Archive for June, 2016


Polyrhythm, Musical Theatre, and Hamilton

June 28, 2016


Today I’d like to explore a rhythmic thread in American Musicals which has been reinvigorated in the musicals In The Heights and Hamilton: polyrhythmic patterns. The specific polyrhythmic pattern I’ll be discussing was brought to America by Sub Saharan West Africans who came as slaves, and it grew to influence Central American Folk Music, Spirituals, Ragtime, Jazz, and many other forms of music. As the Habanera, the rhythm has been influencing classical music since the mid-19th century, and when Modernists began to incorporate jazz into their music in the early 20th century, it became part of the arsenal of rhythmic innovation that made the twenties such an interesting decade for music.

As the American Musical began to shed its European finery and take up a more local flavor, composers pulled many elements of black music, including this rhythmic idea. By this time the rhythm had become a fundamental part of the way Americans thought about constructing music. Irving Berlin and George Gershwin in particular devised melodies that expanded on a simple construction common to African music in order to play terrific mathematical games with phrase lengths. The culmination of this constructive complexity comes in the musicals of Leonard Bernstein, who used the device in such a sophisticated manner that he wore out the vein.

In the 1960s and 70s, the culture of Musical Theatre lost the taste for the exploration of these ideas melodically, but the Tresillo rhythm increasingly dominated accompaniment figures, especially in Sondheim and Schwartz.

More recently, the phenomenon that is Hamilton reintroduces a rhythmic play in the vocal line we enjoyed so much in the 1920s and 1930s, through the language of Hip-Hop, where artists have been consistently using these devices for a long time.

In this article I hope to show some of this development and trace just a little of its influence in Musicals, both from long ago, and from today. I am no expert on Hip Hop, but I’m going to try to connect that thread too, and show that Lin Manuel Miranda draws heavily on a musical culture that is linked to the same rhythmic heritage that enlivened the Jazz that once inspired Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Don’t worry, I’m going to do my best to keep it easy to understand.

Polyrhythm in American Music

The idea of more than one rhythmic grouping of notes happening at the same time is nothing new. Things like that were written in the Renaissance, and Mozart, Bach, and especially Beethoven liked to play games with rhythmic patterns. [Since first posting this, my buddy Vance Lehmkuhl turned me on to Haydn’s rhythmic games in his Symphonies too. Wow!] There’s a particular rhythm distinctive to West Africa called the Tresillo, which we see in a lot of Latin American music, particularly in the Habanera. It’s very similar to a hemiola, (the same amount of time divided into both three parts and two parts simultaneously). But while the main beat here is divided into 4 parts, there’s another thing going on which is almost divided into 3 parts: 123 123 12. (this illustration from Wikipedia) There are plenty of places online to see this kind of thing if you have the time to look, but check this video out and you can’t miss it, in the drumming. 12312312.

When Africans brought these rhythms with them, they took on a slightly different form, but the 3+3+2 pattern remained firmly rooted in the bones of the music: (try right around the 16:00 mark)

In Cuba, this same rhythm would become the heart of the Habanera, which would itself become an influence on Jazz, and Urban Blues, particularly for W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton. In the United States, the rhythm embedded itself in many kinds of black music. Its inclusion in Ragtime helped to export it all around the world, and a critical concept emerged: A foreground musical idea could play a complex rhythmic game with a more regular background pattern. This is the heart of what Ragtime is all about. Here are two famous examples from The Entertainer by Scott Joplin. I’ve marked the groupings so you can see how the 3+3+2 pattern appears.Joplin 1

Joplin 2

European composers were delighted by these rhythms, which seemed to be a new way out of what had become a rather boring rhythmic palate for Western Music. Bizet famously took the color and exotic flavor of the Habanera rhythm for his 1875 opera Carmen, and Debussy in 1908 wrote a ragtime spoof in his Children’s Corner, cheekily quoting Wagner in the process. By the time Stravinsky got around to manipulating these ideas in 1917, he had already found by other means a way of detaching the various phrase lengths from their regular oom-pah partners, leaving the gears of accompaniment and melody free to link up in improbable ways with each other. (or against each other, as was more often the case)

For Americans, though, the game has generally been to set up a fairly square and somewhat predictable accompaniment rhythm, over which the other musical lines play a game of syncopation. The trick to the particular kind of syncopation I’m discussing here, using patterns to emphasize a cross-rhythm, turns out to require a cheat in order to work. Because music (especially Western Music) tends to organize itself in symmetrical patterns of measures, you can’t just stack groups of three on top of groups of 4 without putting in a group of 2, or you’ll be out of sync. It’s kind of like Leap Year: We need an extra day every so often or the whole year winds up being off. The pattern we’ve been discussing was 3+3+2 to add up to the 8 needed to line up with the beginning of the next measure without just being off by an eighth note. But composers of novelty piano music in the 20s figured out ways to stretch that even further, to delay the re-alignment and keep the plates spinning, for example with a 3+3+3+3+2+2 pattern, holding off all the 2s until 2 full measures are up. This keeps the right hand pattern off kilter longer and makes the resolution even more amusing for the listener.  Zez Confrey’s biggest hit Kitten on the Keys, published in 1921, carries this idea to an even further extreme: 3+3+3+3+3+3+3+3+8 (with all the twos covered right at the end) He follows that with the traditional 3+3+2.


Irving Berlin and George Gershwin

It was only a matter of time before these syncopated games made their way to Broadway, and it makes sense that Irving Berlin would have had a hand in that, since his biggest early hit was Alexander’s Ragtime Band and since he had such a terrific ear for the interplay of multiple parts as evidenced by the many part songs he wrote throughout his entire career. He was an astute listener to things going on in the culture around him, including the newer developments in rhythm.

For 1921’s Music Box Revue, Berlin crafted a novelty number called Everybody Step. In the chorus of this song, he plays a very subtle rhythmic game. 3 quarters, 3 quarters, then a nesting pattern of 4 groups of 3 Eighth Notes to add up to a total of 4 groups of three Quarters. Through this ingenious figuration, Berlin arrives at symmetry after only 3 measures, so he takes a full measure with no melodic content to bring the pattern back into symmetry with a 4 measure unit:Berlin 1Berlin 2

At this point we’ve elevated the game from building patterns of threes and twos against a larger set of fours, and are now nesting smaller subsections of rhythm into the larger patterns.It’s kind of a miniature version of the large scale structure happening within one of the pieces of the other structure.

This kind of writing sets off a sort of rhythmic arms race: How unusual can the pattern be and still make a memorable and sensible melody? George Gershwin recognized Berlin’s acheivement and pointed to Everybody Step as an exercise for singers who wanted to learn Jazz. He would also launch the next salvo in the battle for rhythmic supremacy, in 1924, in a song he and Ira wrote for Lady Be Good. The title says it all: Fascinating Rhythm.

Fascinating RhythmGershwin has chosen a different game than Berlin: He uses 4 groups of 3 quarters just as Berlin did. But instead of building a nesting set of eighth notes inside the larger pattern, Gershwin innovates from the other direction. The corrective extra space isn’t all shuffled off to the end of the phrase. Instead, some of the four beats we need to complete the four measure phrase are inserted between the groups of three as eighth rests, leaving 2 and a half beats of correction at the end, after it’s all said and done. (That ‘I’m all aquiver’ line doesn’t count out exactly the same as the others, but in context I think it’s basically as I’ve divided it here, with the first eighth of ‘ver’ as part of the 3 pattern.)

I might also point out that this phrase is as much ‘phase’ music as Steve Reich’s Piano Phase or Clapping Music. Notice that each successive measure begins on the next note of the phrase. This happens because Gershwin’s extra eighth rest in the pattern makes the melody just one eighth note short of a measure long. Amazingly, the thing is singable by any random person on the street. That’s genius.

I’d like also to point out that Ira evidently had a very difficult time writing a lyric for this tune. The freestyle rap culture we’ll come upon later is a lyric driven rhythmic game. The game in the early 20th century is driven by the fingers, and the lyric has to do the best it can to keep up after the fact.

Irving Berlin’s next bit of mastery is one of his most famous songs, Puttin’ on the Ritz, which he wrote in 1927, but which didn’t find its way into a musical until the 1930 film of the same name. Berlin embeds the extra four in the middle of the pattern, for a 3+3+4+3+3 idea. He also nests a syncopation which is a kind of three grouping inside two of the threes.

Ritz 1

Ritz 2

It’s really ingenious, very singable, and also phases similarly to the Gershwin we just examined. Watch that F. It’s in beat 1 the first time, on the and of 4 the second time, on 4 the third time, then on the and of 3 the fourth time.

Because all that rhythmic interest is compressed into 4 measures, the remainder of the phrase plays out with only a handful of notes for the following 4 measures.

Leonard Bernstein

After Gershwin died in 1937, we don’t see a lot of this kind of rhythmic play in popular music or on Broadway, with one notable exception: the music of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s music includes a lot of Jazz ideas, and I hear in his music the strong influence of Gershwin and Stravinsky. In Bernstein’s lectures about Mozart, he spends some time talking about Mozart’s exquisite sense of balance, so we know that Bernstein thought this way about all kinds of music, not just showtunes. In his shows in the 1950s, Lenny introduced some real rhythmic innovations; equal parts Gershwin and Stravinsky. By the time Candide rolls around, Bernstein is playing such fascinating phrasing games that he seems to be tying together the threads of Post-ragtime experimentation and Viennese waltz Hemiola. Some of it doesn’t even sound like Jazz anymore.

The first Bernstein example I want to explore is The Wrong Note Rag from Wonderful Town in 1953. It only takes 5 seconds or so to hear that Bernstein is taking the examples I’ve listed above one step goofier and more off-kilter. He frontloads the two counts, and then runs 4 3s in a row, which leaves the rhythmic resolution of the phrase until the very end of the 8 measure unit.The next 8 measures use Berlin’s trick from Puttin’ on the Ritz and embeds a smaller syncopation into the same count set of 2+2+3+3+3+3.

Wrong Note Rag

I’m not even going to begin to discuss what is happening in terms of key here, but it’s further out than anything you would have heard in Musical Theatre in the 30s and 40s.

What’s new here? Bernstein is using the same rhythmic elements pioneered decades earlier by Confrey, Berlin, and Gershwin. What I hear is a new expression of irony. In the introduction, he quotes a very commonplace cliche that he later embeds into the melody itself, and unlike his predecessors, Bernstein is pushing the edges of listenability for comic effect. The lyric is self-referential and mocks the tune. Once a style of music can be parodied in this way, it’s probably not possible to make it function the old way; it has passed into nostalgia and camp.

1956’s Candide is where Bernstein takes that idea of varying phrase-length so far into the classical realm that it one no longer hears jazz in it. There are many examples of this in Candide, but we’ll look at a passage here from Bon Voyage. Bernstein’s intentions here are clear, he marks the meters on the score:Candide corrected


(Bernstein marks the first measure of each 3/2, cut time, and 3/4 meter. I’ve continued marking it for clarity. Yes, notation nerds, I know I’m breaking some rules here to conserve space) 

Note that the first half of the first measure of accompaniment is blank, which makes the listeners unsure whether they are hearing a full measure of 3/2 or a measure and half of cut time. Note also the use of both patterns of 3 half notes and three quarters: it’s Irving Berlin’s game writ large. This is by no means the only example in Candide of this kind of writing, and West Side Story, written right around the same time, also has this kind of thinking in it.

At this point, Bernstein has so internalized this rhythmic interplay that it has simply become part of his musical language. But he’s also playing the game at a level so much more sophisticated than his peers writing musicals that they basically conceded the field to him.

What Happened After Bernstein?

For all intents and purposes, Bernstein disappears from the Musical Theatre landscape after he takes the directorship of the New York Philharmonic. (although if you want to see the rhythmic master at work in his later years, you must have a listen to this. About 40 seconds in, each phrase is slightly longer than the last)

There are some outliers like Burt Bacharach who do really creative things with rhythm, but they are no longer playing the same game as those earlier composers. Bacharach loves to really break up the phrase lengths, but the melodic ideas are not playing a balancing act against the accompaniment; they’re in lock step. Think of a song like Promises Promises in 1968 from the musical of the same name. The time signature changes keep the melody in step with the accompaniment at each juncture.

The 3 against 4 patterns didn’t disappear by any means, but they moved into the accompaniment. In a way, this was a return to their home; patterns of three come very naturally on the piano or guitar, but they do not occur as naturally to a singer. In the 1970s, Sondheim favored Latin bass lines, which often approximate the rhythm I discussed earlier because they’re descended from the same African source. But it’s in the right hand that we find the interplay we’ve come to expect from these earlier experiments, demoted now to the function of providing a bed of eighths or sixteenths over which the singer provides melody:

Another Hundred People (1970) is perhaps the archetype of this accompaniment style:

Company 1970 1

Marry Me A Little, cut from CompanyCompany 1970

Stephen Schwartz also favors this kind of pattern:

From Corner Of The Sky in 1972.

Pippin 1972

Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife in 1976:

Baker's Wife 1976

Other examples would include Patterns from Maltby and Shire’s 1983 musical Baby, parts of  You’re Nothing Without Me from Cy Coleman’s 1989 City Of Angels, No More from Marvin Hamlisch’s 1993 the Goodbye Girl,  Stars and the Moon from the 1995 Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown, and a host of others.

Note that in these patterns, the number grouping is usually the same, (3+3+3+3+2+2) and that the note patterns are for the most part metronomic and unvarying, which is only right. After all, this is an accompaniment, not a foreground figure. It really shouldn’t be too interesting. These patterns appear frequently in mainstream Musical Theatre from the 1970s onward. In fact, I think these kinds of piano finger-picking patterns are one of the truly distinctive features that mark mainstream modern musical theatre after rock began to be introduced. One doesn’t find this kind of accompaniment many other places, and when one does find it in the occasional choral octavo, it often sounds ‘like Musical Theatre’. Even though the style contains an echo of the earlier patterns, this is a far cry from the kind of metric playfulness we had seen 40 years earlier. The vocal melodies we hear from the 1970s onward in most Musical Theatre are generally fairly square, rhythmic interest coming from back-phrasing or from simply singing very very fast, or with long notes at the end of an otherwise busy phrase. I’m not arguing here that this writing is bad, I’m only pointing out that the interests of the writers lay elsewhere. On occasion, we find examples of people using the older styles in a pastiche mode, for example in Ragtime or Thoroughly Modern Millie. But the fact that they’re employed to evoke the earlier time simply proves my point.

Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda

Look AroundSo far I have only been discussing the mainstream Musical Theatre written mostly by white composers playing out ideas that originated in black culture. The Musical Theatre written by people of color over the last hundred years has consistently brought in elements from Blues, Jazz, Latin Music, Soul, Hip Hop, R&B, Gospel, and other related forms. Because these popular forms are more closely connected to the source of black music, they often contain elements of rhythmic play that mainstream white musicals haven’t been interested in exploring. This incredible culture of black musicals has intrigued white audiences, but never in such an overwhelming way as the recent reception of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work.

