W.S. Gilbert moved in the most exclusive circles in Victorian–era London; he was a member of high society, a rich and famous man, a snappy dresser and a coveted party guest.
Unlike his collaborator Arthur Sullivan, however, Gilbert was never knighted by Queen Victoria. For although the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were enormously popular, there was something subversive in Gilbert’s lyrics that apparently didn’t sit well with Buckingham Palace.
This weekend, Asbury Memorial presents The Mikado, perhaps the most famous of all the Gilbert & Sullivan works. Jonathan Rabb, who has one of the lead roles, is a G&S scholar, and he thinks he knows why the musical composer was royally favored over the wordsmith.
“I think any time Gilbert sat down to write, he was really skewering the English class system,” Rabb explains. “That’s what he’s making fun of. He’s got one of his main characters here, the Lord High Executioner – taking a really terrible position and making it ‘Lord High,’ to show that the English have a tendency to make something out of nothing. Simply so that it fits into the hierarchy.”
The Mikado takes place in a feudal Japanese village, where pomp, circumstance and the “way things have always been done” are the orders of the day, with hilarious and sometimes disastrous consequences.
“It’s typical Gilbert,” says Rabb. “In HMS Pinafore he’s making fun of the way the Queen had appointed this lawyer to be the head of the Navy. Pirates of Penzance is making fun of Parliament, and saying that they’re all really just pirates. Here, he’s doing the same thing with the English love affair with their sense of nobility.”
As if to underscore his distaste for such things, Gilbert gave the characters silly names right out of a British children’s nursery – Nanki–Poo, Pish–Tush, Ko–Ko and Yum–Yum.
Premiering in 1885, The Mikado was inspired, in part, by the then–current British obsession with all things Japan. Gilbert attended an enormous Japanese exhibition in tony Knightsbridge, which gave Londoners their first glimpse of such things as oriental gardens, tea ceremonies and fan dances. The city’s elite were abuzz, Rabb says, and also full of typical British condescension at their visitors’ “cute, charming ways.”
The Mikado, then, is an amalgam of things that appealed to Gilbert at the time. “But,” adds Rabb, “it’s also this incredibly lovely music and these fun, zany stories.”
Gilbert & Sullivan had just come off one of their rare flops, Princess Ida, when Gilbert took up the Japanese torch. He had to convince his waffling partner to enter into another collaboration (the story is dramatized in Mike Leigh’s brilliant 1999 film Topsy–Turvy).
Rabb, who’s also a published author (books include Shadow and Light, The Book of Q and the just–published novel The Second Son) sang Gilbert & Sullivan for 15 years with a New York City group, the Blue Hill Troupe. In The Mikado he’s playing – wait for it – the Lord High Executioner.
If it weren’t for Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan, he believes, contemporary musical theater would be a whole lot different. “Rodgers and Hammerstein weren’t that averse to making you think,” Rabb points out. “South Pacific is all about racism, The Sound of Music is about the advent of the Nazis and what that did. The King and I is about the end of an era in a kingdom, and how the English came in ...
“It’s not like people don’t flock to those shows and enjoy singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from South Pacific. Not as many people go home singing ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,’ from South Pacific. But it’s in there.”
Asbury’s take on The Mikado is being directed by minister Billy Hester, who helmed the group’s Pirates of Penzance – an immensely popular production – a year ago.
Hester was once lead tenor with the Light Opera of Manhattan; he and his wife–slash–production partner Cheri met while they were both appearing on the New York stage.
“I can’t overstate how important they are,” says Rabb of the Hesters. “These are two people who know the Broadway scene, and so forth.
“To find that sort of professionalism ... the crucial thing in anything like this is to find people who just love doing it, and love being with each other.
“Community theater only works if the people doing it are having more fun maybe than the people who come to see it. And if we have a lot of fun onstage, then the whole thing is great.”
Where: Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, 1008 E. Henry St.
When: At 8 p.m. March 4, 5, 11 and 12; at 3 p.m. March 6 and 13
Tickets: $10 at (912) 233–4351