Backstage with ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

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(Host) Saint Michael’s Playhouse opens its summer 2006 season with one of its most extravagant productions ever “The Pirates of Penzance.”

VPR’s Neal Charnoff goes backstage at the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

(Charnoff) Swashbuckling pirates, a bumbling major-general and a dutiful leading man are just some of the ingredients in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular operettas.

(Pirates sing) “With cat-like tread, Upon our prey we steal;
In silence dread, Our cautious way we feel.
No sound at all! We never speak a word;
A fly’s foot-fall would be distinctly heard “

(Charnoff) Frederick has been indentured to pirates all of his life. On his 21st birthday, he decides it his duty to turn on his mates, and bring them to justice. But his resoluteness is no match for his scheming former mates, an ing nue named Mabel, and a major-general who is, in typical Gilbert and Sullivan fashion, quite verbose.

(Major General Stanley sings) “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news.
Lot of news. Hmmm. Got it.
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse “

(Charnoff) On the heels of a record-breaking 2005 season, St. Michael’s Playhouse Artistic Director Chuck Tobin decided the time was right to tackle Gilbert and Sullivan. But Tobin says a conscious effort has been make to update the operetta’s sensibilities.

(Tobin) “I wanted to make sure that Pirates of Penzance, as an operetta, could speak to a musical theater audience, and not just a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta audience, but to become accessible to a wider range of audience members.”

(Charnoff) So Tobin brought in a cast of Broadway veterans, and approved new musical arrangements written specifically for this production.

The Pirates of Penzance is being directed by Keith Andrews of New York City. Andrews says the re-orchestrations give a subtle nod to contemporary musical theater, while retaining the wit and whimsy of Gilbert and Sullivan. Andrews says that the work of these two men actually gave birth to musical theater as we know it.

(Andrews) “They definitely were creating almost a new form of theater. Back then musical theater didn’t exist in its form today, because it’s an American art actually, but operas did and operettas did. And basically they took the operetta and updated it in a way. They were ahead of their time in respect, that they updated the operetta to just be much more available to the common audience.”

(Charnoff) Andrews adds that Gilbert and Sullivan could bring audiences to operetta while at the same time musically poking fun at the art form.

(Mabel sings) “Take heart, fair days will shine;
Take any heart — take mine!
Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!
Poor wand’ ring one!
Though thou hast surely strayed,
Take heart of grace,
Thy steps retrace,
Poor wand’ ring

(Charnoff) Director Keith Andrews says Gilbert and Sullivan also incorporate satire into the show’s theme.

(Andrews) “The show is actually called ‘The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty.’ The Slave of Duty is basically what the show is about. Frederick thinks that he should be the slave of duty, that duty is before all, even before common sense. The theme is that just basically shows you how see how silly that is, that before all actually should be common sense, rather than duty.”

(Charnoff) Andrews adds that while the operetta offers this moral lesson, The Pirates of Penzance is ultimately about having fun, and love conquering all.

(Pirates sing) “Come, friends, who plough the sea,
Truce to navigation,
Take another station;
Let’s vary piracee
With a little burglaree!”

For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

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