The opening number of Miranda’s 2008 In The Heights begins with the son clave rhythm, which includes the tresillo, and is the lifeblood of Afro-Cuban music. As an urban Latin groove unfolds, Miranda, singing himself as the character Usnavi, raps:Usnavi

(this iteration comes from the piano vocal selections, the cast recording is slightly different.)

Now that we have all learned what an important and capable writer Miranda is, these words seem like an introduction, a statement of purpose, and a demonstration of methodology. He claims a multifaceted ethnic heritage and his intention to return to it, along the way playfully phrasing 3 and 2 beat phrases at the level of the eighth and the quarter note, and even splitting the eighth into triplets. This way of playing the foreground against the background is still a rich vein in hip-hop, but we haven’t seen it so convincingly and pervasively applied in Musical Theatre since Bernstein, and then it contained a rich admixture of Stravinskian modernism.

Much has been made elsewhere of how well Miranda has managed to fuse the values of Hip-Hop and the well-made musical, and that’s very important. But here I want to examine the re-infusion of rhythmic play. Even though I’m certain Miranda knows this thread of Bernstein’s theatre music very well, his expression of it is not a throwback to Bernstein at all, but a re-connection to a much deeper thread via the language of Hip-Hop, where these African ideas have never left the conversation.


In an interview with Jon Caramanica,  Miranda talks about his influences, and the kind of music he listened to as a child. He actually describes a listener exactly like me in this interview:

“..they hear a polysyllabic rhyme, and they go, ‘oh! Eminem!’, because that’s the only polysyllabic rapper to which they are exposed. If you only have like, a toe in that water, that’s all you’re gonna know.”

Intuitively, of course, I know that there’s a deeper culture of that kind of rapping; I just haven’t encountered it in my daily listening habits. So I was interested to hear some of the places he first encountered the kind of quick internal rhyming I’m talking about.

“When I discovered Big Pun, I mean everything… everything turned upside down. Just ’cause, you know I’d heard, I’d listened to Rakeem, I’d listened to, you know, Kool G Rap, but to hear [raps] ‘Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know that we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddly…’ I literally didn’t know that was possible. Even Musical Theatre had never given me internal rhyme like that.”

He’s right. Internal rhyme in traditional Musical Theatre is incredible, but the balance is between the perfection of the rhyme and the exact placement in the scansion of the rhyme. One of my go-to internal rhymes is this knock-out from Sondheim’s Follies:

Sally dear, now that we’re man and wife

I will do wonders to make your life

Soul stirring, and free of care

If we fight, and we might, I’ll concede

Furthermore dear should your ego need

Bolstering, I’ll do my share.

The wonder of Sondheim’s rhyme, (which is goofing on Ira Gershwin’s style) is that the dear-we’re, do-to, fight-might, …more-your internal rhymes land like clockwork at the same foot in the scansion, that the impressive bolstering-soul stirring rhyme sits unexpectedly at the top of each last line as a bonus, and that there are no near-rhymes, only perfect ones. Despite the mechanical brilliance, it also sounds like something somebody might actually say; there are no Yoda-isms. This is how good traditional Musical Theatre rhyming works. But the example Miranda raps from Big Pun is playing Scott Joplin’s old game, with the accents punching out 3+3+2+3+2+2+3+3+2+2+3+2+2. It was awesome when Stravinsky heard it, and it’s still awesome now. (I understand that this is super old news for Hip-Hop fans, but you’ll bear with me)

It would probably be impossible to list every time this device happens in Hamilton; once you hear it working, you won’t stop noticing it all over the showWashington

It’s all over the rap passages:

My Shot 1


My Shot 2

It’s also in the accompaniments, like this figure in My Shot:My shot Accompaniment

Sometimes it’s in both at the same time. This example has most of that old Habanera bass line, and then in the next measure we hear the Tresillo rhythm twice as fast as it was in the previous measure. At the end of the following two measures, we get the sped up sixteenth version twice in a row, with accents to make sure we don’t miss it. But it’s also up in the vocal line.

Satisfied Example

And then this moment, where Miranda runs 6 threes in a row over a barline:Satisfied Example 2

I don’t know about you, but these excerpts and others like them are among the most thrilling moments in the musical; they’re what make it distinctive for me as a listener.

Musical Theatre, like other kinds of popular culture, needs a kind of blood transfusion from other art forms to keep from slipping into a coma of repetition. In the 1920s and 30s, the infusion came from Jazz. In the 60s, it came from Rock, in the 80s, we suddenly got very interested in what the British had to say. In this century, one lifeline seems to be coming just in time from the Hip-Hop community, reflecting ideas as old as America itself, and rich with a complex and conflicted racial past. It remains to be seen whether other writers can make the same kind of compelling musical arguments, or whether Miranda will be the only master. It’s tempting to think that every significant new show will speak this new language, but the important thing is that new musicals keep pulling in people and ideas from other genres and cultural experiences and using them authentically and compellingly in the service of a good story.

I’ll let Lin-Manuel Miranda have the last word, from that same interview:

“What I like about Hip Hop is what I like about Musical Theatre, which is we can absorb any genre and flip it and make it our own. That’s the thing the two genres share, even though there isn’t a ton of overlap. You can have a musical that absorbs disco music like David Byrne did with Here Lies Love, and use it to tell a story. You can use Emo to write Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; it takes whatever it needs. Jay Z’s biggest hit sampled Annie. Hip Hop has that same thing, of we will take what we need to get our message across, and that’s what I love about both genres.”




How did they do school shows back in the day?

June 22, 2016

I’ve recently found some old sources about how to put on a school show. This blog originally catered toward people putting on school shows, and I thought some of my readers might get a kick out of how much things have changed, and how they also absolutely haven’t changed at all. There seems to have been a real vogue for school operetta from the late 1920s through 1940, and most of these quotes come from that era.

Oddball Advice

Have all your rehearsals onstage.

“Have your rehearsals conducted as often as possible upon the stage on which the contemplated performance is to take place, for in an operetta you will in all probability have groups to deal with. If available space is not taken well into account, it will be found necessary at the last moment, perhaps, to dispense with the services of some who have worked hard in preparation, and who have possibly gone to the expense of purchasing a costume. This, to a boy or girl is heartbreaking.” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Despicht goes on to explain that if you can’t have all your rehearsals onstage, you can tape out another room to make sure you don’t need to dismiss half the chorus when you realize they don’t fit on the stage. I love that this advice sounds like it comes from bitter experience.

Kids are cool and will basically get all your casting decisions.

“The director should be unbiased in choosing his principal characters. His chorus must know that he is governed in his choice by the desire for a successful production. Students are generally fair minded and will abide by the directors decision.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Where is this school? Has anyone experienced this calm reaction to casting, ever?

Scenery is Overrated.

“Perhaps the wisest plan is to trouble very little about [scenery], for it is far less essential than many people suppose…” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

If you need publicity, that’s what the English department is for.

“The English department will handle the publicity.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Or you can do it the old fashioned way: (I’m pretty sure this picture was meant as a joke in the book)

Live advertising

Frank A. Beach’s Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Wow, Things Have Changed!

Spanish Grandee

Those gas lights can be a pain.

“Let some adult be in charge of all lights and fires about the premises. He should have no other duties. Lastly, don’t lower the gas in the auditorium so that visitors can neither read their programmes nor the Book of Words.”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

I know this is the way theatrical lighting has been for most of the history of theatre, but it’s a miracle everyone wasn’t immolated at every production.

Need electrical lighting equipment? Make it yourself!

“A home-made dimmer may be constructed at a comparatively small cost. In making a dimmer, consideration should first be given to the resistance, voltage, and candle power of the light to be employed. Ordinarily a resistance equal to four times the resistance of the lamp load must be placed in series with the foots or borders, or with both, in order to dim completely either or both of these circuits. The bulletin, L.D. 146 A of the General Electric Company, on stage lighting suggests…”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“A set of four or five dimmers can be made for five dollars. Common drain tile is used. A copper slug is cemented to the bottom of the tile, with an electric cord attached to the slug leading out the bottom. To the other end of the cord is attached another copper slug. The second wire is unbroken and runs down the outside of the tile. The tile is filled with water and the closer the slugs come together the brighter the light will be…” – Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

“The following homemade dimming device is very satisfactory for small stages. In recommending this we want to again caution the amateur to be very careful, for there is always danger in handling live wires. Take two old dry cell batteries and extract the center pole by breaking away the packing around it. This center pole is a stick of carbon. Next cut one of the wires of the electric cord leading from the current source… fill a large earthen jar three-fourths full of water…” – Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

Hold up. To save money, we’re chopping up batteries and floating things in water?? After theatrical lighting went electric, it’s still amazing everyone wasn’t killed!

An opposing view is expressed by Mr. Jones:

“While it is quite possible to make improvised dimmers, it is not advisable on account of the fire risk and the danger of electrocuting the stage crew.” -Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

Have half the rehearsals during the school day.

“It is always desirable to make the rehearsals a part of the classroom work…”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

“In this schedule at least one-half the time required should be taken from the regular school day. The arrangement of such a program will conserve the strength of the participants, avoid conflict with scheduled and extra events, encourage cooperation, and avoid serious encroachments upon the leisure hours of the student and the director.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

But when would they do the standardized testing?

Costumes? Make the girls sew them.

“…when a performance of any dramatic piece is contemplated a committee of ladies should be formed to carry out this department of the business. The ordinary theatrical costumer does not care for the work unless he may charge an enormous price. The school staff, assisted by lady friends, do the work better, and at much less cost.”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Well, the bit about theatrical costumers charging a lot you have to agree with. But surely there must have been some boys who wouldn’t have minded helping?

Don’t choose shows with all that tawdry jazz in it.

“It is a cause for regret that so many [published operettas], consisting of cheap and tawdry verses set to commonplace and drab, or jazz-colored melodies, masquerade as worthy operettas, and as such are admitted into good standing in the musical repertoire of many schools.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

No Cello? An Alto Sax will do. They can just transpose.

cello sax-Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

This is just a terrible, terrible idea. No, no, no.

I’m just going to leave this here…

Make upblackfaceBoth of these come from Frank A. Beach’s Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

um nomistrelsblackface 2

These are from Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930, who says “The only real black-face makeup is done with burnt cork.”

“Irish, German, blackface, and similar characters usually involve a certain amount of dialect, and actors must be especially careful not to overdo it. The colored porter in ‘Peggy and the Pirate,’ the Swedish maid in ‘Sailor Maids,’ and the Irish comedian in ‘Belle of Barcelona’ are funny only if they are heard.”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

Let’s hope those days are all behind us.

Some Things Never Change

Pick a worthwhile show.

“If the supervisor or amateur director, then, realizes and accepts his responsibility and opportunity in connection with the selection of an operetta, he will be confronted by two questions: first, ‘What will the singer do to the operetta,’ -second, and equally important, ‘What will the operetta do to the singer?'”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“…our first admonition is to select an operetta worthy of serious production, one that will enlarge the interest in life itself, that will instruct and deepen the sympathies, and lead to a better insight into the motives of men.”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

Use Understudies.

“The presence of well-trained understudies also serves another purpose- that of keeping each member of the cast alert in the matter of attendance, interest, and effort; for the knowledge that someone else stands ready to step into his place is an excellent spur for each principal.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Don’t let kids cast the show.

“To have a vocal class vote on these candidates is one way of asking for trouble. The judgment of the class is too apt to be prejudiced.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Shockingly, I occasionally hear of schools that have students make the casting decisions today.

Don’t bow to parental pressure.

“A supervisor should be cautious in dealing with the ambitious ‘little star’ who in order to gain a footing, will sometimes bring unthought-of pressure, and even parents with interests somewhat their own ‘move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.'”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

“Family connections, social prestige, or financial status have no bearing whatever on the qualifications of the actor. No boy should be chosen because he is the trustee’s son, and no girl is qualified merely because she is the banker’s daughter!”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

Make sure the singing parts are cast with actual singers.

“Singing by people absolutely devoid of prowess is torture to performer and audience alike.” – Charles T.H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

Learn the music first.

“If possible, let all learn all the music, solos and choruses (regard being paid to the range of the child’s voice) and let the spoken parts be read til all errors are eliminated. Nothing so irritates the young performers as to have to ‘stand about’ when all should be in action, while some soloist repeats and re-repeats his part.” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Yes. Have the music rehearsals first.

Somebody actually needs to block the show.

“Although it is plainly evident to the audience that in the preparation of the operetta the music has been carefully directed, it is equally apparent to a critical observer that the action in the average operetta suffers from the lack of direction.” -Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Biggest complaint I hear from kids about productions they’re in? They had to make up their own blocking.

Your costumes need not be as racy as they are on Broadway or the Vegas national tour.

“In connection with the dancing chorus it is well to supervise the type of costumes that will be worn. Girls particularly will want to wear the abbreviated costumes seen on the professional stage. These generally are unsuited to school productions, aside from the fact that they are seldom compatible with the text of the show. Perhaps the most serious effect of this type of costume is to provoke eyebrow raising and loss of sympathy for the production by the adults of the audience. They may ask, and rightly so, if that is the sort of things schools are teaching today.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

I’m with him. In some high school productions I’ve attended, I’ve spent most of the dance numbers studying carefully the ad for the car dealership on the back inside cover of the program. Oh, and you kids get off my lawn.

You also don’t need to blow your vocal cords out singing like the Original Cast Recording.

“The conductor will do well to keep in mind the fact that the average operetta will be given but once; the voices of the singers will be used for years to come. No vocal effect therefore will justify the misuse of the voices of the cast and chorus. Furthermore, the director in his choice of the operetta should remember that a work which has no moments that are really musical- from a vocal standpoint- is unworthy of the time of the conductor, the cast, or the chorus.” -Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Get those scene changes moving fast.

“One or more of the early rehearsals should be devoted to stage setting alone; the director may use, as an incentive for acquiring rapid shifts, a definite time limit within which the used setting is to be removed and the next one set up. Dress rehearsals often drag late into the night simply because the stage manager has neglected to have separate rehearsals for scenery and lighting.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“Do not forget to hold one or more special rehearsals for the stage crew at which time nothing is done but the actual changing of scenery and properties. A half-hour wait between acts is intolerable and unnecessary.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

“Never, under any circumstances, let more than ten minutes elapse between acts. Five minutes are better.”– Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

Shout it from the rooftops, people.

Have an honest to goodness dress rehearsal and give the speech.

