From time to time this column will take a look at a favorite activity of mine: immersion in a single play, musical or work of a single artist or creative team. What CDs, DVDs and books are out there that, taken together, give a deeper experience of the piece? Today, it is the work of the team of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and, more particularly, their most enduring masterpiece, The Mikado.
Of course, The Mikado isn’t their only masterpiece. Three of their comic operettas were instant phenomena and remain hugely popular today: 1878’s HMS Pinafore or The Lass That Loved A Sailor, 1879’s The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty and 1885’s The Mikado or the Town of Titipu. (Gilbert provided subtitles for all but two of the operettas he penned with Sullivan.)
The Mikado was the ninth of the team’s 14 collaborations. Gilbert provided the libretto which was a collection of whimsy that delights to this day, while Sullivan set the lyrics to music of such beauty that the contrast between melodic richness and lyrical lilt produced a uniquely satisfying entertainment that enraptured first London and then the world.
The partnership wasn’t without stress. Far from it! Sullivan bemoaned working on projects that he believed were beneath his proper role of composing “important works” such as symphonies and grand operas. Gilbert, for his part, was never satisfied with his creations and suffered from the barbs of his harshest critic: himself.
The team nearly broke up a number of times during their 24-year collaboration. One of those times came after the failure of Princess Ida or Castle Adamant, their 1884 operetta, to reach anything like the success they expected. Called upon to produce a replacement piece, they characteristically couldn’t agree on a topic or approach and Sullivan simply refused to consider the plot suggested by Gilbert, a plot similar to many Sullivan had rejected before.
The story of this conflict and how it was overcome is the subject of a tremendously informative as well as entertaining film by Mike Leigh which was recently released by The Criterion Collection on DVD (ASIN: B004GFGUCC) and Blue Ray Disc (ASIN: B004GFGUCW) titled “Topsy Turvy”. The film not only details the back stage drama of collaboration and competition, it recreates enough of the original staging of the operetta to give the viewer a real feel for what The Mikado was like when the curtain first went up at the Savoy Theatre in London.
Jim Broadbent as Gilbert and Allan Corduner as Sullivan, as well as Ron Cook as their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte, all look very much like the portraits tell us their characters looked and their behavior comports with what we know of them, while the sets recreate the London of their day with great care. The scenes of the operetta being performed on stage are transporting.
There are many CDs available with either the full score or highlights of The Mikado. In fact, a search of Amazon.com shows 109 albums including material from the operetta.
The one that has garnered the most praise is a monaural recording by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the company formed specifically to perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. Gilbert and Sullivan experts – of which there are a legion! – consider the singers on this recording to be some of the greatest at this particular canon. Of course, this recording has had the longest time to gather that praise since it was first release nearly 85 years ago! It has recently been re-released in a clean transcription as a double CD on Pickwick (ASIN: B003VY564C).
The recording that seems to draw the most praise is on the Telarc label conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (ASIN: B000003CXW). It is highly praised for both the singing and the recording, but it managed to fit onto a single CD by neglecting to provide the overture. Given that Sullivan’s overtures are a crowning pleasure for operetta fans, and that The Mikado‘s is almost certainly at the top of the line, this is a shameful omission. Sullivan didn’t actually compose the overture, by the way. He delegated that to an assistant, Hamilton Clarke. However, Clarke was working to the plan provided by Sullivan and the result was approved by Sullivan prior to the premiere and publication of the score.
There’s even a CD of a 1959 television version of The Mikado with none other than Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko. It has been released on DRG Records (ASIN: B000U1ZIQK).
There are a number of DVDs of the operetta which might tempt you. A new addition is also from The Criterion Collection (DVD: ASIN: B004GFGUEA, Blue Ray:ASIN: B004GFGUCM). It is of the 1939 Technicolor version starring Kenny Baker as Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado masquerading as “a wand’ring minstrel” and Jean Colin as Yum-Yum, the object of his affection. Famous players from the D’Oyly Carte company take the key roles of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner (Martyn Green) and Pooh-Bah, The Lord High Everything Else (Sydney Granville). While some of the sets may seem more like Hollywood’s version of Imperial Rome than The Floating Kingdom of Japan, the entire package is really quite enjoyable.
Both Criterion Collection releases include bonus material that aids in the immersion into the subject. One bonus of particular note is on the disc of the Technicolor Mikado. It presents excerpts from 1939 radio broadcasts of songs from two competing Broadway adaptations of the operetta that updated the tempos to jazz and swing. One, The Swing Mikado, was the Federal Theatre’s updating with a setting more African than Japanese which was a hit in Chicago. Mike Todd tried to bring that show to New York but was turned down. Not one to be spurned, Todd mounted his own, calling it The Hot Mikado, obtaining the services of Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson.
Forty-some-odd years later, Ford’s Theatre in Washington mounted a revival of The Hot Mikado under the direction of David Bell. It had rocking orchestrations by George Hummel for a pit band of eight. That 1986 production was presented again in 1994 and 2002 at Ford’s and had a run in London in 1995 which was recorded and released by First Night Records (ASIN: B000026F43).
With all these versions to explore, a listener/viewer may find many of the references in the text a bit archaic. After all, Gilbert wrote the script over a hundred and thirty years ago and many of his gags were topical, poking fun at the “powers that be” in upper class England then.
An annotated version of the text can be a godsend. As it happens, Isaac Asimov was a died-in-the-wool devotee of the work of W. S. Gilbert. He collected his own notes on the elements of the text that need explanation today and created “Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan” which has been published by Doubleday (ISBN-0385239157). It includes the full text of all of the operettas with his annotations.
For The Mikado, the 80 pages of script have 146 notes which range from simple definitions to rather witty reactions to difficulties he finds in the text. For example, when Gilbert has the “Three Little Maids From School” sing that they come “From scholastic trammels free” he notes that “A trammel is a kind of shackle that constrains the free movement of a horse and forces it to take up the kind of gait that one is training it to assume.” Now, you may have already known that, I didn’t.
Often the notes are as entertaining as the lyrics. When Ko-Ko sings, in “Titwillow” that “a cold perspiration besplanged” the brow of a tiny bird, Asimov notes “Will it help to say that birds don’t perspire? No, I didn’t think so.”
My idea of an ideal evening with The Mikado? Begin with a screening of Topsy-Turvy. Then sit with Asimov’s volume on your lap as you watch the 1939 movie and then listen to your choice of a recording of the full score. (A glass of port, brandy or single malt scotch is optional.)