Upside-down with Gilbert and Sullivan

'Topsy-Turvy' offers a (mostly) faithful look at how the comic-opera team suffered in success.

February 27, 2000|By Jeff Landaw | Jeff Landaw,Sun Staff

"There's something inherently disappointing about success," mutters W.S. Gilbert toward the end of the acclaimed new movie "Topsy-Turvy."

Mike Leigh's film, about England's comic opera team of Gilbert and Sullivan, takes its plot from the making, in 1884-1885, of their greatest triumph, "The Mikado." But beneath the brilliant comedy is a layer of irony: Gilbert and Sullivan have gone down in history for the work they valued least.

Composer Arthur Sullivan (played in the film by Allan Corduner) could never hide his disappointment that "The Mikado" was his masterpiece or that his wildly popular work with Gilbert wasn't accepted by the elite. He was knighted in 1883 for his "serious" work -- overtures, cantatas and oratorios, many on biblical themes. Queen Victoria herself urged him to write a grand opera and several critics complained that continuing to write comic opera was beneath his dignity.

Writer Gilbert (played by Jim Broadbent) disparaged his comic operas as "ridiculous rubbish" and "Jack Pudding nonsense." Jane W. Stedman, Gilbert's biographer, writes that he never forgave the public or the critics for the disastrous failure in 1888 of "Brantinghame Hall," the "straight" drama that he insisted was his best work.

Gilbert had to wait for his knighthood until 1907 and grumbled that he was honored as a "playwright," not by the more exalted title "dramatist."

"Topsy-Turvy" (now playing at the Senator Theatre) sticks close to the historic record in depicting the partners' frustration with their own success. Leigh is quoting Gilbert when the librettist describes the operas as "low burlesque." In other details, too, "Topsy-Turvy" works from a careful mixture of fact, inference and intelligent guesswork.

It's true that George Grossmith (Martin Savage), the originator of Ko-Ko and most of the other comic-baritone roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, was nervous and high-strung. And he did periodically calm himself with drugs.

Leigh is also adhering to history when he has Gilbert cut the Mikado's solo and then restore it after a plea from the chorus. And Gilbert did roam the streets in an agony of nervousness on opening night and suffered a toothache while seeking a plot for the new opera -- though we don't know that his dentist told him "Princess Ida" was too long.

And most of the dialogue in the scenes in the office of their producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte, when Sullivan demands that Gilbert produce a different kind of plot and Gilbert offers to leave the partnership, came directly from the partners' letters.

There's no evidence that Gilbert actually saw a Kabuki play at the 1884 Japanese exhibition in London's Knightsbridge district that inspired "The Mikado," but it's plausible.

"When we researched the Japanese village, we discovered its floor plan and there, in one corner, was this theater," Leigh has said. "Then we discovered there were performances every hour and a half. ... I thought how fantastic the idea of him seeing Kabuki and that helping to inspire 'The Mikado.' "

Similarly, there's no record of Mary Frances "Fanny" Ronalds (Eleanor David), Sullivan's expatriate American mistress, having abortions, as "Topsy-Turvy" shows her discussing near the end of the movie, but the idea is likely. If Ronalds had dropped out of circulation long enough to go through a pregnancy and give the baby up or put it out to nurse, people would have put two and two together and made a scandal.

Slippery ground

For most of the movie, then, director Leigh is on solid enough biographical ground. But when he takes on Gilbert's family life, he at least verges on license.

Leigh sticks pretty closely to the facts about Gilbert's father's eccentricity and overbearing temper, and his eventual separation from Gilbert's mother. But he has turned Gilbert's wife, "Kitty" (Lesley Manville), into a stereotype victim of Victorian oppression when there's much indirect evidence that points the other way.

Using Gilbert's diaries, surviving letters and interviews conducted in the 1970s with people who remembered Lady Gilbert, biographer Stedman, who's credited as an adviser on the film, argues that Kitty kept her husband "on a short rein" and quotes someone who said that "in a soft way [she] wore the breeches."

In the film's scene that follows the successful first night of "The Mikado," Kitty suggests a plot for the next opera in which the young heroine grows old and plain while the women's chorus grows younger and prettier. Growing more upset, she turns her idea into a phantasmagoria in which hundreds of nannies push empty perambulators and the heroine's husband strangles her with her own umbilical cord every time she tries to be born.

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