One of the greatest partnerships in musical theater - wordsmith W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan - encountered periodic misunderstandings and conflicting goals. A particularly trying time for these two strong-willed creators of the world's most-popular operettas came in 1889, when Sullivan decided he needed a text that would be secondary to the music. Naturally, the librettist took severe umbrage at the idea. Testy letters were exchanged, egos severely bruised.
The duo seemed on the verge of disunion when, thanks to diplomacy by producer Richard D'Oyly, who had made a fortune on G & S, a handshake saved the day. The result was the 12th Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, and one of their biggest successes: The Gondoliers.
Although The Gondoliers initially ran for 554 performances (H.M.S. Pinafore chalked up 571, The Pirates of Penzance 363, The Mikado 672), it doesn't enjoy as much familiarity as the other hits today.
The Young Victorian Theatre Company, keeper of the G & S flame in Baltimore for nearly four decades, will once again do its part to remind people of the musical and theatrical brilliance in The Gondoliers with a production that opens Saturday at the Bryn Mawr School, directed by James Harp and conducted by J. Ernest Green.
"We do it every eight to 10 years," says Brian Goodman, Young Vic's general manager (he began his association with the troupe as a student performer 31 years ago). "It's one of my favorite shows. In England, it's almost as popular as Pinafore, Penzance and Mikado. But it's expensive to produce. Most G & S shows have seven or eight leads; this one has 14."
All of those characters are caught up in a typical Gilbert plot that revolves around a case of baby-swapping, years earlier, at a royal court. The result is that two gondoliers in Venice are led to believe that one of them is really the King of Barataria. Throw in a Grand Inquisitor and the Duke of Plaza-Toro, not to mention assorted ladies of both common and aristocratic heritage, and you've got a colorful excursion into a world of romance, humor and gentle satire.
"It's a fun show to do in a presidential election year," Goodman says, "since it has a lot of references to Republican government."
As in anti-monarchical, that is. One of the gondoliers, Giuseppe, explains that he could accept a king "who would abolish taxes and make everything cheap." He and fellow gondolier Marco, contemplating the prospect of assuming a throne, also sing of how they would respect "Republican fallacies" and be happy to treat everyone the same: "The Noble Lord who rules the State, the Noble Lord who cleans the plate, the Noble Lord who scrubs the grate, they all shall equal be."
Young Vic productions invariably find a way to allude to contemporary people and events, local or national, to get a fresh laugh, "which some people love and some people don't," Goodman says. "With The Gondoliers, topical references are a little harder to insert. We weren't able to put them into any musical piece, but we did add some to the dialogue."
The score boasts some of Sullivan's most vibrant and sophisticated writing. The operetta's opening is justly celebrated - about 18 minutes of vocal music, unbroken by spoken lines, the longest such opening in the G & S canon. "It's like watching a mini-opera," Goodman says. "Half of it is even sung in Italian."
If Sullivan gave his operatic inclinations full rein here (he started on his only fully serious opera, Ivanhoe, shortly afterward), Gilbert gave his theatrical ones full rein, too - there's a lot of dialogue. "The show is very long," Goodman says. "We've cut it a little bit. You have to."
Something visual has been added for this $175,000 production, though. "One of the problems Young Vic has is that we don't have a permanent home," says Goodman, whose day job is as a lawyer and whose law office doubles as the company's administrative headquarters.
"We have no scene shop, so it's difficult to have good sets. But Opera Delaware did Gondoliers last year, and we were able to rent the set, which is really lovely."
"The Gondoliers" will be performed at Bryn Mawr School, 109 W. Melrose Ave., at 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. July 17-19; and 3 p.m. July 20. Tickets are $36. Call 410-323-3077 or go to yvtc.org.
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