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The Pirates of Penzance backstage remarks

May 25, 2016

Pirates PosterA number of people have asked for a copy of my backstage remarks to the cast before our opening of The Pirates of Penzance at the Suzanne Roberts in Philadelphia in May 2016. Here they are:

Maybe you’ve had the experience of going to a museum and seeing a painting or an artifact related to a famous genius. You are struck by the wonder of being close to something that was in the hands of this person who accomplished so much, or who thought of something extraordinary, or was simply a fascinating and unusual person. I can recall going through some papers of Victor Herbert at the Library of Congress while researching a score I was restoring, when suddenly I turned over a document and found a letter of Dvorak to Herbert in his hand. It was something trifling Dvorak was saying to Herbert, but the fact that the piece of paper had been in the hands of both of these amazing men was awe inspiring. Works of art or artifacts are like that. They inspire awe. Not only did these men and women live, but the things they touched are still here. It makes you remember that amazing things can still happen.

Theatre and Music are different than a painting or an artifact, because the writer didn’t leave the finished product for us to examine. The writer or composer has only left a set of detailed instructions for others to carry out. The score or the play is an unfinished torso until the performer follows the instructions and brings the piece to life. So while you can sit in front of a painting or read a book at your own pace or examine a sculpture by walking around it, Music and Theatre exist temporally and draw the listener in to experience what it has to say in a fixed and demarcated period of time. In this sense, we who perform these pieces are quite literally the canvas of the artist for as long as we are making the music, and not a moment longer. So when we perform The Pirates of Penzance today, on Sullivan’s birthday, we are collectively opening a window for this audience right here, right now, to experience a great artwork the way the authors intended it to be seen: live, and for a brief and beautiful time. We are the painting, the theatre is the gallery; the performance opens the portal to experience it, and when we bow, the portal closes again and the piece disappears into instructions again.

This is magic.

We live in a time where we have unprecedented access to culture from now and from all the way into the distant past. It is, of course, marvelous! No longer do we need to be wealthy enough to buy an enormous library to get to these great and terrible and beautiful thoughts. But that availability is not without its cost. I can use google images and pull up very quickly an image of every really important painting almost instantly. I can admire its composition and even think about what the artist might have meant when she planned and executed the work. But seeing a tiny digital picture of a thing is not the same as seeing a painting in person. Perhaps like me, you’ve been in an art museum, turned a corner, and seen a painting you knew, only it’s the original. It’s always a surprise. The painting is bigger than you thought, or smaller. The colors don’t look the same. You can perhaps see the brush strokes with impasto effects, or maybe you can’t see any brush strokes at all. When you move to the left, the light hits the surface of the canvas a certain way, and you notice a detail you never saw before. A really great painting asks you to sit in front of it and think. A picture of a painting, however well duplicated, is not the same as the real thing. This audience may know The Pirates of Penzance. Maybe they saw the movie. Maybe they have a recording. Maybe they are aware of Poor Wandering One and the Modern Major General patter song. But tonight we provide the gallery in which they can see this work of art as it was meant to be seen. For about 2 hours, we open the gallery, and we are the painting. And even those people who have seen the piece before have only seen it for 2 hours at a time, no more. Tonight we bring them another chance to see it.

Why is this important? Why does Gilbert and Sullivan matter to us? Their work, and this work in particular, has stood the test of time and spoken to generations of people all over the world because Gilbert holds up the things we must take most seriously: love, duty, family, respect for one’s elders, youth, class, position, the law, and with gentle hilarity points out that they’re all ridiculous. Essential, yes, but very silly. And Sullivan, with his wit and his lyricism adds that they’re also unbearably beautiful. And surely for every one of us, and for everyone in our audience, life generally proves to be ridiculous and beautiful, in equal and ever increasing parts. As our tastes change and our cultural values shift, some of the things Gilbert and Sullivan were writing about come in and out of fashion. But the human experience is essentially universal, so the beautiful lunacy of Gilbert and Sullivan will always find a hearing among people who allow it to speak to them.

As we perform this piece tonight, we will be trying to carry out as best we can the instructions these flawed but brilliant men gave us. We will not be perfectly successful. But savor this moment as you open the window into their world. It is the closest thing to magic you may experience in your everyday life.

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