“See that they are equipped with everything necessary and require them to wear it at least for the first act if no change is necessary. This is important. You will then find that the flowing dresses of the girls catch on the scenery, that one boy trips himself on his cane, that swords are difficult to manage, that beards fall off and any number of things are apt to happen. Another trial for the director is the disposal of costumes after the dress rehearsal. Watch your hero throw is outfit in a corner and rush out. When he wants it again, he will not be able to find it. Then confusion results, and the curtain rises on a thoroughly demoralized hero. Get a suit box for each person. Impress your cast with the necessity for taking care of their costumes. Your home economics people should check them as soon after the dress rehearsal as possible. Hold your dress rehearsal at least two days before the performance.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Makeup. Amirite?

“Watch the make-up problem. Amateur make-up artists are often bad. Professionals are sometimes worse. In a school auditorium where the lighting is inferior to the professional theater, your professional make-up man will plaster it on so think as to make your actors look ridiculous. Try out your make-up man as you do your electricians and scene shifters. It will pay dividends.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

There’s always that one kid…

“You cannot do anything with the fellow who arrives at the school just at curtain time. He is a species that produces gray hair on the director’s head. Sometimes you can predict who that person will be, but sometimes it is your most trusted principal actor… In any event, if you wish to live to a normal age, have your entire company on hand a half hour before curtain time- and keep them out of sight.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Be inspirational. Energy, energy, energy!

“Just before the curtain is ready for the overture he should call all of his people on stage and have another one of his heart-to-heart talks. This talk should be entirely optimistic; he knows they are going to give him a wonderful performance; that every one must give him the best that is in him; that they must all watch for their entrances; speak loud enough and make the audience feel that this is the happiest and peppiest bunch of young people in the country.” – Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

But More Importantly: Why do it?

“Reasons might be easily added, such as the extraordinary amount of pleasure the young folks take in the musical portion of an operetta, the charm this always has for the parents and friends of the youthful singers, and so on…”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

 “Few programs seem to afford audiences as great pleasure as does the school operetta: it seems to be a lodestone which attracts many who are vitally interested in, as well as those who are remotely concerned with, what is going on in the school. The pleasure afforded to the school community; the gratification which results from seeing, even in a minor role or in a chorus part, one’s own child or a neighbor’s; and the varied appeals of the operetta itself,- all combine to make it a unique medium through which a school may appeal to its own particular and intimate audience.” -Frank A Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Kenneth Umfleet’s words are still profound and important, probably more true now than 80 years later.

“Most of our educational efforts have been considered sufficient if they have properly attended to the intellectual side of the pupil. The emotional elements, which in reality are far more important in determining character and action, have been left to shift for themselves, practically unguided. We have been centering our efforts on training the intellect rather than the emotions, yet the greater part of mankind lives, and is guided by emotion. It is said that practically all the actions of the present generation are traceable to an emotional source, and, in view of this supposition, the neglect of emotional training is a serious fault in our educational system. It is the opinion of many that dramatic activity will serve as an emotional outlet, an excellent safety valve for the young…

…Moreover, in our schools and in our life we fail to recognize adequately the educational power of joy – the joy of refined and edifying leisure activities. Our education seems to have run to brains, giving slight regard for the feelings. It has been slighting the heart, the imagination, the creative and dramatic nature of the child…”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

I’ll try and share more trips down memory lane as I come across them!


A Wonderful Noise: A Musical By Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl

June 16, 2016

I had the privilege of Music Directing a delightful new musical by Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl this past Spring at Villanova. Normally when I music direct a production, I do a long and exhaustive guide explaining the ins and outs of putting up the piece. Because this work is newer, and because I was heavily involved on the creative end of the production, I’m going to write this post a little differently. This lovely work deserves a wider audience and I’ll make a case for which kinds of companies could put it on. I also imagine some of you may be interested in the backstage process of putting on a new work like this, so I’m going to share what it was like to prepare to program the work, to rehearse it, and some of the process of orchestrating the music for the pit.

Michael Hollinger is a nationally known Philadelphia playwright with a reputation for writing very smart, carefully constructed plays full of humor and insight. He is a careful listener, an insightful teacher, and a witty and thoughtful conversationalist. His plays share these qualities. If you don’t know his work, you’re really missing out. I should also mention that he is a fine violist and a wonderful speaker about the process of writing a play.

Vance Lehmkuhl writes for the Philadelphia Daily News and is an expert on all things vegan. He is an exceptional and award winning cartoonist, sometime pop-band frontman, music enthusiast, and remarkable outside-the-box thinker. Kind, clever, and hilarious, Vance is the sort of fellow you want to be standing next to at a Vegan party.

These two really extraordinary men met and began collaborating at Oberlin College and have worked on a number of projects together. They wrote A Wonderful Noise as a collaborative effort. Michael wrote the book alone, but the story, score, and lyrics were a team project. The musical has won the Frederick Loewe award for Musical Theatre and the In The Spirit of America Award from the Barbara Barondess MacLean foundation, and it was produced very successfully at Creede Repertory Theatre in 2009.

I profile the authors here because the piece shares many of the qualities and interests of these two delightful and unusual men. A Wonderful Noise is a rarity for new musical theatre. The writers set out to write an un-ironic book show set in the 1940s, built around 9 young Americans “becoming the Greatest Generation”, as Hollinger put it once in a conversation with the cast. The musical is a love letter to classic musical theatre and barbershop harmony, but it also manages to tackle feminist issues, pacifism, and religious differences with warmth and humanity. The lyrics are fun, zany, and often very witty.

The plot revolves around two singing groups entering a barbershop competition in 1941: The Harmelodians, a traditional mens group, and Sweet Adeline, a girls harmony group trying to crash the competition dressed as men. The members of these two groups are locked in a musical and romantic rivalry which comes to a head at the competition itself. Meanwhile, the threat of war begins to cast a shadow that threatens them all.

The book scenes demonstrate Hollinger’s trademark deft storytelling touches, smart characterization, and perfectly seamless exposition, and the musical storytelling is ambitious and smart. It’s difficult to tell a story using period musical ideas without descending quickly into characterless pastiche, but Hollinger and Lehmkuhl find ways to be authentic to the tone of the period that are infused with a personal and zany voice that feels really original. I’d like to single out nine numbers for special mention:

All photos here are from the Villanova production directed by Harriet Power, and were taken by Paola Nogueras.

1. End of the Line

The opening number of the show takes place as both quartets arrive in Saint Louis. It’s a rousing kickoff that makes great use of the entire cast, both contrapuntally and as a full group. The accompaniment sets the mood of the period, the number quotes Chattanooga Choo Choo and briefly introduces a melody which will later be the major love theme of the show.

2. All for One

The men’s group is introduced in this lively march, which deftly quotes several classic songs to introduce the importance of Barbershop in the characters’ conception of comradeship, especially as it relates to World War I. This is also the first time we begin to hear snippets of real barbershop harmony, all of which is executed very authentically over the course of the piece.

3. Give A Girl A Chance

The ladies opening number is a rousing ensemble calling for greater opportunities for women. There are some deft Motown touches and comic moments that seemed very apt as we presented the musical during the Primary season in 2016. It’s a showstopper.

4. Turn The Clock/Corner of Your Heart

A Wonderful Noise does some really smart and special storytelling in this arena: In a flashback it is revealed that Chip and Mae had been dating some time earlier. Chip had written a poem, which Mae had set to music as a surprise. When their relationship failed, each of them took the song back to their groups and arranged it for quartet, unbeknownst to the other. The audience gets to hear the material as originally presented, and also in two totally different arrangements, each of which shrewdly reveals the characters differing outlooks. (both musically, and in terms of what happened in the relationship) This use of music to reveal character is the mark of a well-made show.

We hear the men’s version of Turn The Clock in rehearsal, and it’s really fun to watch them fine tune their performance. It’s a straight up traditional barbershop ballad, with all the charm and detail we would hope for from the genre. The ladies version is a very subtle piece of writing for women, with some exquisite harmony and some word changes to show Mae’s thoughts on their breakup.

5. I Can Sing That

Agnes has a wonderful traditional showtune here, where she tells Pettigrew she can sing anything, and then does, including a Mongolian Yak Milking song. It brought down the house.

6. Act I Closer (Give and Take)

This sequence is really special. Snippets of barbershop are peppered through the final scene of the Act, which is a complicated game of one-upmanship. That scene rolls seamlessly into a really complex closing number, with touches of Music Man style speak-singing, fast close harmony, a catchy tune, scatting, a canon, and a wild 8 part counterpoint that barrels us to the act’s conclusion. It is quite difficult to learn; we needed to spend a lot of rehearsal time to get it into shape. But while the material is difficult, and there’s a lot going on, the storytelling is very strong and easy to follow, and it leaves us breathlessly right where we should be at an act break.

7. Ma Roney’s Daughter

This number is meant to be a little too off-color for the audience at the competition, but it’s very tame by today’s standards. (which is part of the joke) This is easily the funniest barbershop number I’ve ever heard. Barbershop groups should really be doing this outside the context of the show. I won’t spoil the jokes for you, except to say that the song is about the charms of dating and marrying a woman with a wooden leg. The barbershop writing is really exceptional, and it’s beautifully paced. Another show-stopper.

8. Chit Chat

A really fun number with wonderful wordplay and a great swing dance break for two guys.

9. Chin Up

This was a difficult number to learn, but it’s a wonderful toe-tapping audience pleaser with some hilarious lyrics, and a really fun all-sing for 6 characters. Picture a rousing Dixie style romp full of references to historical figures who failed and got back up again. (except some of them didn’t)

Those are just 9 of the numbers in this little jewel of a show. Many smaller companies often have difficulty tackling Golden Age musicals, with their large cast and orchestra sizes and budget breaking scenic needs. This musical taps into the same kind of nostalgia and good-clean fun you would expect from pre-1960s musicals, with a knowing nod to some relevant social issues and some modern touches. It also has the potential to resonate strongly with older audiences. But unlike shows like Oklahoma or Brigadoon, A Wonderful Noise would work best in a small house with a strong ensemble cast of good musicians (more on that later). If that describes your theatre, I would encourage you to look into this show. Audiences adore the barbershop quartet in The Music Man; this musical plays out the same joyous thrill over the course of an entire evening.

Behind the Scenes of the Villanova Production

Barbershop Workshop

In 2006, director Harriet Power headed a two week workshop at New Dramatists with the authors to develop and revise the piece, so in a sense, our production was a reunion of a creative team that had originally done a lot of the work of perfecting the show. I was the new kid on the block with this piece, but they brought me up to speed in a hurry.

We began talking about the production a year in advance. Because of the complicated a cappella writing throughout, we wanted to make sure we had the kind of singers to pull off the score well. We held a workshop on Barbershop/Sweet Adelines singing on campus to explore the interest and abilities of our student body. Michael, Vance, and Harriet joined me as I gave a brief talk about Barbershop Singing, its history and practice. Then we did a warmup and I quickly separated the singers into 4 parts based on range. Then I took the ladies, Michael, Vance, and Harriet took the men, and we quickly taught them a passage of traditional barbershop. If you’ve ever done any barbershop style singing, you know that the highest part and the bass part are not generally very difficult to hear, that the melody is in the second voice from the top, (called the lead) and that the second to lowest voice (or baritone) is often punishingly difficult, because it threads in and out over the melody note to fill in whatever note in the chord isn’t covered by the other three voices. It’s best to teach this kind of music a part at a time, combining voices in different pairings until everyone knows what’s happening relative to the other parts. If you’re paying close attention as you teach the parts, you can easily discover who has a good enough ear to carry the part, who has potential, and who really can’t do it. There are many fine singers who can’t negotiate these kinds of interior parts. When we had taught a passage, we split up into solo quartets and tried it without the piano to help. Then, at the end of an hour or so, we all came back together and sang our selections as a group to each other. Like most colleges these days, Villanova has a very strong a cappella scene, so many of these singers had experience with a cappella music, but not much familiarity with barbershop, and as with most people, they were surprised at how fun and challenging it was! The creative team decided it would indeed be possible to mount the show, but we’d need to spend a lot of time making sure we cast the right people, and we confirmed the suspicion that we’d plenty of rehearsal time to get a collegiate cast where they needed to be. Villanova acquitted itself well.

The semester before auditions, I designed and taught an undergraduate course about a cappella singing; how to arrange for vocal ensembles, basic vocal and rehearsal techniques, auditioning and organizational ideas, etc. It was built to support the student a cappella community at Villanova, which is very strong, but it also gave me a chance to get my own head around the issues involved. The class was such fun, we’re repeating it this coming year.


The show had two public readings and a full production with piano before we got to it, but this was going to be the first time it would be performed with a pit orchestra. I was charged with the task of writing the orchestrations. The summer before the production, I met with Michael and Vance over vegan snacks and coffee, and we carefully went over how I was going to build the band parts. It was important to me that we have a small pit, in the same scale as the cast, firstly because Villanova’s performance space isn’t enormous, and secondly because I wanted future productions to be able to hire the entire instrumentation without having to cut anything for budgetary reasons. The show needed a swing feeling, so we opted for Piano, Bass, Drums, two reeds, (doubling between them flute, piccolo, clarinets, alto, tenor, and bari saxes) a trumpet and a trombone.

As I began orchestrating, I listened to a lot of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and of course Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie. I discovered the challenge was to recreate the sound of the swing era without a full compliment of reeds to play against a full compliment of brass. In a big band arrangement, the trumpets usually play together, the saxes play something else, and the trombones yet a third thing, mostly as sections, antiphonally. You can’t really do that with only one trumpet, one trombone, and 2 reeds. That instrumentation is better suited to a dixieland style. However, I found that you can get some of the same feel even with a reduced orchestra if you’re clever. When the alto sax is on top of a chord voicing and the tenor is on the bottom, with the trombone in the middle, you can get a decent sax section clone. (although it gives the trombone a workout) When the trumpet is on top, the trombone on the bottom, and the alto in the middle, you get a kind of brassy trumpety sort of sound, and when you put the tenor sax in unison with the trombone, you can fake that kind of trombone section all-play sound fairly well. There’s a charming duet in the second act between the Jewish member of the mens group where he attempts to court a girl in the other group who is pretending to be Jewish and failing. Writing the quirky klezmer clarinet was a lot of fun, and I found other places in the score to write Gene Krupa style toms, soulful bluesy sax, marching band piccolo obbligato, dixieland trombone, and motown bari sax. It was really a blast to put together the pit.

As I finished first drafts of each of the numbers, I’d send them to the authors, and they’d return notes to me that were really helpful, clarifying what they intended dramatically, and I worked to clarify my work to reflect their intentions. It was delightful to have such an inside look at how the authors wanted their material performed, and I felt much better prepared to start the production.


