AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
KOKO, POO-BAH, NANKI-POO, AND OTHERS
GILBERT & SULLIVAN'S DIPPY MUSICALS
by Harlan Kennedy
What strange miracle has suddenly magic wanded Gilbert and Sullivan from being the dusty Victorian songsters whose works you remember dressing up and performing at school – with many a shrill trill and boisterous "Tarantara!" – to becoming spearheads of the first marathon TV video venture in musical recording? Suddenly H.M.S. Pinafore, lolanthe, The Gondoliers, The Mikado, The Yeoman of the Guard and all those other jaunty titles redolent of dancing sailors and tuneful Japanese emperors are rushing into screen immortality at Britain's Shepperton Studios.
Nudging each other and doing musical battle for a permanent place in your vision field beginning sometime in 1983 on PBS will be such characters as Buttercup, Nanki-Poo, Mabel and Ruth, as well as Deadeye Dick, a gaggle of Pirate Kings, Major-Generals and Fairy Queens, Koko, Poo-Bah, Yum-Yum and the rest of G&S's wacky troupe of loonies. (A Freudian feast of names to conjure with.)
And the miracle worker who has wrought this mellifluous fantasia is American producer and former Metropolitan Opera soprano Judith De Paul, fresh from wowing the critics and giving culture a good name with the public on NBC. No stranger to show business – she started out before the cameras at age seven, playing the dancing box of matches opposite the dancing cigarette pack in the old television commercial – De Paul won her Emmys as coproducer for two Live From Studio 8H shows: An Evening of Jerome Robbins' Ballets and A Tribute to Toscanini. She also garnered rave reviews for her two other coproductions: Menotti's Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and her third 8H coproduction, Caruso Remembered, starring Placido Domingo.
For Gilbert and Sullivan's dippy dozen musicals, Judith De Paul – with a little help from Brent Walker Productions, who financed the project – gathered around her a prestigious pantheon of top British designers, technicians and musicians: from lighting designer Paul Beeson (who lensed many of the action scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark) to stage director John Cox (supremo at Britain's leading opera festival, Glyndebourne) to the massed musical might of the London Symphony Orchestra. And that was just for openers!
Throughout England's long, humid summer, Shepperton has been a place of wild hothouse fantasy: exotic worlds flower and fall almost by the day. One morning, as with catlike tread you cross the bounding sound stage, a towering pirate galleon stands gaunt against a blue sky, playing host to warbling brigands led by cabaret star Peter Allen. The next, the Pirates of Penzance have rollicked into memory and buccaneer ship has given way to beetling Gothic mansion. Vincent Price peers through the ivy, twirling the world's most villainous moustache, as Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore.
The colorful picture-book sets have continued to rise and fall – Chinese palace, English garden, Houses of Parliament, Venetian lagoon – and the stars to wing in and out: Joel Grey, Frank Gorshin, William Conrad, Frankie Howerd.
"Musicals have never been done in this fashion before," Judith De Paul confidently declares, with a gleam in her eye and a thrust in her cut-glass voice that could destroy doubt at a thousand meters. "We've recorded 12 G&S musicals, 22 hours of programming, and we've done it with new formats, new production techniques, up to the minute recording ideas and lots of work!
"In the entire 22-hour playing time, only three minutes of the original music have been dropped as a result of our two-hour format. I doubt that even G&S would notice it. Not only have we been true to the spirit of the works, we've also been true to the letter. These are Gilbert and Sullivan productions!"
Victorian gents with names that might have graced a department store had not a mightier destiny attended, G&S have long been the victims of over – rather than underpopularity. In the hundred years since they burst upon the world, colliding from opposite planets of creative endeavor – Sullivan was a "serious" composer (he penned "Onward Christian Soldiers"), Gilbert, a wit and critic – and often working testily apart, even when collaborating on their musicals (they would only write notes to each other), hardly a school or a theater company in the Western hemisphere has left their rum-ti-tum perennials untried.
