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DUST OFF YOUR PARROTS
by Harlan Kennedy
PIRATES: We propose to marry your daughters..!
MAJOR-GENERAL:,,,Do you mean to say that you would deliberately rob me of these, the sole remaining props of my old age, and leave me to go through the remainder of my life unfriended, unprotected and alone?
PIRATES: Yes, that's the idea.
Ahoy and Avast there – It's 1982 and suddenly, as if a centenary alarm clock has gone off, Gilbert and Sullivan mania is about to bust out all over the English-speaking world. One hundred years ago last October, the D'Oyly Carte Light Opera Company was founded by Sir Richard D'Oyly C. to present the operas of G and S in a permanent home – London's Savoy Theater – and with a permanent troupe of sturdy-tonsilled singing-actors.
A century later three screen versions of The Pirates of Penzance are being recorded – two for the large screen, one for the small – and buccaneers are buck-and-winging, and policemen tarantara-ing, over soundstages as far-flung as Australia and England.
Just when a cultural phenomenon seems to have fallen into dateless desuetude, it pops up again through the trap-doors of history. In recent years the Victorian writer-composer duo scarcely had two memorable stage productions to rub together in the Western world. And even the D'Oyly Carte company itself, standards and attendances falling in unison after a century of business-on-the boards, finally announced its fold-up.
But now Sir William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) will doubtless be hornpiping in their graves at the sudden-and-mighty resurgence of their works from a Sargasso Sea of semi-neglect. Makers of daft ditties and deft doggerel, G and S were mighty wits with words-and-music and could justly top the list as founder-fathers of the Broadway and Hollywood musical. They gave us basic, wacky plots of romances thwarted and misunderstandings multiplying; tunes spooned brightly in with scant fuss over transitional recitative; big bold four-square brassy rhythms; and a cast of dozens falling over themselves to hew out a happy ending before curtainfall.
The new lease on life for G and S began in July 1980 when entrepreneur Joseph Papp brought his off-Broadway success, Pirates of Penzance, to the Great White Way and thereby proved that the smash-hit backstage modernisms of Chorus Line had nothing on an empurpled Nineteenth Century confection of orphans, buccaneers, Major-Generals, and coloratura lovebirds. A policeman's lot may not be a happy one, but a stage producer's certainly is when he strikes culture-shock sparks from the least expected source.
Papp's production is now going before the cameras at Britain's Shepperton Studios, with Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline (soon to be "Sophie's Choice"), and most of the original B'way cast reprising their stentorian trills, plus Angela Lansbury drafted in to beef up the cast as nurse-maid Ruth. A quick peek-in reveals a chorus of brigands swarming over a gnarled and monumental pirate galleon floating in a water-filled soundstage, jointly captained by Papp himself (executive producing), director Wilford Leach, and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, fresh from recording other, more sandblown brigands in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It's only poetic – or piratic – justice that America should be bringing Gilbert and Sullivan to England in the wake of centenary time. For the world premiere of The Pirates of Penzance on New Year's Eve 1879 took place not in London but in the U.S.: at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York City. G and S – themselves plagued by pirates of a more plagiaristic kind, plundering tunes not doubloons – chose to unveil their most popular opera at the Fifth Avenue in order to secure the American copyright. And although a tiny simultaneous opening-night took place in Devon, England, the opera did not reach Britain's capital until April 1880.
While the rafters of Shepperton Studios echo to Pirate's briny ensembles and the tongue-twisting iambics of the Major-General's famous patter song, Twickenham Studios across the river Thames present the very model of a modern major mission to immortalize all twelve of Gilbert and Sullivan's original D'Oyly Carte stage productions for television. The deus praesens hovering above this TV project is the film company Brent Walker, and the operas are being videotaped with the dual aim of transmission on TV and later marketing as cassettes.
The Pirates of Penzance is only one of the G and S works thus tripping the light mellifluous with their richly oddball casts of English opera singers and all-sorts entertainers. William Conrad, the incredible hulk of Cannon, guest-stars in The Mikado; explosive-jowled British comic Frankie Howerd is Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore; and American cabaret star Peter Allen essays the juvenile lead in Pirates.
Third and not least of the current assaults on these crenelated follies of Victorian musicianship is The Pirate Movie. Myriad millions of Australian dollars are fluttering around this Sydney-based movie adaptation, directed by Ken Annakin, which is "loosely based" on The Pirates of Penzance. Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins play the leads, a modern duo of lovers who are fantasy-whisked into the G and S world by that never-fail device, a dream sequence, and there spend the rest of the film.
Five of the opera's original songs are kept – though with modern arrangements and some revamped lyrics – and six new ones have been added. Distributors 20th Century-Fox hope to crack a bottle of champagne over this movie-galleon in the summer; Joseph Papp's pirates, flying the Universal flag, will follow at Christmas time. So dust off your cutlasses, adjust your parrots, and dry-clean your skull and cross-bones – it's going to be a busy buccaneering year.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MARCH–APRIL 1982 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.