Our audition process was very specialized and comprehensive. We heard the normal song selection of classic musical theatre and a monologue, and I did a range check. Then I did two ear-training exercises; the traditional one, where I played a three note chord and  asked the actor to sing the middle pitch of the three. Again, an inability to hear that pitch doesn’t make a person a bad singer, but for a show like this, you need really fine ears. If we got a good result there, I put the actors through a really unreasonable test: I played My Country Tis Of Thee with them, then asked them to sing it in the same key they just sang it in, while I accompanied them in another key entirely. By the time we got through that gauntlet, the audition committee and I had a fairly good idea  of who was going to be a possibility for the two quartets. Of that group, we separated the voice types, particularly looking for the highest and lowest parts. This style of singing requires a very strong, clear bass, and a light, floaty high tenor. The singers best at putting over a song should go to the Lead, and the best ear should go to the Baritone. (second from the bottom) This distribution is also true of the ladies group. Of course, the authors and directors also had strong ideas about who would suit the roles best, which figured into our callback plans as well.

For the callbacks, I had isolated brief sections of the more difficult moments in the solo and duet numbers to be sure our actors were capable of the harder non-group moments. We also taught 4-8 measures of the a cappella music for the men and another set for the women. The big moment in the evening was the counterpoint section of Give and Take. We taught the large group of actors the parts based on their ranges, then split them into groups of eight (4 men, 4 women) and heard them carry their parts on their own. After this process, we had a short list of who was able to do the heavy lifting in terms of the a cappella music. I relayed my thoughts to the rest of the team, they contributed their own observations, and we continued with scene work to get enough information to cast the show.


Once we had decided on a cast, we scheduled a number of early rehearsals, where we began with the most difficult ensemble music. These rehearsals were spaced a week or two apart, so that there was time for people to leisurely run things on their own between our rehearsals.  We recorded MP3 files which we uploaded to a dropbox for the use of cast members. Our goal was to hit the ground running when our rehearsals began. I had a wonderful Assistant Music director in Lexi Schreiber, who was able to share some of the duties of rehearsing the two groups, take notes, and bring another set of great ears to the table. A true Barbershop group directs itself and feels its own pulse. Our goal was to get the groups to be able to rehearse on their own as soon as possible. I’m happy to say that by the end of the rehearsal period, we did get there, and the Music Directors were eventually not needed in the room for these groups to get fine work done on their own. In the show, the a cappella numbers are led by the groups themselves, not by the conductor.

The creative team met early to plan our rehearsals over a plate of vegan brownies. After we had plotted our rehearsal time, we went carefully through the script to find where the scene changes would go. We had a great time trying to locate the right mood for these scene changes, and deciding whether each scene change would button up the scene that had just ended or instead lead us into the next number. We then planned on a mood and chose which songs from the show would be quoted in each scene change. I would ultimately write these scene changes during rehearsal breaks. Since the orchestra needs to be generally subdued when singers are involved, and since the musical has numbers without orchestra at all, these scene changes proved a great place to let the band really shine. The creative team gave me free rein to do as I chose with the bows, so I elaborated a full big band style medley of the numbers we only hear for a few measures.

Our regular rehearsals began about 6 weeks ahead of our opening night and we started with a very strong push to learn all the music. We were fortunate to have the authors in the rehearsal room many times, and we clarified passages based on what we heard. The materials had been in various forms, from the original readings and from the earlier production, so we agreed on a standardized format, and I edited the parts to match one another and for clarity. We also expanded several of the dance breaks and rewrote some harmony passages for easier execution. I time stamped each revision on every page, so that we could easily see whether we were using the most up-to-date versions of the music. I found when I was in rehearsal, I was in a much better position to finish the orchestrations intelligently, knowing more where the difficulties in the score were, and what the cast would need to hear to do their best work. My AMD and I had a great time working subtle musical references into the orchestra. I was pretty far behind, but a snow day allowed me to catch up and finish that part of the work. The parts were extracted and sent as pdfs to the musicians, and I began to build a new piano vocal score that cued the orchestra in to use during performances.

Tech and Preshow

Our sitzprobe was the first time anyone had heard the orchestrations. For the most part, they went off without a hitch, although there were some revisions needed. Harriet Power is well known for really tight transitions, so we needed to trim a lot of the scene changes down to just a few measures, and one wound up needing to be rewritten completely the day before we opened. I found I really enjoyed knowing exactly how long each scene change needed to be! The scene changes as I wrote them are still in the score, so future productions can take the time they may need to transition without vamping endlessly. I tried to hire musicians I knew would play well at sight, but who would also share their honest opinions about the writing. Several of the players I hired are also professional composers and arrangers. Their feedback was extremely helpful. One of my players was using an Ipad, which worked well, except when revisions made it necessary to re-assemble a full PDF of the part, and I realized I need to find a way of doing that more efficiently than I had been.

Many shows have a ‘fight call’ for various physical actions on stage that may be dangerous. Lexi, my assistant MD and I developed a ‘musical fight call’ that we used before the show to keep the difficult parts running smoothly. There is a part right before the first act finale where two brief numbers need to begin without a pitch being played. they begin with one character singing, but we took to starting those numbers randomly out of the blue just to be sure we could do it. The complicated counterpoint passages also got special nightly attention. But we found once we had really internalized them, they became some of the easier moments in the show.

Closing Thoughts

It was a true joy and a fine challenge to work with such gifted collaborators on new material, and I do hope that my readership will give some thought to including A Wonderful Noise in future seasons. Your audience will thank you. I also hope that smaller companies (even school companies) will consider the possibility of commissioning or putting on new work. The licensing fees one normally pays for a musical everyone has seen dozens of times could go a long way toward bringing something new and original into the world.

For More information about A Wonderful Noise please contact:







Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance: A Rough Guide for the M.D.

June 7, 2016

pirates flag

The Savoy Company’s 2106 production: (Photo credit Helga Yang)

A Word About the Piece:

Bear with me here, I’d like to start with an analogy for my American friends (who are the primary audience for this blog)

Right now, in 2016, the global economy is in a state of flux. Superpowers like the United States are still major drivers of content and product in the world, but there are other places in the world that are fast becoming major consumers of products and culture. We are no longer simply making films for American audiences and then hoping they’ll catch on elsewhere. We are making films that really focus on the appeal to the lucrative  international markets:

BBC article about how the content of movies is being tailored to international markets

This article has some numbers about percentages in international markets 
Further coverage
One thing that troubles major providers of content today is piracy. Producers of music are finding it difficult to create a revenue stream, and films are copied and pirated all over the world. For more than a decade, the entertainment industry has tried to grapple with the challenges facing content providers in the global marketplace. One facet of this problem is that in the developing world, copyright law is not as stringently enforced, and international copyrights are not well protected under local laws. This interesting article cites a study which “rather conclusively demonstrates that the only way that copyright owners are making money in China is through channels in which the copyright owner still has strict control over the delivery of the material. Over 90 percent of the revenues of both the film and music industry are attributable to where the copyright owner has complete control of access to the product. In the case of motion pictures, this is theatrical exhibition, where you don’t get to view the movie unless you buy a ticket.”

Why am I bringing all this up at the beginning of an article about the Pirates of Penzance?

Well, some things never change. The player’s names have been altered, but it’s still the same game. In 1879, the superpower content provider happened to be English, not American, and the upstart developing nation with the lax copyright enforcement was America, not China or India. Today, people secretly obtain advance copies of films or even slip into theaters with camcorders to film the new blockbusters. Back in 1879, American copyright law was so lax that anyone able to take notes or transcribe portions of the operettas could freely put up their own productions. D’Oyly Carte productions tried to solve this problem by ejecting from the theatre anyone who looked like they were taking notes, but cast and orchestra members would be bribed to hand over their parts as a workaround. The scourge of people filming productions with cellphones and posting scores on the internet is very old indeed; only the technology has changed. When Gilbert and Sullivan brought with them a legitimate production of HMS Pinafore, they were competing with rival versions of their own work that had been running in America before their arrival, including 12 in Philadelphia, one with an all black cast and one cast only with children.
 copyright cartoon
G&S found a solution to the problem of poor copyright protection very similar to the solutions found by today’s media producers: they did their best to be the content provider themselves wherever possible. Their solution also matches the solution of today’s fashion industry, where copyright law does not protect designers. High end designers focus on including the brand logo in the design itself and by using very expensive materials to execute the design, so that knock-offs will be easy to spot, and the genuine article will be valued because of its scarcity and authenticity. D’Oyly Carte’s company worked in exactly this manner. New Yorkers didn’t have to wait for the knock off Pirates to see the latest G&S. They were able to see the genuine article, performed by the most qualified singers. They didn’t hear an orchestra transcribed from memory or pieced together from stolen parts. They heard an orchestration so finely detailed and carefully executed that when the American musicians saw it, they went on strike asking for grand-opera pay. (Sullivan countered by suggesting he’d bring the Covent Garden orchestra over on a boat, and they sheepishly backed down. If this anecdote is true as received, Sullivan was not a man to be trifled with. If it was a fabrication, D’Oyly Carte was a publicity genius)

Furthermore, the operetta itself is written with a nod to the American tastes of its intended audience, just as today’s movies are aimed at the tastes of international viewers. The operetta is pithy, tight, and tuneful. It doesn’t slip into arcane genealogy or plays on English manners as some G&S shows do. The parody is broad and easy to follow, connecting with operas Americans would have known well, like Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Of course Gilbert manages to take good-natured swipes at himself and his fellow Englishman, as one always expects. But if one sees the Pirates as Americans, (the theme of piracy in a piece written and performed to thwart copyright piracy is no accident) the ending of the operetta can only be seen as an appeal to the common ancestry and heritage the Americans shared with their cousins across the Atlantic. You might even see it as a comic plea to leave copyright piracy and join the ranks of the respectable British theatrical community.

In short, The Pirates of Penzance can be seen through the lens of today’s international controversies over intellectual property. The authors were trying to use every available tool to maximize the delivery of their content to build their brand, consolidate their earning power, and make inroads in a new market: America. Perhaps this is why Pirates, of all the G&S operettas, continues to be the most popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera in America to this day.

Before You Start:

A great place to start with any G&S Operetta is the Boise State site. The page for Pirates is pretty extensive, including digitized D’oyly Carte prompt books, an extensive list of errors in the common scores, etc.

The most commonly used edition is the Schirmer vocal score, edited by Bryceson Treharne. It’s fine, but you will want to take time to correct the errors in the score before you begin rehearsing. I linked to Amazon here, because most people these days buy from them. But do be aware that they sometimes lump together more than one edition of the same score, so you might accidentally get a rival edition when you order.

There is also a Dover edition, which I have not really looked through. I believe it goes with the full score they also printed, and includes some corrections and an alternate passage in the second act. I seems not to be paginated the same way as the Schirmer score, which may be an issue if your company is using the Schirmer version. The Dover edition also has measure numbers, which is great if somebody is calling them out, but again if anyone is using the Schirmer, that won’t be helpful. I wound up writing measure numbers into my Schirmer version and copying my notes into the Dover full score.

Which brings us to the Dover Full Score. The score is based on original sources and extensively annotated, which is great. My only complaint is that the font size for the lyrics is quite small, and hard to read if one, for example, has to fill in for an indisposed Major General during the final dress rehearsal, as I had to. There is also one discrepancy we found between score and parts that was not annotated, and may in fact be an error in the Dover edition. More on that later. If you’re conducting an orchestra, I would very much recommend it; in the absence of having seen any other full score options, this one seems to be well worth the $20 new or much much lower used they seem to be going for.

What an amazing era we live in! Sullivan’s full score manuscript has been digitized and can be viewed here. I will be linking to it at points of discrepancy throughout this post.


As always, the OakApple Press page laying out all the major recordings is complete and fantastic. Many of these recordings are available on Spotify, but I encourage you to buy a hard copy. Looking to D’Oyly Carte for style or pronunciation help is a good idea, but I’m sorry to say that even in the case of vowels, you will find very little uniformity from one D’Oyly Carte recording to the next. I’d stay away from the Joe Papp version, except to see what got everyone excited about the show all of a sudden in 1980. They basically gave the first violin book to a poor sap on the xylophone and he went to town on it, obliterating any subtlety in Sullivan’s finely detailed orchestration.

If you’re going to be Music Directing Gilbert and Sullivan, you’ll want to begin building a library of reference materials. I recommend getting these, as you are able:

The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan by Ian Bradley. You should probably get this one ASAP. There is a very expensive new edition I have not yet read. If it’s anything like its predecessors, it’s indispensable.

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan by Gayden Wren: Good stuff, especially seeing the shows in the context of the whole output. I come back to this book again and again.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Lexicon by Harry Benford: in which you will find the definitions of all those words you don’t understand.

After you have procured some of these, set aside a number of hours to do the following:

1) Listen to the soundtracks with the score in hand, marking things that strike you as interesting. I also made a pass at one point with a metronome and marked the tempi of all the sections from several recordings so that I would have a benchmark of speed. When a singer complains about a tempo, it helps to be able to check and say, “Ah, yes, we’re too slow” or: “This is within the range of generally accepted tempi.” or yet again, “I’d like to take it this fast, but currently our diction won’t allow it.” Sullivan doesn’t always notate phrasing or articulations, and while it’s easy to say, “Let’s just leave it up to the taste of the players”, it’s sometimes necessary to actually make clear decisions as a conductor so that the ensemble is telling the same musical story. I have developed a system with colored pencils, where I listen to a recording of a particular year with, say, a red pencil in hand and just mark interesting articulation, dynamic, or tempo choices for the key moments. Then I go back with a different color and enter another recording’s take on the same moments. Pretty quickly one begins to realize what is standard, what is done almost every time, and what is open to interpretation. You will also find your own preference in those places where there appears to be a wide range of opinion. To me, this is the beginning of discovering your own voice as a conductor; finding where the limits of expression have been in the past, and deciding what you are drawn to in answer to the points that are vague.

2) Take the Lexicon book and copy in pencil all the definitions into the score where you don’t already know the meanings.

As You’re Casting:

(All these photos from the 1880 original London production)

Major General Stanley

The Modern Major General is the ne plus ultra of patter baritone roles. In the public mind, the Major General is the beginning and end of the type. He has his roots in John Wellington Wells, and further back in Dulcamara, Figaro, and innumerable other Italian buffa parts, which are in turn descended from Il Dottore of commedia. If you don’t cut Sighing Softly To The River, your Major General technically needs to hit an F. Without that number, he only needs to hit an E flat. Your biggest concern is that he be able to negotiate his signature patter song and to have an excellent sense of comic timing in the dialogue scenes. Orphan-often dialogue passage is critical to the success of the character.

The Pirate King

Probably at one time, Pirate Kings needed to be like Captain Hook. Later, it was all the rage to make the Pirate King a Kevin Kline clone. (try saying that five times fast) Now one is expected to make a nod to Johnny Depp, who is the current model for all goofy swashbucklers. As you can see from the photo above, there are other ways to play the part too! This is not too terribly challenging a baritone part, but one must be able to put over Oh Better Far To Live and Die, preferably with the interpolated high G at the penultimate note in the second verse. Also somewhat challenging is the Away Away, My Heat’s on Fire section, which is rangy and fast. If you have options in the singing department, go for the one who cuts the most dashing figure. The Pirate King is not a romantic lead in the traditional sense, but is certainly a figure of great romance, and we have to see why his men follow him even though he has no luck in his chosen profession.