But ragtag performing custom has staled the duo's infinite variety. Many potential G&S lovers have fled in horror at the false moustaches, backslapping doggerel and screech-owl sopranos that have graced – or disgraced – the shows down the decades. And it took the fresh hurricane of Joseph Papp's Broadway staging of The Pirates of Penzance, whirling the singers and dancers into new streamlined dervish impromptus and propelling rock star Linda Ronstadt into the heady reaches of comic-opera bel canto, to open hitherto somnolent eyes.
The new vitality has certainly coursed into performances at Shepperton Studios. Orientals dressed like animated Christmas trees hurl themselves across the stage in parti-colored pizzazz, yodeling in perfect crystal unison the hits from The Mikado, while William Conrad looks on in stately enormity as The Mik himself. No peers of British Parliament ever belted out choruses with more gale-force brio and word-perfect wit than do those of this lolanthe. And on H.M.S. Pinafore, the Ruler of the Queen's Nay-vee is making damned sure there are no raggedy chorus boys on his ship.
Gradually, as familiar tunes and rhythms detonate around you at Shepperton, like a box of fireworks into which a lighted match has accidentally been tossed, you realize that you know G&S's words and music just as well as you know those of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or Kander and Ebb.
"At the turn of the century," says De Paul, "their shows were the most popular form of entertainment for everyone – except for candle makers. During a production of Gondoliers, electric lights were used in a theater – the Savoy – for the first time. G&S made the leap from the age of combustion to our age – the age of incandescence."
From the first electric light to the massed marvels of video technology today: a small step in time, but a giant leap for show-biz evolution. Few of the performers in the present productions – veterans of the boards or the box or the big screen – have ever worked in such high-tech surroundings before. Big Video Brother purrs infallibly away in every corner, and whole scenes and numbers can be seemingly seamlessly recorded at a single take, without a technical blink or blip. "Cut! Magnetized!"
"We're really creating a first," continues De Paul. "The only comparison with our working methods is classical music recordings that are done in foreign countries, where they take all their equipment out of the studio and just literally plug it into a cathedral or an orchestral hall.
"We've plugged into Shepperton Studios, knocked a hole in the wall of our sound stage, snaked in bundles of electrical cables and created our own Gilbert and Sullivan video theater. The massive intake of electricity those cables pump in gives us the strength to pound down a massive amount of light onto the sets, stop down the camera apertures while keeping images sharp and holding tonal contrasts. That produces the great depth of field that you see on the cassettes. And we do a few other things as well. I think we've pushed our way to the visual limits of the medium.
"And for sound, we're using two 16-track machines to record live in multitrack stereo, because G&S will eventually be available on videodisc and digital record as well.
"All the singing by soloists, duets, trios and so on is being recorded live for each show – and that's practically unheard of in making musicals. But because we wanted a lot of energy and visual impact in the dancing numbers, the choruses lip sync to prerecorded voices. You can't throw yourself around a sound stage and sing clearly and audibly at the same time. Try! (I did.) There, you see."
De Paul and her colleagues believe that any initial timidity on the customers' part toward embracing the glories of G&S on video will quickly be swept aside by the all-star lineup of guest performers. It would take a checkbook of stone, they trust, to resist the inducement of Vincent Price high kicking and velvet warbling through Gothic Ruddigore or Joel Grey trilling and tum-ti-tumming through Yeoman of the Guard or Frankie Howerd, Britain's comic master of facial collapse and larynx-knotted vocal gymnastics, donning both the First Lord of the Admiralty's hat in H.M.S. Pinafore and the Learned Judge's wig in Trial by Jury.
Co-executive producer George Walker, former light-heavyweight boxer and British amateur champion and now a multi-interest business tycoon with casinos, shopping malls, cinemas and a film company to his name – Brent Walker Limited – says that the decision to pack the shows with guest stars was taken on G&S's very own advice.
