When I was in grade school, my parents introduced me to the wonderful world of *Gilbert and Sullivan. The D’Oyly Carte company was still alive and well, and they put on live performances in Boston. The first show my parents took me to see was “The Gondoliers,” the last operetta on which Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated.
Well–I was captivated from the start. I can still remember the song, “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” nearly word for word. The music, the clever patter and lyrics, the costumes, the makeup–it all enthralled me. From that moment on, I wanted to be involved in theater in any way I could. Mom and Dad later took me to see “The Mikado,” which was also wonderful. On my birthday, my parents gave me the records of both shows’ music, and I sang along to each and every song until I knew them all by heart. I borrowed books from the library on Gilbert and Sullivan, and read the librettos for every operetta they wrote. It was magical.
I got involved in theater in high school. Each year we would put on one play and one musical, and I tried out for the musicals each time. I was lucky enough to land a few lead parts, and enjoyed them deeply. I was invited to join the Barnstormers theater group in Tamworth, NH the summer after I graduated from high school. I played all the ingenue parts; i.e., the “innocent young girl.” It was one of the best summers of my life. But it wasn’t until years later when I was living in Texas that I actually got to perform in some Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
I joined a light opera company in Dallas, where their main focus was Gilbert and Sullivan. I performed in the chorus and did all the makeup and wigs for the shows. While I was there, we put on “The HMS Pinafore” and “Patience,” both of which were exhilarating and fun. As part of the chorus, I had some off-stage time, so I assisted in undressing and dressing some of the principal actors during quick-change sequences. It was challenging: imagine getting a short, stout older man dressed in full admiral uniform with all the requisite regalia in under two minutes from the time he exited the stage wearing a nightgown!
One evening when we were to perform “The HMS Pinafore,” the janitor in charge of opening the school auditorium two hours before the performance forgot to show up. All of the costumes, makeup, wigs, musical instruments, etc. where all inside so we could do nothing to get ready. A frantic phone call from our director finally got the janitor to the school ten minutes before the show opened. The chaos backstage was unbelievable. If you put the Keystone Kops, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Spike Jones’ orchestra together in one big bag and shook them all up, you’d have a rough idea of what those ten minutes were like.
As the one makeup artist, I literally held two facial sponges soaked foundation makeup and ran through the chorus, swiping it on their faces. (Thankfully, all the principals handled their own wigs and makeup.) I grabbed two chorus members and together we managed to get eye shadow, lipstick, rouge and mascara on everyone. As people rushed around in various stages of undress, our director walked out in front of the curtain and explained the situation to the audience. She begged their pardon for the delay, and gave them an idea of the insanity going on backstage until everyone started laughing. On the forgiving waves of applause, she promised that the show would begin in ten minutes.
Nine minutes later, the orchestra tuned up, and all of us in the company, albeit hastily made up and buttoned up, took our places for the opening number. I don’t think that many people noticed that we in the chorus were unobtrusively tying the bows of the aprons we all wore over our dresses; those in front were being assisted from the next row, and so on. But as they say, the show went on. We even got a standing ovation at the end.
I have always loved theater and always will. I will never forget the feeling of standing on center stage in the dark behind the curtain, waiting for it to part and the lights to come up. The feeling was part terror, joy, excitement and pure love. I would always feel that my throat was closing and couldn’t speak, but each and every time the words came to me as that curtain opened. On that stage, I was free, happy beyond words, and at home.
*Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the librettist W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and the composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) and to the works they jointly created. The two men collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are among the best known.
Gilbert, who wrote the words, created fanciful “topsy-turvy” worlds for these operas where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion—fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offense, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy, and pirates turn out to be noblemen who have gone wrong. Sullivan, six years Gilbert’s junior, composed the music, contributing memorable melodies that could convey both humor and pathos.
Their operas have enjoyed broad and enduring international success and are still performed frequently throughout the English-speaking world. Gilbert and Sullivan introduced innovations in content and form that directly influenced the development of musical theater through the 20th century. The operas have also influenced political discourse, literature, film and television and have been widely parodied and pastiched by humourists. Producer Richard D’Oyly Carte brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and nurtured their collaboration. He built the Savoy Theatre in 1881 to present their joint works (which came to be known as the Savoy Operas) and founded the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed and promoted Gilbert and Sullivan’s works for over a century.