It’s possible to play this part as a swashbuckler, but probably funnier to play him as a kind of Smee. He actually has the first solo line in the show, but after that he serves as a foil to the Pirate King. Could be a tenor or a baritone. (One of the recordings I listened to had a ridiculous interpolated high part I’ll try and cover later) I believe that without that added high note, Samuel tops of at an F. There are several places where Samuel ‘leads the charge’ into a new section of the piece, so you do need someone who isn’t afraid of a strong entrance. If your program is trying to develop future principals, this is a great place to try someone out.


The original American Frederic was a disaster both musically and as an actor. But it isn’t as if the part is impossible; the challenges are ordinary light opera tenor fare. You really must have as wonderful a singer as you can manage, and unfortunately for aging tenors, he must look passably 20-21ish. Gilbert and Sullivan romantic tenor leads are in the Rossini/Donizetti tenor fach, light, perhaps brilliant is best. A high B flat is a must in the cadenza in Oh, is there not one maiden breast, and a little thrilling ping would be helpful in the mock tragic moments of Oh, false one and Away, Away! The part that is most technically trying for the singer, apart from the long Italian line needed in his first act aria is the beautiful Andante passage in Stay, Frederic, stay, which is a test for the passaggio at the top of the staff there. The hardest part for the ear is the fast three passage that follows: there are several versions of the horn 5ths melody that are devilishly difficult to remember.

Sergeant of Police

The Sergeant does not even appear on stage until the second act. He is hopefully a true bass. Fred Clifton, who originated the role in America, was the original Notary in The Sorcerer, and that role drops down impressively to a low E flat. I’m confident that Sullivan was remembering Clifton’s performance in that tiny role, and looking to expand his comical presence into a more substantial force for this opera. This role only goes down to the F, but we want a nice sound down there, if we can get it. Frankly, a stiff actor isn’t dreadful here. If you’re doing a school production, the premium should be on the voice.



Mabel is a great role for a young soprano, with some mildly difficult coloratura and really fun scene work. Her first entrance is a terrific melisma on her own name, followed immediately by her major Aria, Poor Wandering One, which contains her highest note, D above high C. There is also a sustained high C at the end of the first act that needs to ring freely. It might be worth hearing that at an audition in addition to the aria. The “Ah, leave me not to pine” passage in Stay, Frederic, Stay is rather exposed and needs a subtle touch, and the subsequent “Oh, here is love” passage requires agility and diction. In terms of personality, she is the typical operetta ingenue, with, one hopes, the requisite deadpan irony needed for putting over the preposterous situations being played.



If your company has the participation to cast the principals, you will undoubtedly have more than one candidate for Mabel. Edith is where you should place one of your stronger runners up. She has a little melisma in Climbing Over Rocky Mountain, a fine mock-Donizetti passage in When The Foeman Bears His Steel, and the lower part of the Ha ha ha coloratura thirds in the Second Act Finale. Yes, she’s technically a mezzo, but as far as the featured chorus is concerned, she’s the highest female part behind Mabel. These featured chorus members are, character-wise basically indistinguishable from one another in the scene work.



Kate is the lower of the two singing members of the featured chorus, and the smaller of the two roles vocally, although in the tiny bit of scene work the three have, she holds her own; the breakdown is roughly equal. She has a little 32 bar solo in Climbing over Rocky Mountain, and in Stop, Ladies, Pray, she needs to drop down to an A flat below middle C. Her harmony in the finales is not prohibitively difficult.


This featured chorus is a speaking part, as important in the scenes as the other two, but without any vocal lines. A terrific role for a chorus member who delivers lines well.


One of the many great Contralto roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. Really really funny role relying on humor that can sometimes make enlightened modern audiences uncomfortable. To obviate these difficulties, I advocate casting a woman who is able to convey confidence in her own appearance and in her own skin, able to assert her right to be a woman who loves and can be loved, who is not a victim of the ageism and sexism of her scene partners, particularly in the first act. Then she can step out confidently from being the butt of a joke, and be an agent of her own future. This is, after all, a woman who prefers the company of pirates to respectable loneliness. Not a woman to be trifled with, hearing impairment or no. She must also be a confident comedienne and singer, with the timing and diction to pull off When Frederic Was a Little Lad and When You had Left Our Pirate Fold, the vocal power to go toe to toe with your tenor in Oh, False One, and the stage presence to stop the action in its tracks in both Act Finales. If you are a company that does modern musical theatre, you may be tempted to cast a belter in this role, but I’d advise casting a legit Mezzo or Contralto here, because the duets and trios she appears in wouldn’t suit a belt delivery.
For a detailed account of the original actors who created these parts in the American premiere, see my earlier post on the subject.


The basses pull double duty in this opera. Before the act break, all men are pirates. Following the act break, the basses become the police force. You will need enough of each for both groups to look respectable in Act II.

Chorus Tenors range from Bb below bass C to A above middle C. (there are second tenor options for passages involving those highest notes)

Chorus Basses go from Low E to E above middle C. (potential G above middle C, to be discussed later)

The ladies chorus part is perfectly manageable for the Sopranos, and somewhat high for the altos, who are not given a lower option in a number of places. Where I can, I’ll try and provide some options for our vertically challenged choristers.

Chorus Sopranos range from Ab below Middle C to A above the staff. When they have the Ab, they are singing with the Altos.

Chorus Altos range from A flat below Middle C to the G above the treble staff. There are some written Gs in “Climbing over Rocky Mountain” that can be avoided by using an alternate alto part that is in the Dover Full score (and I imagine the Dover vocal score too)

General Pronunciation Advice:

I copy here my earlier note from The Gondoliers guide, with some slight emendations.

I am still no expert on RP English pronunciation, but I offer here a couple of basic pointers, to which I intend to add as I learn more:

1) Be aware of the Trap-Bath split. A fellow Savoyard in my tenor section made me aware of this chart, which is very helpful: trap-bath

2) ‘R’s that begin a word are tripped or rolled. ‘R’s that come before a vowel are tripped. ‘R’s that come after a vowel are generally dropped. At no point is the ‘r’ pronounced as we Amerrricans pronounce it. (although you may encounter different kinds of Rs if you want Ruth to have a Cornish accent, or if you elect to have your pirates pronounce things in a particularly ‘piratey’ manner)

3) Mary, Merry, and Marry employ three different vowel sounds. Where I come from, they are pronounced identically. In Philadelphia, they are pronounced as three different vowels, but they aren’t the same vowels. Interesting chart on this matter: In G&S, you’ll want to say Mary with an eh as in air, Merry with eh as in get, and Marry with an ah as in cat. (someone will certainly correct me on this)

4) Many u vowels will need a y sound before them: duty becomes dyewtee, tuning becomes tyooning, new becomes nyoo, and institution becomes instityooshun.

5) Been becomes bean.

6) For words which in American English replace ‘t’s with a d sound, a true ‘t’ sound should be used. “Water” is not pronounced “wadder”, and certainly not wooder, my Philadelphia friends.

This video may be of use to you.

That is by no means exhaustive, and I’ve probably gotten some of it wrong, but that’ll get you started. There are some places in this show where pronunciation will be governed by a rhyme. I will try and hit each of those points as we go.

Going through the show number by number:


Like most of Sullivan’s overtures, he didn’t compose it; it was assembled by his assistant and conductor Alfred Cellier, evidently under Sullivan’s watchful eye. Cellier really doesn’t get enough credit. He also wrote the overture to H.M.S. Pinafore. He was cool under pressure and a fine composer in his own right, and learned much from Sullivan over his career. But just as Sullivan was frustrated in his attempts to be taken more seriously as a composer of concert music and grand opera, Cellier seems never to have really taken off as a composer on his own, despite having written more than a dozen operas. Cellier finished the overture 3 days before the premiere, and Cellier, Sullivan, the composer Frederic Clay, and even Gilbert collaborated to copy parts for the players, finishing just in the nick of time, at 5 AM on the morning of the premiere.

The Dover full score makes note of some irregularities in the materials, which I’ll leave you to look at on your own, but there are other variants we discovered that are not accounted for in the notes.

One variant to be considered is the snare part 2 before C. The IMSLP parts and scores seem to indicate a crescendo there, which is very idiomatic. (well, one of the scores doesn’t have the crescendo, but does have the dynamic markings, so it’s clearly an oversight) The Dover score indicates a decrescendo. There isn’t a great deal of consistency in the recorded literature either:

1957 Isidore Godfrey              Drums decrescendo

1961 Malcolm Sargent           Drums decrescendo

1968 Isidore Godfrey              Drums crescendo, then decrescendo

1990 John Pryce Jones           Drums crescendo

The original manuscript definitely indicates a decrescendo: Snare drum clarification detail
Hire the best oboist you can, and give them their head at the cadenza, bringing the clarinets and bassoon along under measure 74 to inaugurate what must be one of the most beautiful oboe solos in G&S. (And that’s really saying something)

There is a variant reading of the Horn parts between F and G. My first horn swore by this version, but the Dover edition and this version from IMSLP have another reading.The recorded versions seem to bear out the Dover version also. 5 before letter J, the Dover score has the second horn on a concert A, which I tried and preferred, because it matches what the bassline is doing. The other way also makes sense. None of the parts or scores on IMSLP agree with Dover in this variant, but the Dover score follows the manuscript.

The chord 4 before J is very spicy indeed, and you might do well to emphasize the melody and downplay the accompaniment in this moment.

There is also a discrepancy between the flute and first violin in measure 174 in some versions of the score and parts (including the Dover) as I read the manuscript, the last note of the measure in the first violin should be a B, not a D.
 Overture Flute Violin clarification detail
Observe the petite Rossini crescendo from letter L through N and relish Cellier’s shrewd underuse of the percussion. If anyone wants to know how to write for cymbals and bass drums in the very best taste, here is your master class.


1. Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry

Pour, O PourThe only things to watch here are chorus cutoffs and Samuel’s entrances. Samuel’s first entrance gets no accompaniment introduction. His second entrance gets 2 measures. Incidentally, the instrumental passages leading into singing are unusual in terms of phrase length in this operetta. I will be mentioning these things as we go. I think Sullivan was playing with something interesting at a hyper-metric level.

‘Glass’ and ‘Pass’ in the chorus parts are Want/Father vowels [⊃], by the way. No R in ‘more’, ‘indentures’, ‘ventures’, or ‘bumper’, Trip the r in ‘Pirate’ ‘sherry’ and ‘merry’.

2. When Frederic Was a Little Lad

Ruth’s number does most of the exposition of the first 20 minutes of the operetta, and it all hinges on Pilot-Pirate. You may be tempted to pronounce those words similarly to make more plausible Ruth’s difficulty in navigating the difference, but Gilbert’s rhyme scheme makes that a poor solution. ‘Pilot’ must rhyme with ‘my lot’, ‘high lot’, ‘vile lot’, and ‘shy lot’, whereas ‘Pirate’ must rhyme with ‘gyrate‘. If this troubles you, consider that Ruth may be emphasizing the difference between the two for the benefit of the pirates themselves. It is customary for the singer to take some liberties with the space between phrases. By the time your orchestra joins the production, you will hopefully have solidified your performance to the point where you will know roughly what is going to be sung and will be able to convey that to the accompanying strings, clarinets and bassoons.

I may also take a moment here to point out the delightful bassoon here. More than just emphasizing the bassline, it adds a kind of clownish pathos to the verses. The clarinets and horn in the C major passages sound very rustic to me, also in a comical fashion. These lovely details are found all over the score. Sullivan had a tremendous ear for musical color.

3. Oh, Better Far To Live and Die

This is the Pirate King’s signature song, and really the most ‘piratey’ thing in the show, with the possible exception of A Rollicking Band from Act II. For you as conductor, the most difficult thing to manage will be the part where PK sings “I’ll be true to the song I sing and live and die a Pirate King” (and the same place in the next verse) The first two measures of the phrase should be conducted in 2, the second 2 measures in 6, because the rallantando brings the tempo slow enough that you’ll need to give beat 6 in measure 29 and beat 3 in measure 30. You’ll have to make sure your chorus doesn’t sing the echoing phrase the first half of each chorus, and the consensus seems to be that it’s pronounced “itiz” each time, not “It. Iz”

The Pirate King has the option of singing the high G on the second to last note in verse 2. Or you could give it to one of your tenors.

One thing I have not been able to clear up at all is the wording of echoed chorus:

Schirmer: You are, Hurrah for OUR Pirate King!

It is! Hurrah for OUR Pirate King, hurrah for THE Pirate King!

Dover Full Score: You are, Hurrah for THE Pirate King

It is! Hurrah for OUR Pirate King, hurrah for THE Pirate King!

Dorset Press Complete Operas Edition: You are, hurrah for OUR Pirate King!

It is! Hurrah for OUR Pirate King!

Ian Bradley Compete Annotated Gilbert And Sullivan: You Are! Hurrah for THE Pirate King!

It is! Hurrah for OUR Pirate King!

I’m sorry to say that the D’Oyly Carte recordings are mostly too mush-mouthed to be of any help clarifying the issue. One thing that seemed to make sense to me is that at the very least, all of them should be singing THE at the final pass, because the Pirate King himself shouldn’t say OUR, and they may as well be singing the same thing where possible.

The prancing woodwinds and pizzicato strings in the echoing phrases at the beginning of the verses have the flavor of a lace doily placed daintily on a cannonball. What fun to conduct!

4. Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me!

I think this number was probably funnier back when people were used to these kinds of confrontational duets over much more consequential matters than “You lied to me about your looks!” I think the original intention will still come across strongly if you keep the tempo brisk and the accents and tempo changes well marked. A few details which missed my first pass:
1) Right after Rehearsal C, Fred has a Dotted Quarter-Eight pattern, which does not match the same phrase 4 measures later.
2) The three iterations of the closing of that phrase, in the 4th bar of C, in bars 9-11 of C, and the 8th-11th measures of the concluding Allegro Vivace need to be gone over and clarified.
3) The tenor line in the first 4 measures of E needs to be carefully tuned.
The last Allegro Vivace should be fast and thrilling, and the final music before the recit should be sung with as much Grand Opera sentiment as your singers can manage. Be thinking about how you’re going to cue the orchestra during rehearsals for the final recit section. cue downbeats for blank measures and be sure your singer doesn’t run off with the last 4 measures, or those punctuating chords will be a wreck.
Later in this post I will make more of this moment, but let me lay the groundwork here:
The agitato G minor of the opening of this number represents Frederic’s devastation and anger at being lied to. It is full of rather German harmony and mock Grand Opera gesture. Ruth tries to change the game with her modulation into a rustic 6/8 in the parallel G major. (6/8 is the time signature of the pirates, please note. Their first two numbers and much of the rest of their music is in 6) Over a pastorale style drone, she talks about how many years she has waited for him. But Frederic discovers to his dismay at the end of that G major passage that she is 47, which inaugurates a devastating return to G minor and to common time. By the end of the number, we are harmonically right where we started. Later this same scheme will be played out, also involving a modulation from Agitato G minor to rustic G major, again involving a woman waiting for a man. But that situation plays out differently.