"We've gone back to Gilbert and Sullivan's original instructions in the libretto," he explains. "They specify – I saw this myself in their handwritten notes – that the leading comic parts should be played by well-known entertainers of the day who have a reasonable singing voice. The last thing they wanted was someone with a fine voice and no sense of humor. So if Vincent Price, Joel Grey or Frank Gorshin had been alive 100 years ago, they'd have been naturals for G&S."
While stars are colliding amid the flying flaps and volatile scenery at Shepperton. Vincent Price, for one, says that he wouldn't have missed the experience for the world.
"It's great fun, it really is," purrs the voice of a thousand Gothic chillers. "Musicians tell me that it's probably the most musicianly music ever written for the light musical theater. It's a wonderful opportunity."
Arranging his black velvet cape, Price sits down on a weathered tomb strewn with ivy and dead leaves. adjusts his blond bebanged Prince Valiant wig and glances at Ruddigore's Gothic arches heavily encrusted with skulls. A dancer on a stick pogos past. Price's eyes fix on a pair of bleach-boned skeletons hanging, almost hidden, from an architrave.
Members of the cast from the last show?
"Do you think so?" replies Price, eyebrows arching wigward.
Well, rumor has it that De Paul is a terror to work with-and that she carries a whip.
"No, really? Well, if she does, I'm sure it's a silk whip.
"When I first met Judith," continues Price, "I was traveling the world with my one-man show Oscar Wilde. She saw it, and we were introduced. During our conversation we talked about musicals. I've done a lot of musical comedy: Oliver!, Damn Yankees and a musical version of Peter Pan."
Peter Pan?! What part did he play?
"Why, Peter, of course! Did you think it was Wendy?" replies Price, his Peter Lorre purr going into overdrive.
And how is his singing these days?
"Like Rex Harrison on a bad day. But others tell me it's magnificent! I ran into Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme the other day – both dear old friends. I told them I was going to be Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore. And they went into a state of absolute collapsed jealousy. After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of something so complete."
The lights come up on the set, the cemetery looks almost jolly, and the dancer goes into a frenzy of pogo sticking. "Perhaps he thinks it's dawn," remarks Price, who, for reasons too bizarre to go into, plays half of Ruddigore in a blond wig and the other half with dark, flowing locks – "They match the cape." He leaves through a nearby arch to be adjusted.
Up in De Paul's office, which the crew has dubbed "Mission Control" – appropriately, for it indeed resembles the control room of the Starship Enterprise, with banks of consoles and video monitors – the attractive, dark-haired De Paul is keeping two wide-alert eyes on every moment of production. She takes time out to explain the process by which she works.
"When a property comes 'on the desk,' " she says, "each producer sees it and feels it in a different way and is convinced that, artistically, only they know how it should be done. So there is an emotional aspect. We're treading in very delicate places, we're dealing in the land of dreams.
"When I began setting up these productions. I decided to use three major talents for each show: the stage producer, the camera director and the choreographer. As producer, part of my job is to create a good collaborative relationship among them and among all the other talents.
"The beginning of any project is a very, very delicate balance of talents and understandings: we're setting the pace, tone, style and the overview that I, as producer, must impart to the creative people. It's not enough for me to have wonderful dreams if I can't translate them for the creative people. Because they're the ones who will have to interpret them, to make them work on the studio floor.
"And to do that, I simply talk, again and again, with all the artists, discuss ideas, suggest and listen to their feedback. It's no good telling them, `Do this, do that,' dictating to them. No! They have to start telling me what I want to see on the screen and then start telling me how they're going to achieve it. That's the click I wait for, that's the moment when I know that they have taken over the dream and we are really rolling.
"I know what I want on that screen, and I know how to get it there. I don't tell the director how to direct or the choreographer where to move his dancers. I'm not a hyphenate-producer. I pick the best people in the business, I put them all together, then it's up to them to make music."
Gilbert and Sullivan, enemies of slow-coach creativity and the ill-oiled wheels of convention and circumspection, would have looked on with approval.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1982 ISSUE OF EMMY MAGAZINE.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.