BY CARY GINELL
To anyone who has never seen a Gilbert & Sullivan show, you don’t know what you are missing. It can be argued that W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan introduced musical theater to America, as their shows existed right at the beginning of the birth of the genre in the U.S. Unlike those early American-originated shows, G&S operettas are still being performed and are still popular. The reasons are simple – W. S. Gilbert was – along with Cole Porter – probably the most gifted wordsmith in theater history. Sullivan wrote exquisite melodies that will have you humming and singing long after the show is over. Even if you’ve never heard of Arthur Sullivan, there is little doubt that you have heard some of his melodies. The shows are satirical, but not necessarily dated. They deal with human relationships, human frailties, and good-natured “oh-so-veddy-British” humor. You can see where Monty Python got some of their ideas from by watching these shows. Nobody knows better about G&S’s attraction than Gary Saxer, and in today’s sequel to yesterday’s interview, he talks about the role he is playing in “Ruddigore,” which begins tonight at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts.
VCOS: What’s the funniest thing to happen to you on stage?
GARY: One of my favorite on-stage stories comes from the days of the old Moorpark Melodrama. As “The Drunkard” I was falling into the delirium tremens and, thinking myself about to die (remember, this is a melodrama) began to “bless” my wife, her mother, and my daughter. In one of the very early shows I was saying “bless you, my child” and “bless you, my darling” when somebody in the second row sneezed. Without much hesitation at all I said “bless you, too.” Even I had trouble keeping a straight face at that point. To make this even better, at the next performance, when I got to that exact same place, the accompanist, Zach Spencer (who is the music director and accompanist in “Ruddigore”) sneezed at exactly that point, which allowed me to continue to insert this bit of mirth into the show. That story comes from about 30 years ago. I’ve had other funny things happen but this was the funniest.
VCOS: Tell me about playing the dual roles in “Ruddigore.”
GARY: The part I’m playing in the show is someone who has two different personalities because he “changes” halfway through the show for reasons which only makes sense if you come to see it. The names are Robin Oakapple and Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. I start out as the “good guy” under one name and then become “the bad guy” at the end of the first act. By the way, “Ruthven” is pronounced “rivven” for reasons known only to the British.
To me, this particular part is Gilbert’s way of doing a satire on melodrama. Gilbert often liked to comment about society and melodrama was very popular during the time he wrote this. In melodrama, things are very black and white: the hero is always good and the villain is always bad. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to Gilbert to come up with a reason why the hero would have to become the villain. This poor character then has a real conflict because he is dutified to be the villain even though he is still his same shy self.
Because he is really a good guy at heart, there really aren’t very many villainous things for the character to do. I emphasize the villain side of him by using a different voice characterization when “being bad” in the show. I’m also lucky that I get to wear a big black cape (the villain’s main wardrobe item) so it becomes both audibly and visibly clear when the villain side of him has taken over.
It’s also interesting to note that Gilbert (like Shakespeare and many others) often liked to take characters and turn them upside down or, as we like to say in G&S, “topsy-turvy.” Historically though, Sullivan often got tired of the “magic lozenge” plots Gilbert put together; you take some mysterious medicine or something like that and now suddenly you are a different character. Gilbert has a very clever plot twist in the show which turns the character from a hero to a villain (and- spoiler alert – back into a hero again, of course) and the only real “lozenge” is a curse placed on his family by a witch. Given the time period in which this was taking place, a curse isn’t that outrageous of an idea, so it works.
This part isn’t “Jekyll and Hyde” though. It’s not two parts of the same person but really a good guy who realizes it is his obligation, for the family honor, to be the bad guy. Therefore this really isn’t a dual role but rather a person “playing” as a bad guy until he can figure a way out of that situation.
VCOS: Are you able to pick your favorite G&S show?
GARY: A favorite G&S show is indeed pretty hard. I’ve now had a chance to do many of them and I’m happy to say they each have special things to endear themselves to me. Probably one of the most delightfully written, musically elegant, and most reasonable in terms of plot twists is “The Yeoman of the Guard.” Sullivan outdid himself in some of the songs, especially the ensemble numbers, and the emotional impact of the show still seems very relevant to our current times even though it is written about a time long ago. It is also a show where the main character is not “happily married” at the end but instead ends up dying of a broken heart although that is not explicitly stated; it’s the way it’s supposed to be staged. All of those reasons combined together probably make it my favorite.
VCOS: What would you say to someone who is unfamiliar with G&S to get them to come to see this show?
GARY: I completely understand how difficult it is to get a people to come to see a G&S show. It can often be difficult for people to understand the words because so much of the show is sung and much of the dialogue is in a version of English which, while not as old as Shakespeare, is older than what we use now so plenty of words might be unfamiliar. Think about it though, there must be a reason why shows over 100 years old are still being done. To me, it’s because the shows are really quite good.
For this particular production, one of the great benefits is the size of this black box theater which allows every person to be no more than five rows from the action. This makes it possible for you to hear things better, immerse yourself in the music, and feel comfortable enjoying the jokes.
Every show you go to see is a great way to have a little escape from the real world and yet have a chance to see some real-world problems played out in front of you. With the G&S shows, things are usually very happy at the end, the lovers are all paired up together properly, and it’s very likely you will walk away with at least one tune still happily dancing about in your head. These productions have some great musicians, fantastic singers, costumes which are very appropriate for the period and very nicely done, and a set which makes you believe, for just a little bit, that you are really there. Movies work hard to make some kind of virtual 3-D environment to entertain you, this is truly 3-D entertainment.
While this isn’t one of the “most popular three” of the G&S musicals, it is still a wonderfully good time, the price is right, and we all work pretty hard to make sure you can understand the words. We have a lot of great theater in our region but this group specializes in the G&S shows and I would hope everyone likes to have a bit of fun looking back at something this old and realizing how much of it is still relevant today.
Gary Saxer stars in “Ruddigore,” which begins tonight at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. For dates and showtimes, visit our Calendar of Events.