5. Climbing Over Rocky Mountain

This is the number commandeered from Gilbert and Sullivan’s lost first operetta Thespis. There appears to be some controversy over whether this was always the plan or a case of making the best of a rushed writing situation. The Dover score includes an alto part that doesn’t appear in the Schirmer Score, which you can hear in many of the D’oyly Carte recordings. I preferred not to use it, because my altos were up to the task. Should your altos be unable to deliver the higher G, you should look into the other option.

The lengths of final notes in these phrases is somewhat inconsistent. Be sure you take some time to clarify exactly where you want these ladies to cut off. Descending octaves such as we find in ‘quiver’ should be arrived at directly, with no intermediary sliding, and without dropping into a throaty chest voice. The fist vowel in ‘passing’ ‘passes’ and ‘lasses’ is a Want/Father vowel [⊃], drop the ‘R’ from words like ‘over’, ‘quiver’, ‘river’ ‘unnumbered’, ‘seashore’, etc.
Edith makes her first vocal appearance here. Make sure the first vowel in ‘especial’ is [ɛ] as in ‘set’, and take a little leisure of your own in the phrase 2 before G.
Kate’s solo is lower and not as flashy. Be sure there is no R in ‘care’, ‘air’, ‘world’, ‘here’, and  ‘mortal’. There is a fermata you may take the measure before K, which is listed in the Dover scores, but not the Schirmer.
I found the alto entrances the last time through the choruses needed some TLC.

The final half note of the last word must be cut off correctly. This will not happen by accident.

Later I will make an argument about the introductory phrasing in the Ladies numbers. Even though this number has some variable introductory passage lengths, I’m not including No. 5 in my argument, because the truncations don’t seem to be part of the large scale plan for the piece, and because Sullivan wrote this music much earlier.

6. Stop, Ladies, Pray!

Another rather straightforward recit passage made more complicated by the transition between unaccompanied drone recit and punctuated chords. Teach the passage beginning “…will not be unwitnessed” in tempo from the beginning, and be sure the ladies make the second syllable of “Horror!” a true eighth note. Note that Frederick’s pickup to the Andante Moderato that immediately follows is an eighth, not a quarter. His following entrance will be a quarter pickup.

7. Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast

What a lovely aria this is, the perfect combination of ludicrous and lovely that we adore in G&S. I don’t know what that subterranean chromatic bassline means at the beginning of each verse, but I love it. It sounds like a giant ship creaking ! There are a couple of Schirmer typos around, be sure to check the aforementioned list of errata. If you have a very fine tenor, as we did, I think a little showboating fermata on the high B flat is allowed. Be sure your chorus girls observe their rests. The transition into Mabel’s entrance is surprisingly tricky. You can keep it l’istesso for clarity after the fermata, but I thought it needed to be slightly faster. Your Schirmer score doesn’t indicate it, but the Dover score does: “all be deaf to pity’s name” is normally a slight rit, lingering on PIT-y.You would do well to carefully go over the final lines of the ladies for clarity, pianissimo dynamic, and ensemble.Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast

I’d like to point out the first of a few Verdi allusions here. Mabel’s entrance hints that her aria will reference La Traviata by quoting briefly Violetta’s transition from Ah, fors’ è lui into Sempre libera:

Ah Fors e Lui excerptMabel's Entrance

Americans knew Verdi well, and La Traviata in particular had been a touchstone for American opera audiences. John Dizikes, writes about Verdi’s American audience of the 1860s in his book Opera in America:

“Wherever Louis Gottschalk traveled, ‘the ladies took possession of the theater every time the posters announced Traviata.’ Max Maratzek noticed the same thing. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, Boston and Havana, he conducted La Traviata countless times and all before houses crowded with women. One critic derided the notion that women were endangered by Verdi’s music and Dumas’s story. Was the life of Violetta ‘so fascinating and full of happiness’, he asked, ‘that most of the young lady listeners in the parquette are likely to be carried away by it into those paths of Parisian profligacy?’ The irony was amusing, but the response of the audiences wasn’t in the least ironic. The opera produced ‘sobs, transports, ejaculations at each of the different catastrophes of the drama.’ Women sympathized with Violetta ‘as if she were a most estimable and praiseworthy young person.’ and of course they believed she was.”

The music Sullivan quotes here is from an iconic moment in an opera all Opera fans will have known, and in her aria, Mabel will make the connection even more explicit by again quoting Verdi’s development of this phrase in Sempre Libera itself.

8. Poor Wandering One

After Frederic’s combination of soaring lyricism and bald-faced insult, Mabel’s signature aria is unadulterated joy. Sullivan is so good at 3 quarter time, whether fast or slow, and later, in “Ah, Leave Me Not To Pine”, he will be at his most poetic, and most English. Here, though, notwithstanding the Verdi quotes, Mabel is really in the world of Gounod, the mood of Je Veux Vivre and The Jewel Song from Faust, arguably the most popular opera in the United States, where it had its first production in 1863. So while Sullivan quotes Verdi, the aria is mainly in the lighter French style, clarifying immediately to the audience that Mabel is a twittering ingenue with all the horsepower and idealism of youth at her disposal, and none of the gravity of the grand Italian school.

The beauty of the orchestra in Federic’s aria comes from the rising chromatic bassline in the introductory passage. Mabel’s aria is colored by the evocative E flat-F flat cello line, the flat sixth scale degree adding a poignancy to Mabel’s vocal line, which spins out in an extraordinary fashion:

Melody Analysis A
Melody Analysis B

Note also Sullivan’s almost Mozartean management of rhythm: he begins with a 4 measure phrase of mostly long notes, followed by a second, more exciting 4 measure phrase with lots of quarters. Then 2 very exciting 2 measure phrases with both quarters and dotted halves, then a languid 4th phrase that literally reverses the rhythm of the phrase that came before it!  Many of Sullivan’s melodies before this are beautiful, but in terms of savvy construction, we are seeing here the work of a master in his very prime.Poor Wandering One Phrase Rhythm fixed

Between the two verses of Sempre Libera, Violetta repeats her earlier music with some more bravura, having just sung a rocketing run up to a high C. Mabel’s transition between the two verses is an even more direct quote than the earlier example:

Traviata Pirates

With the exception of the A flat in the Pirates, these are 21 notes in a row cribbed from Verdi.

It is worth noting that Blanche Roosevelt, the original Mabel made her Covent Garden debut as Violetta in Traviata, having studied with Francesco Lamperti, the teacher of several of Verdi’s favorite sopranos. So this is also a case of Sullivan tailoring the outfit for the model who will wear it on the runway.


There is also an irony in the allusions to Violetta in this score that is lost on audiences unfamiliar with her story. Violetta is a courtesan who reluctantly abandons the love of her life to preserve her lover’s family reputation. Mabel is also caught up in a family drama, only slightly more far fetched. But whereas Violetta agrees to break off her relationship with Alfredo for the sake of honor, Mabel ultimately agrees to wait for her love for the next 60 years, at which point they would both be in their 80s. (if we don’t go by birthdays) At that point, I believe Frederic’s shallow complaint about Ruth being 47 would have seemed rather a quibble.

At the 6th measure of A, the orchestra has a little turn, Ab, Bb, Ab, then G, Ab as written. In a number of historical recordings, the soprano does the same.

No ‘r’ in ‘heart’ or ‘ours’, and plan where the t in heart goes for the chorus.

Conduct in 1, and be prepared to do a little subdivision of the 1 to get a clean second beat from the orchestra at rehearsal C. At rehearsal E, those chorus quarters should be as short as possible. In the Dover full score, there is a fermata between page 88 and 89 that unfortunately falls rather too near the spine and can easily be missed.

At the end, you will probably want to include a cadenza, and I have quickly notated below 11 historical recordings. You’ll see that the descending pattern from the high D flat is standard from the very earliest recordings, but that occasionally people don’t go all the way down to the E flat in the run. It should surprise nobody that the women who can easily pop the high E flat would want to take a pass on an e flat 2 octaves lower only moments earlier; Cynthia Glover and Marilyn Hill Smith being prime examples. Tracy Dahl and Barbara Hendricks leave out the run entirely. It’s kind of like a Chinese menu, this. If you’re better at the staccato. use the beginning from Jay, Griffin, or Harding. If you’re a fast run kind of person, the Glover will suit you better. Do the whole descending run, or don’t. There are a couple of ways to prepare the high E flat, or avoid it altogether.

Poor Wandering Cadenzas

Bringing the chorus and orchestra back in will take a little finessing; don’t leave your Mabel hanging, especially if she went for the high E flat.

9. What Ought We To Do

Very straightforward. I like to slow a little at “Play at other games” and “let us shut our eyes”, and it also was funny and effective to speed up the last 2 measures a little.

10. How Beautifully Blue The Sky

Well, this is one of those places that separate the Music Directors who are really on top of their games from the ones who are phoning it in.There are some note and memory issues in the ladies part that are inherently troublesome, but the main problem is the simultaneous time signatures, which are a coordination problem you as the music director are responsible to solve.
First let’s tackle the note and memory issues: In the first passage for the women, the descending alto line at ‘Continue fine I hope it may’ will need some TLC. The soprano line is fairly diatonic, with only a couple of altered notes, but the alto part at the ‘hope it may, and yet it rained…’ portion is a bramble bush of whole and half steps. I would really recommend isolating that and teaching it to the altos first before the matter is confused by hearing the sopranos more straightforward version. Then, as you teach the conclusion of that passage, pay careful attention to the ending F#, because you’ll be fighting to differentiate it from the other two iterations later. Please make sure ‘again’ rhymes with ‘rain’, by the way, and that ‘glass’ is a ‘Father’ type vowel.The second verse the ladies sing begins identically and ends in the basement on a B flat. If you don’t drill that difference in a little, you will get two versions at the same time, and the F# will create a Major 7 chord on Frederic’s entry that is more Carlyle Room than Cornwall. The third verse for the chorus is the outlier. It’s in G, not B, and the contour of the melody now rises, from G on ‘BEAUtifully’ to A on ‘GLASS’ to B on ‘conTINue’. Then we find ourselves in B where we belong. The alto line of the final 12 measures is somewhat awkward. There is no time to breathe for the ladies in this passage. Emphasize the need to stagger the breath and to leave out a word, rather than mangle the ensemble by trying to cram words in after a breath. Now let’s turn our attention to the meter:The first 2 times we experience the polyrhythm, it amounts to not much more than a cross-fade between the ladies and the principals. The chorus should definitely stay with you, but should they get off track, they are essentially fading out. However, the third time the pass happens, Sullivan is pulling an honest to goodness polyrhythm, the ladies along with half the orchestra legitimately singing in 2/4 where the romantic leads sing in 3/4. I’ve had a heck of a time finding many other examples of this in the classical literature, although I know they’re out there. Bach is occasionally in more than one time signature at a time. Mozart has several different orchestras playing in several different time signatures in Don Giovanni, but that’s something of a parlor trick, because it isn’t as though all the ensembles are getting any kind of groove on together.  Chopin really enjoyed playing with the relationship of one hand to another, and in one version of his C# minor Nocturne, he has the right hand in 3 and the left in 4. Bartok and Ives don’t count, because they’re not going for something particularly tuneful. Here, though, Sullivan is honestly in both meters at once, and very effectively. He seems to have liked the result. Three years and two operas later, Sullivan would include a number for the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe in which the accompaniment is notated in 2/4 and the vocal part in 6/8 for the duration of the number. I suspect the choice to write that number as a solo and not an ensemble was based on his experience with the difficulty of coordinating the forces in this one. So how do we manage this? I suggest at the top of the number, you be in 2, and establish a fairly strict and bounceless beat, emphasizing clarity and diction to the singers. At letter A, when the tempo has been well established, shift over to conducting in 1, and bring in the principals in 1, while the chorus aligns their 2 with your downbeat. Run it a few times to make it clear what your plans are. 2 measures before the next chorus entrance, switch back to a fast, clear 2, and 2 measures before the key change, repeat the earlier procedure by switching to 1 again. 1 after E, back to 2, 2 before the key change, back to 1 again. I recommend you stay in 1 until after the fermata, at which point, go back to 2 for clarity of the closing ritornello. I recommend your focus be on the chorus whenever they sing, and give the principals a little love when they sing without the chorus. I mean to say that there is no room for rubato or backphrasing while the chorus is trying to coordinate their downbeats, but a little more leeway when they’re silent. I also think the notation of the last vocal note for Mabel and Frederic is a mistake. It seems wrong to have them stop 2/3 of the way through the measure while the chorus cuts off halfway through. I think the manuscript is very clear that the chorus is meant to sing all the way through the measure, and that the notated quarter note is wrong. How Beautifully Cutoff detailBut I think for the sake of clarity, everyone should cut off at the beginning of the next measure.

To make Sullivan’s point perhaps too explicit: The lovers are here are from another world. The pedestrian 2/4 is not for them. They live in 3/4, the time signature Frederic introduced in a slow tempo in his aria, and which Mabel then echoes at a fast tempo.It finds a mid-tempo repose when the two sing together.

To return to the earlier thread about introductory phrases: The ladies introductions get shorter each time:

Beautifully Blue 1

Beautifully Blue 2Beautifully Blue 3

It’s as if the girls all dive into the pool, swim around in 2 time signatures at the same time, then climb out, run back and discover that Sullivan has sawed off the end of the diving board. Sullivan always has interesting ideas about rhythm in his melodies. Here he appears to be playing with the larger scale rhythmic superstructure to make very subtle statements and drive forward the momentum of the number.

11. Stay, We Must Not Lose Our Senses

Conduct in 3. I think when you get to the Vivace, your entrance during piano rehearsals will be drowned out by screaming. Get the cast used to watching you. They probably will hear the orchestra.

Opportunity: Opportyoonity.

Felicity: Feh licity, not fuhlicity.

No ‘r’ in Opportunity, Parsonified, Doctor.

Trip the ‘r’ in Married, Matrimonified.

We elected for a very round ‘O’ in Doctor, which my English choristers assure me sounds more posh. The D’Oyly Carte recordings vary on this point. We then had a long discussion about whether to say the ‘Major’ of Major General with the same round O. For my taste, it seems to be a matter of how long one has to say such a thing. At the breakneck speed of the patter, I don’t know if the really round O can actually be articulated, whereas ‘Their father is a Major General’ could be done in that way. And now I’m even driving myself a little batty.

