FST's 'Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged' explores the modern undertones of traditional operetta favorites.
It’s fair to call two people an iconic duo if they’re still being talked about more than a century after their deaths, right?
With a “Hamilton” nod and more than 40 active theater societies committed to producing their works, these guys make the cut.
English playwright/librettist Sir W.S. Gilbert and English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan are two of the theater world’s most influential collaborators, and Florida Studio Theatre is celebrating their work in its latest cabaret show, “Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged.”
“I don’t think we would be where we are from the standpoint of what’s on Broadway today if Gilbert and Sullivan hadn’t existed,” says Erik Schroeder, who conceived and produced the show. “They laid the groundwork on which modern musical theater is built — I think that’s their most important legacy.”
GAINING A FAN BASE
This kind of lasting star power isn’t birthed overnight.
The legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan is that of a lyricist and a composer who collaborated brilliantly despite their creative differences, Schroeder says, and the result was the bridge between traditional opera and contemporary musical theater.
Throughout their 25 years of working together, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 comic operas, the most famous of which included “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” and “The Mikado.” Their first, “Thespis,” was not successful. But by the second, they began to gain attention for their catchy melodies and fun tongue-twister lyrics.
“I think Gilbert was one of the original gymnastic lyricists of the time,” Schroeder says. “He was among the first to take the skill that’s turned into what we now understand as the genesis of hip-hop and rap: lyrical poetry, that spinning of words.”
Take these lyrics from “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” for example: “In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major General.”
These guys were silly, and that was clear in both their lyrics and their plotlines. The beloved “Pirates of Penzance” is only about pirates because the hard-of-hearing nursery maid character thinks her boss says “pirate” rather than “pilot” when learning to whom his son is to be apprenticed.
But Schroeder also points out that Gilbert and Sullivan knew how to write serious operas with a side of laughs. “The Yeomen of the Guard” is a tale of unrequited love after all, and it’s set in the Tower of London during the bloody (not so romantic) reign of King Henry VIII.
It’s this ability to capture an audience both through touching, entertaining stories and easy-on-the-ear, upbeat music that’s gained them a devoted fan base.
“The folks who are into Gilbert and Sullivan are fanatics about it,” says Schroeder. “They’re these sort of funny, passionately infusive huge mega fans, but tend to be a smaller segment of the population.”
APPEALING TO THE MASSES
Gilbert and Sullivan’s devoted fans represent a niched genre of theater fan, Schroeder says, so the point of his cabaret show, which is essentially a straight concert with five performers, is to put a modern twist on the pair’s classics to show that their music is for everyone.
The men are known for their operettas, aka more romantically sentimental versions of light operas, but at its core, Schroeder “Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged” says the duo’s music has much in common with what we hear on the radio every day.
Music Director Matt Kahler says even after several years of playing these songs, he still hears new connections between the musical phrases of Gilbert and Sullivan songs and radio hits from stars like Bruno Mars.
“They’re songs that get into your head with the catchy patterns and melodies and chords and then they stay there, which is what a pop song does — that’s the appeal,” he says.
Kahler says he’s seen many traditional Gilbert and Sullivan shows that were stuffy and stale, but this show will be anything but. He thinks the talent and charm of the performers, who all have a great rapport with each other, coupled with the cabaret setting will make for an intimate, surprising night of theater.
And it doesn’t hurt that the pop undertones make it even more accessible.
“Basically the concept behind it (the show) is that they were the original pop songwriters,” Schroeder says. “When you strip away the orchestration and see the bones, the chord structures, melodies, etc., a lot of it ends up being really not that different than pop music.”
The sound is especially appealing to the ear when set to folk instruments, he adds, which is why he jokingly refers to the show as if Gilbert and Sullivan were writing music for Mumford & Sons. If this were an alternate reality and that were actually the case, he says the lyrics would change but the compositions would be mostly unchanged — just arranged differently.
By bringing in mandolins, banjos, fiddle and guitar, he says some audience members won’t recognize it as the music of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The aim is to create a fun, uplifting show that offers something for everyone.
“Gilbert and Sullivan purists who jump at the opportunity to see a traditional staging of their operettas will be pleased, and the person who hears operetta and thinks, ‘Yuck that sounds terrible,’ they’ll come to this concert and be pleasantly surprised by what they hear,” Schroeder says.
INTIMATE MUSICAL EXPERIENCE
Audiences can expect songs about love and romance, Schroeder adds, and he thinks that love will transcend the lyrics.
“You’ll want to fall in love with the performers but also want to hang out with them after,” he says.
The show, which began in Chicago in 2010 and has toured the U.S. for several years, was most recently performed at New York City’s Feinstein’s/54 Below club. It’s unlike traditional takes on the duo’s works because it focuses on the music of the three most popular shows, “HMS Pinafore,” “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” and it isn’t a fully staged, fully orchestrated production with lights, music and costumes. Instead, it’s five actor-musicians who are well-versed in the canon and play the songs with a folksy flair.
Kahler loves that it’s done in what they call promenade style, where the audience is invited to sit or stand anywhere onstage with the actor-musicians while they’re performing. This requires a detailed set of pre-show instructions about getting out of the performers’ way if you feel a tap on your shoulder.
“There’s a real sense of camaraderie that develops from that,” Kahler says. “We have people who have never seen the show before come back three or four times because it’s just that different of a theater experience.”