company might also wonder. The short answer: whatever’s needed. I signed the contract with EOH to present the show. I put up the money to produce it, which I’ll lose if we don’t sell enough tickets. I picked the creative team and take responsibility for the harmonious interaction of two dozen people. I found rehearsal space, ensured it was unlocked on time and cleaned up each night. I helped with advertising.

The process began in November 2015, when Rusty Ritzel agreed to be music director. Pat Stone signed on as director during the winter, and we chose the show on a snowy evening in February, sitting in my living room with the fireplace crackling. Rusty brought raspberry danish. I’ve tried not to interfere with my directors, except to offer an opinion from time to time. That’s turned out to be difficult, because I’ve got PLENTY of opinions. I suspect they indulged me on a few ideas they might otherwise have rejected, but for the most part, it’s their show. I’m happy with the result.

The Gondoliers is tough music. One of our performers asked in frustration, “Who chose this show and why?” As I’ve become more familiar with the score, I’m reminded that G&S basically invented musical theater as we know it today. Several of the romantic duets are clear forebears to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodic sensibility, while Gilbert’s complex puns, poetic alliteration, and perfect rhymes are pristine lyrical craftsmanship that few but Sondheim have equalled.

We were lucky to get the cast we have, 17 performers, many of whom have carried previous shows on their own. (It’s a deep bench.) As I typed their bios for the program, I was amazed at the musical training and degrees these people have. In a tongue-in-cheek nod to a recent comment by President Obama, I remarked that there has never been such a qualified musical cast in Central New York.

Our technical crew is intact from The Mikado – my family, plus always-smiling Alyssa Scott. Although our dogs don’t like being left alone every evening, it’s a comfort to have Susan and Sarah working the production. (We’re used to each other, and they’re good at what they do.) Alyssa’s task is key – running the supertitles, which include every lyric from every song. 1300 slides, requiring constant attention lest she become lost in the score. (I typed the slides – copy/paste doesn’t produce the correct breaks and actually took longer when I tried it.) Patti Robinson created a brand for the show and produced new artwork daily for a month. I don’t know what I’d do without these incredible people.

The Earlville Opera House is a gorgeous old theater, built in 1890. Most performers fall in love the minute they walk in. It’s like stepping back in time. The stage is raked slightly, slanting down toward the audience (which makes climbing a ladder to hang scenery and focus lights a tricky balancing act.) Footlights are permanently affixed to the downstage thrust. There’s a wrap-around balcony and stained glass windows. The facility also houses a cafe space and art galleries. One great modern touch is the elevator, which allows all patrons to easily reach the second-story auditorium.

Last summer, I produced and performed in a Stephen Sondheim show at EOH, Putting It Together. That show lost money, mostly because of the high royalty cost and hiring a Broadway-caliber pianist who could play the difficult material. The Earlville Board of Directors voted to cover a portion of that loss, which is one reason I wanted to return this summer. In a tiny village in the middle of New York State, they fight the good fight, bringing in world class musicians and performing artists, fixing all the things that go wrong with an old building, and always looking toward the future. We’re proud of them, and I think with The Gondoliers, we’ve done them proud as well.

The Gondoliers plays August 18-20, 8:00 PM,
and Sunday 8/21 at 3:00 PM.
Tickets: (315) 691-3550


Gondoliers Poster2d
Poster Artwork and Design: Patti Robinson
Photo: Chris Bord / Concept and Artwork: Patti Robinson