Spend a little time on the 7ths and Octaves on ‘indulge in the felicity of unbounded domesticity’ That’s a vocally and aurally difficult melodic line. Be sure your singers are choosing a neutral, central vocal placement, and not reaching for either extreme. In particular the C# down to D and back up to D is hard. Their words are different, but you might do well to have the ladies join you, since they’ll have the same problem on the next page.

The controversy over the bass notes in ‘of divinity’ is something I could not get to the bottom of. According to the Dover full score, there is a discrepancy in the original materials. Observe the bass line in the orchestra. The version here is also slightly different than the iteration later in the show. In the D’Oyly Carte recordings, I could not hear the lower part at all, and I advised all our men to sing the top part, saying that if they didn’t have the high G, to just silently mouth that word.

The words at the end will confuse. This version has 3 doctors. The one at the end of the act, only 2.

12. Hold, Monsters!

‘Caravanserai’ rhymes with ‘Chancery’. The pedant in me feels the need to point out that Sullivan has destroyed Gilbert’s rhyme here, by placing the musical emphasis on ‘WED us all’ and ‘GENeral’ instead of ‘wed us ALL’ and ‘GeneRAL’ At the risk of committing a sacrilege, this whole recit. and chorus have always felt to me like a rush job on Sullivan’s part, and the autograph score shows signs of second thoughts:Hold Monsters detail

To keep that thread about introductory phrases alive: Samuel had two different lengths of introductory music at his first musical entrance in the opening number. Here, because we’re already in the right key, his “For he is a Major General” gets no introduction. Later, Samuel gets one measure of intro before he sings “For he is an orphan boy!” That one needs a modulation. But my point is that Sullivan is carefully catering entrances to situation and large scale rhythm, often to the point of tightening dead space and keeping things moving.

13. I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General

I’ve said before in this post that this patter is the very pinnacle of English patter, not to be bettered, even by Sullivan himself. It is, in fact, the most famous moment in all Gilbert and Sullivan.  It’s mentioned in Hamilton. It’s been sung by David Hyde Pierce, Homer Simpson’s drunken friend Barney, David Tennant  Gilda Radner and a Carrot and by Tom Lehrer using the Periodical Table of the Elements. It’s appeared in Never Cry Wolf, Animaniacs, Veggie Tales, Kate and Leopold, Home Improvement, and Disney’s The Three Musketeers. Parodies are endless, and the singer becomes a Biblical Philologist, Office Manager, Muddleheaded Candidate, Psychopharmacologist, or Obama.The original is a tour de force and a test for the singer’s mouth and memory. Copy the meanings of the words from the Gilbert and Sullivan Lexicon, and have fun with videos like this.
There are some standard pauses which can be heard in any of the D’Oyly Carte recordings and which are listed in the Dover full score. (I’m guessing they’re in the Dover vocal score as well)
Something which got us a little hung up was the pronunciation of ‘Major General’ in the Third Verse. A few recorded versions have ‘Major GenerAL has never sat agee’, with the last syllable of General rhyming with ‘pal’ or ‘gal’. It made no sense to me as a choice until I realized it was to comically emphasize the strange stress one needs to make the line scan. Then it was a matter of trying to get everyone to do it the third time, and that time only. If you want to barrel through the last verse again as an encore, I suggest beginning at measure 11, leaving out measure 27 entirely. Then after the repeat sign, you’ll cut to the last 6 measures to close it out. Our Major General sang so fast in the encore that the orchestra had trouble keeping in sync, and we found it was much easier to manage if the first violins don’t play along with the melody until the chorus echoes in the encore. Dance of the pirates. By William Russell Flint from “The Pirates of Penzance” (“Savoy Operas"), 1909:

14.  Oh, Men of Dark and Dismal Fate

The first advice I have for you is not to get so drawn into the orphan-often scene that you miss your cue. This one comes out of nowhere. After that, it is truly a mass of tiny details to drill and keep track of.
When the chorus comes in, drill the ‘d’ at the end of ‘sad’ and the length of the last note. The last syllables of all the ‘Poor Fellow’s need to be very short. You will have two difficulties with the written turn, as in measures 23 and 27. One is coordinating it when it happens with the chorus. An ‘h’ at the beginning of each note seems to help. ‘hee hee hee hee’ etc. The second problem you’ll have is cueing your orchestra. After the downbeat, make a very clear beat 2 across, so that your players don’t think you’re cueing 3. It’s hard to tell what’s going on from what they have there in their parts. Note after rehearsal A that the word “See” is a Quarter note, and the “Our” of the next phrase is only an eighth. The double trill 2 measures before the Allegro Vivace will either need to be exactly planned, or dissolve into sobs. The 1927 D’Oyly Carte recording has a comical breath before ‘-phan boy’ that works well. Your chorus and principals will be tempted to get louder than pianissimo as the section at letter B rolls out. Save it for the Fortissimo after C. Watch the cutoff halfway through measure 82. Needs to be clean. The Pirate King’s “Although Our Dark Career…” is not particularly challenging, except to remember the various permutations of straight quarters and dotted quarter-eighth pairs. I am not the first, and will not be the last to point out the importance of articulating the punctuation in:”For what, we ask, is life without a touch of Poetry in it?”Without the commas, The Pirate King is asking for a life without poetry. With the commas, he is pointing out the importance of poetry in one’s life. “Hail Poetry!” has become an anthem of sorts in the G&S community. Among people I hang around with, it is customary to stand, as one does during the Hallelujah Chorus. In its place in the show, it is a moment of sheer lunacy, and it stops the show dead in its tracks. I like to think this is an example of Sullivan cluing in to the American taste for non-sequitur, and also an example of how rushed he was. I think had they been given more time, some idiot would have talked them into cutting it. I’m glad they didn’t. In another Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta, this is the place we would hear a madrigal sung by the principals, and it serves the same purpose: a moment of lyric respite in and amongst the madness. It is customary to sing the first phrase Fortissimo, the second phrase piano, the third Forte, and the ‘all hail’s beginning piano and growing increasingly louder to the end of the phrase. Work for a fine choral tone, watch the two times when one voice resolves contrary to the others, and split up the Basses and Tenors based on your numbers. Beat the downbeat of each measure at E, and cue in the violins when they enter. Note that in measure 138, (bottom system of page 99 in the Schirmer) the Sopranos do not have a high A. This is Sullivan being merciful. I really hate the kind of fussy English cutoffs such as we have at the end of this passage, where we are meant to cut off the note one eighth before the end of the bar. I extended the note to the full measure. Observe the rests in the choral echoing passages near rehearsal H. I note that there is no rehearsal I. There is some crossout in the autograph full score, but no indication of what might have been there. A mystery for the ages. After letter J, we encounter the same issues we had earlier: “of divinity” bassline does not match the orchestra. I again had the basses join the tenors and skip the note if they couldn’t sing it. At L, be sure the chorus is a true piano as written, without crescendo until indicated. Letter M is one of Sullivan’s inspired harmonic sidesteps, usually found right about here, near the end of the First Act Finale. The only woman to sing the high C should be Mabel. Be sure to observe all the rests assiduously.

Act II

15. Oh, Dry The Glistening Tear

The accompaniment in the piano reduction is rather difficult. The Orchestra will have an easier time with it, because the sixteenth note runs are distributed in digestible bites across multiple instruments.

Closing consonants in the choral parts are important, particularly the p at the end of ‘weep’. ‘Dews’ is ‘dyews’No ‘r’ in ‘tear’, ‘martial’, ‘hear’, ‘comfort’, ‘care’, ‘their’, ‘bear’, or ‘father’Trip the ‘r’ in ‘around’, ‘creep’

Perhaps you weren’t sold on my earlier explanation about Sullivan’s shortening introductions. Well, here Sullivan is again sawing off the end of the diving board:

Dry The Glistening 1Dry The Glistening 2

16. Then Frederic, let your escort lion-hearted

Nothing much notable here.

17. When The Foeman Bares His Steel

The difference between dotted eighth-sixteenth and triplet rhythms will be important to observe in this number, as the Police have the more martial rhythm, and the ladies the more lyric. Be sure the men of the police force sing the eighths that end phrases very short, and the half notes for their full values.

The Sergeant has a few options that are valid. You might consult some of the historical recordings to hear some potential ways of performing it.

Mabel’s melody here strikes me as being very much in the Daughter of the Regiment vein, like Marie’s Au Bruit De La Guerre with fewer pyrotechnics. Be careful that your ladies don’t speed up in their ‘For your foes are fierce and ruthless…’ passage. The winds are playing triplets at a pretty sprightly pace. They will not be able to speed up with you cleanly.

One other detail to mention here: the chords after ‘slaughter’ are marked with accents, and they are indeed forte in the score against a piano backdrop. But they’re only pizzicato violins and violas. That won’t sound like it does in the piano with the accents when you bring in the orchestra.

No ‘r’ in ‘for’, ‘fierce’, ‘unmerciful’, ‘tender’, or mercy.

Trip the ‘r’ in ‘glory’ and ‘ruthless’, etc.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I adore the first clarinet and the bassoon over the Sargeant’s line “Still, perhaps it would be wise not to carp or criticize.” What a lovely imitative counterpoint, how unnecessarily beautiful!

When the Chorus of Girls enters, they are meant to be the long tone glue of the passage. The men are the percussion, and the two principal women are soaring above. Make sure each part of the ensemble is doing their part, and not somebody else’s. That means the Men are as short and rhythmically clipped as possible, the Girls Chorus are not too loud and very legato, and the women are lyric, lively, bright, and beautiful as they float above. You may find the Chorus Ladies part somewhat hard to remember at ‘Go to death and go to slaughter, Die and every Cornish daughter’, since the lines are so similar but significantly different. You will want to spend time there. Do not allow your sopranos to steal Mabel’s thunder one measure before H. (they will want to, especially after they go off book) Also, do not fail to note that the passage begins piano at G, bursts into forte at ‘Go to death’, then drops back to piano at ‘Go ye heroes’. It’s MUCH funnier this way, and the more exaggerated it is, the funnier it gets.

The Major General’s part is spoken more often than not, although your score won’t indicate that.

Observe dynamics for the remainder and drill the length of the cutoff at the end.

18. Now For The Pirates Lair

There is an optional downbeat C major chord you can play if necessary that’s in the autograph, but not in the vocal score. You can find it in the Dover, I  believe. The Dover full score may be missing the word ‘Of’ in measure 8, on a sixteenth G before the word ‘which’. Bradley’s Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan does not include the word. The sentence seems to want it, though, no?
At last I may atone…for the repeated acts… of which… I have been guilty. No?

19. When You Had Left Our Pirate Fold

The Dover and Schirmer scores have ‘none to beat this paradox’ at letter B, but the Annotated Bradley has ‘that’. Schirmer score has a D# as Ruth’s last note on page 143, it should be a B. Schirmer also has an error in the King’s recit; the ‘ru’ of ‘February’ on page 144 should be the last syllable of the 3rd system, not the first syllable of the 4th. A third strike for Schirmer: a wrong pitch, 5 before E, the of agree should be a D natural, not a B natural.
The ‘HA HA HA’s are often spoken (or chortled) rather than sung.  There are some traditional pauses as Fred goes over it in his mind around rehearsal E. These are listed in the Dover. If you’re puzzled by the pizzicato reiterated at 136 in the Dover score (weren’t we already pizz?) it’s a function of Sullivan numbering the passage before G as duplicates of something that happens earlier in the manuscript. When he gets to G he starts orchestrating again, and indicates pizz. to make it clear what’s happening in the new section. I will let others quibble about Gilbert’s math.

20. Away, Away! My Heart’s on Fire

Suddenly the show gets really intense and grand opera here. This is probably the most challenging singing for an untrained Pirate King. It is also the place where you hope you’ve hired really fine reeds, because the repeated notes at B can be an uncoordinated mess in the wrong hands.
Again, the dynamics really make this number pop, you should really try and observe them.

21. All Is Prepared

In Hold Monsters, one felt Sullivan was just going through the motions. I’m not sure he liked the joke. But in the 29 measures of All Is Prepared, Sir Arthur is all in, and drawing on his knowledge of the repertoire for the perfect Recitativo Accompagnato.

If your Mabel has any chest register, pull it out to make the “Oh, horrible” truly horrible.

As conductor, your issues are managing the shifts from secco to accompagnato. The particularly strange place is in measure 26, where you’re coming out of an unmeasured tremolo into a big brassy chord in tempo, followed by a very strong unison passage. In rehearsal you might tend to blow through this, especially since the third measure from the third measure from the end looks like it’s still very free. In reality, the double basses and cellos have eighth notes through the whole bar. It’s also very awkward for your poor Mabel to sit there for nearly a measure and a half before she objects, “No, no!” If I were Frederic, I’d be concerned. A solution your tenor will probably like is to drag out the F into the fortissimo chord to limit the time between his near exit and her objection. Then get Mabel’s line in tempo, even in piano rehearsal, and you’ll get a nice unison with the strings con forza.

22. Stay, Frederic, stay!

As much fun as the rest of the show is, I think this duet is the heart and soul of Pirates, and represents Sullivan’s absolute mastery of theatrical music. The theatricality of the gripping opening passage opens out into a breathtaking melody for the ages, a beautiful and very English expression of stoicism in the face of loss. After leaving the audience spellbound and breathless, Sullivan drops them deadpan into a very funny joke. It’s daring and perfect, and for once, we don’t know what to expect or to feel. And as if to finish us off, the pair erupts into a scintillating Allegro Vivace as good as anything Sullivan ever wrote. It’s tightly written but expansive where necessary. It knows the jokes and tells them well, and here’s the critically important part: Sullivan takes these two foolish people in their preposterous situation as seriously as if he were setting Macbeth. Surely these pages are among the best in the literature, and it’s passages like these that show that Gilbert and Sullivan were so far ahead of their English and American contemporaries in Operetta as to constitute their own genre. No other English speaking writing team of the time could compete with this level of craft and understanding of the way an audience listens.

I’m going to lay out an argument which may well be a bit of a stretch, but I hope you’ll bear with me, because it pays off some lines of thought I started earlier in the post.

Throughout the operetta, the accompaniments for Frederic and Mabel are much more chromatic than the rest of the cast gets.

The first time we hear Frederic sing extensively, in the climax of his duet with Ruth, the bass line chromatically decorates and makes ambiguous the 5th of the chord. Note that we have both the Eb and the E natural in this bass line.Chromatic Basslines Frederic That passage ends with a 6 note descending chromatic figure:Chromatic Frederic 4

Frederic’s 1st act aria opens with an unnerving rising chromatic triplet:Chromatic Basslines Frederic 2

The accompaniment that follows has raised 4th, and 5th, and lowered 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th scale degrees. (by function, not by spelling)

In the second act, as he sings “Know Ye not, O rash ones…”, his accompaniment has a ‘thumb line’ that emphasizes a German augmented 6th chord over a tonic pedal.Chromatic Basslines Frederic 3

Mabel also has a piquant ‘thumb line’ that opens her major aria which embraces the ambiguity of the flatted 6th scale degree borrowed from Ab minor.Chromatic Mabel

And she also has a descending chromatic countermelody that decorates her coloratura.Chromatic Mabel 2

If chromaticism is a kind of musical metaphor for depth of expression, (and I think it is here) their music characterizes them more seriously and more meaningfully than the other characters. Notice I am not calling them smarter or more perceptive characters. But the harmonic subtleties at work here reveal a depth of feeling we don’t see even in Ruth, who comes the closest to pathos of the other characters.

Earlier, Sullivan had used a metrical metaphor to show that these two were not like the others. Here at the depth of their despair at circumstances that seem destined to keep them apart, we find the chromatic ingredients of their previous appearances now combined transformed to greet them both at once.

The opening ritornello has a 7 note chromatic passage, in a sort of inversion of the closing passage of “Oh, False One”.Stay Frederic opening ritornello

Underlying Mabel’s first melody is a ‘thumb line’ similar to the earlier two: only this time, it borrows the sharp 6th from the parallel major, tracing a fully diminished chord over the insistent tonic pedal.

Thumb Line

The gorgeous second section, “Ah, leave me not to pine” finds the lovers in their preferred time signature of 3, but very slowly. The phrase rhythm seems to be trying to break out of the bar even so, with an implied hemiola that forces a bigger 3/2 hypermeter:HemiolaHandel and Purcell used to do this kind of thing a lot; that’s one of the things that makes the melody sound old. But I think it’s even more interesting that the melody arranges itself in the following groupings of measures: 3,4,4,2,2,2,2,2. The hemiolas come in the middle of those 4 measure groupings. It’s pretty wild stuff!

In the first act, the lovers’ duet had closed with them singing together, but circumstances have here forced them to sing apart as they sing about being apart.

Now, track with me here. When, in the first Act, Frederic sang “O False One” with Ruth, he also began in a fast G minor in Common time. Just as here, Ruth also modulated to G major and into a triple meter, but hers was 6/8, the time signature assigned in this opera to the Pirates. She is of their lot, as we have subsequently discovered. But in the earlier number, Frederic rebuffed Ruth and returns to G minor, leaving the musical question unsolved. Mabel’s G major, in its languid 3/4 does the trick, though, and we modulate magnificently as she swears her faithfulness in Bb, the relative major of our intial G minor. We find that somehow her promise to remain faithful until they are both very old has not only resolved the tonality problem posed by Frederic in the first act, but has also managed to bring them back to their fast 3, in Mabel’s Wandering One tempo. Their formerly tortured chromaticism reduced to the occasional neighbor tone, this musical material consists of horn arpeggios and arching, echoing phrases. Mabel has in fact made the decisive musical resolution in the opera. This is key area and tempo planning at its most sophisticated.

Now to practical matters:

Be sure your Mabel is aware of the differences between the G-F-Eb-D version of the opening phrase and the G-F#-E natural-D version. Watch the rhythm at the 7th measure of A. It’s hard to execute. Savor the viola and cello line in measures 5-7 and 14-17, and be sure to observe the dynamics.

Mabel’s ‘desolate’ rhymes with the ‘great’. of the next line. Work to develop a very clearly subdivided 3 so that you’ll be able to guide your strings through the rall. Give a moment to let the players take the mutes off, either at measure 78 or at 87 (there is some discrepancy as to where they come off)

The fast passage turns out to be difficult to learn vocally (because there are several similar but differing passages), and somewhat awkward to conduct. I had intended to conduct it in one, but it turned out I was able to get a much better ensemble from the orchestra in a very fast 3. That also allowed me to relax the tempo just a tiny bit before letter E, then go right back into tempo to the finish.

Again, note the difference between the two “Oh, here is love”s, and how they swap their lines on “He/She will be faithful to her sooth”s. Not easy. We decided to hold the last note 2 measures instead of one.

I can’t resist pointing out that the closing Allegro of this simply must have been the inspiration for “Oh, Happy We” from Candide.

23. No, I am Brave!

Echoing the same stock heroic rising 4th of Frederick’s earlier “Now for the Pirate’s lair!”, Mabel now rallies the men to her side. When you reach the Moderato, work your way into the tempo for “When the Foeman”. The full score has tempo details that aren’t in the vocal score. Measure 8 is A Tempo Moderato, poco accel. in measure 10, Allegro Marziale in measure 12. The passage that follows is a near duplicate of the earlier iteration. The Dover full score has the voice parts all wrong the second measure from the end. Have a look at the Schirmer. It has to be right.

On page 172, it’s better if you don’t have anyone playing the E in the orchestra. I found a way to get the chorus to remember that pitch, though. I pass it on to you now:

Have the chorus imagine that the song is going to begin all over again, and mentally sing, “When the foeman”, stopping on the word “foe”. That’s their note.

A side note: In his younger years, Sullivan evidently conducted a church choir for which he recruited men from a local police department. According to this story, which I read in several sources, Sullivan thenceforth associated police with Anglican style chant. So it makes sense that they’d sing their answers in a church chant. The Sergeant’s long line near the end of the page is often sung with the closing formula the way those chants frequently end. I’m including it here:

Sargeant Chant

Some of your basses will not have the low E. They should mouth the words. The ones who do have the low E should use a very bright tone so that the note will be heard.

24. When a Felon’s Not Engaged In His Employment

One thing I think most people don’t notice is that the melody is basically continuous, being tossed between the Sergeant and the Police Chorus. Most people wind up singing the last two notes of the Sergeant’s first line as Fs, which would make sense if the Chorus were echoing. In fact, the notes on ‘..ploy-ment’ are F, E, because the melody continues into the Chorus part. Sing it to yourself as a continuous melody and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like the world’s slowest moto perpetuo. There appears to be a misprint in the Schirmer each time you get the hook: “The policeman’s lot…” not “A policeman’s lot”

The 1929 D’Oyly Carte recordings have some very fun twists on things you may want to use. The most controversial thing is probably the ‘Ah’ right before the last “When constabulary duty’s to be done…”, which is different than the score in many recordings. We mostly hear the following, or some variant thereof:

When A Felon Chorus Passage

Simplicity is the name of the game here, folks. Just sing it in tune and get the job done.

25. A Rollicking Band of Pirates, We

The pirates enter in the same key we just left, so that shouldn’t be a problem. I found the voicing ineffective when the parts join. I like to play close to the book, but somebody else might put the baritones up the octave to fill in that harmony; it would probably be more effective. The tenors are in their best range, but very few basses can project at all on the low F. I note also that in the autograph full score, the “For” in “For general Stanley’s story” is an A and a C above the F written, not another F. Singing through it, it seems better to me that way.A rollicking band

26. With Catlike Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal

The joke Gilbert delivered Sullivan to write is that the pirates are being very sneaky. Whether it was Gilbert’s or Sullivan’s idea to have the occasional crashing fortissimo chord we don’t know.  But once the idea was hatched, Sullivan went straight to Verdi as a model. The quintessential crashing and banging number in opera is the Anvil Chorus of Verdi from his 1853 opera Il Trovatore. Sullivan doesn’t use the Anvil, but he does use tutti fortissimo chords, and he creates a melody that has been recognized again and again as a spoof of one of Verdi’s most famous choruses.

Anvil Chorus

Catlike TreadComparing the two numbers shows both the superficial resemblance of the melody and the ways Sullivan is monkeying around with the original. Both melodies begin on the third degree of the scale, but Verdi’s phrase is 4 measures long, and Sullivan is playing the 2 bars + 1 +1 game at which he so excels.  Verdi’s offbeats are on 2 and 4, where Sullivan is chunking along on every beat. Verdi’s got an entire percussion battery banging away. (too complicated to reduce here) Sullivan sticks to his one player and he’s playing less, partly because of the dynamic. That’s the biggest difference. (the joke in fact) Sullivan’s version has the bombast of Verdi’s in miniature, like the Iliad taking place in an ant farm.

If Sullivan’s earlier Traviata references were comical when compared with the trivialities of the Pirates plot, the Trovatore reference here is a little more on-the-nose as we say, since Il Trovatore has one of the most famously convoluted plots in the history of opera. (and that’s saying something) That plot hinges on the wrong baby being thrown into the fire by a Gypsy woman who subsequently raises as her own the child who should have been killed in vengeance for her mother’s death. Then there’s a case of mistaken identity in the dark with somebody serenading somebody else, and a duel, and… well, you get the picture.

SIDEBAR: Opera Burlesques

In the mid 19th Century, there was a taste for burlesques on operas like Il Trovatore.These entertainments adapted popular operas, plays or ballets in a low style, particularly mocking theatrical conventions. In the time we’re discussing here, Burlesques were very popular in England, and spoofs of culturally important work would crop up immediately. In fact, Gilbert himself had cut his teeth writing burlesques of popular operas, and a case can be made that he learned his craft as a librettist by cranking out these spoofs in the 1860s.

Concurrent with the original American run of Pirates, Coleville’s Opera Burlesque Company was touring the country with a burlesque called “Ill Treated Il Trovatore”, which passed through New York in May of 1880. This British spoof of Il Trovatore was written in the 1860s by a friend, editor and sometime collaborator of Gilbert named Henry James Byron. In that spoof, Manrico, the tenor in the original opera, is played by a woman.

For more information about Victorian Burlesque, check out this Wikipedia page.

G&S would change their approach following Pirates and do fewer spoofs of opera, but essentially Gilbert’s game, especially in this piece, is to crank up the implausible coincidences and plot twists past the point where the audience could ever suspend their disbelief. This connection to Il Trovatore veers closer to Burlesque than the rest of the piece.

This chorus became extremely popular all over the English speaking world, and the words “Hail, hail the gang’s all here” were added to make it a true drinking song. After all, “truce to navigation” is doubly perplexing after a few beers.

The errata list tells you about a number of missing chords and dynamics in the accompaniment, which may be of interest while you’re doing the choreography.

Watch the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythms. At least one recording has Samuel singing the orchestra’s G# in measure 47. I think this is a mistake, especially because the higher countermelody seems to have been an afterthought:Catlike Tread flute part detail

I don’t need to tell you that the dynamics are important here. The big melody piano is hilarious. And at the end, we need all 4 parts clearly in tune and articulated. The second tenor part seems to want to go out of tune for some reason. The Schirmer score does not list a fermata 6 measures from the end, but the Dover score has one.

27. Hush, Hush! Not a Word

The whole scene is a burlesque of things like the second act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, where people don’t notice (or pretend not to notice) crazy goings on. The Ha Ha! in this number is generally shouted. That makes the Major’s line funnier. It is in fact, the third such hard-of-hearing joke in this show, the first being the Pilot-Pirate mess, the second being the Orphan-Often scene.

28. Sighing Softly To The River

One apparently either loves or despises the opening of this number. I have yet to find someone indifferent. I rather like it. However, it does nothing whatever to advance the plot, and you could very easily cut it without damaging the score in any way.

Many people online have commented on the Schubertian nature of the accompaniment, and I just wanted to bring the comparison down to a level where those not up to their ears in Lied all day long can see what those name dropping people are talking about:

Here’s the opening piano phrase of Schubert’s 1823 song Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen, Op. 72. The accompaniment is supposed to resemble the shimmering, mirroring waves mentioned in the text. The piece was originally written in A flat minor, but people move these Schubert songs into any keys they feel like, so we don’t know what key Sullivan knew it in. For comparison’s sake, I’ve put it in a key that makes comparison easier:

Schubert Auf Dem Wasser Opening

Sullivan’s version doesn’t fixate on the appoggiatura figure as much, but the other bit sounds like Schubert too. Here’s Sullivan’s take, which has many of the same details, albeit in a sunny major key:

Sighing Softly Opening

Both of them are Barcarolles, which are intended to be boat-like. Glibert’s text is about rivers, brooks, breezes, and waving tree branches, so the mood is apt.

Now, if you’ve read this far, you’ve gotten used to my fixating on arcane musical details, so I have one last conundrum to throw at you, which I honestly don’t have an answer for. I hope I’ve established to your satisfaction that Sullivan is concerned with large scale phrasing issues here. It’s something every great Romantic musician of the Nineteenth Century had to deal with after the kinds of games Beethoven liked to play. Verdi played those games by teasing an audience with an opening ritornello that stops mid stream at the most frustrating place. Brahms worked with large scale hemiola ideas in his Requiem among many other places. Sullivan normally played games by coming up with creative ways to set lyrics that defied expectation. We see this all over the place, but to bring up an example I didn’t cover earlier in the piece:

A more pedestrian writer would set this text in the obvious groupings:

Did ever maiden wake

From dream of homely duty

To find her daylight break

With such exceeding beauty?

Sullivan would set it that way for a chorus or perhaps a patter baritone. But for a lyric voice, he makes a much more personal and unlikely choice:

Did ever maiden wake from dream of Homely duty

To find her daylight break with such exceeding beauty?

The setting draws the phrase like taffy over a long stretch, he’s thinking big, beautiful phrases!

If Sullivan was really working out some of these issues of phrase length, and the way meter interacts with melody, we have to say that the opening of “Sighing Softly” is a head-scratcher. I’m speaking here of strong and weak measures, downbars and upbars if you will, that govern the way music should be phrased. Classical era composers like Mozart were really interested in that balance. Beethoven would subvert that balanced approach in really interesting ways. We sometimes group these ideas as Hypermeter. It’s the way good musicians get the big rhythmic ideas out, so we don’t just get stuck playing all the downbeats loud and all the upbeats quiet one measure at a time.

The tune Sullivan writes here in the orchestra implies a phrasing that doesn’t work in the long run for the vocal melody. You’re going to say I’m overthinking this, but let me lay out my case. I’ve included only the melody of the accompaniment here, so that I can be a little more clear:

Very odd phrasingIt feels like the record skips somehow. If this concept seems boring to you, just move along, nothing more to see here. But if you’re interested in puzzling it out further, try the various options out. If you think of it as “Sighing softly TO the river”, with “to” being the downbeat, it feels good until letter A, where you have to skip a measure to get back into the same phrasing. (If you think of it the other way, you have to skip at A also)

Then 2 after rehearsal B, Sullivan seems to be implying a downbar at “River, RIver”. But if that’s the case, the part of the melody we first heard in measure 4, which felt like an upbar is now a downbar.

When I’m outside walking with my son Nick, he sometimes aligns his steps Left-Right with mine. Just to mess with him, I’ll do a little skip so we’re exactly out of sync. Feels like that’s what’s happening here. Somehow the whole song has combed its hair the wrong way.

Enough of that. The tenors and basses are for the most part identical here. If you wanted to, you could place all the tenors on the high line, and all the basses on the low one, until “Wave their leafy arms above”, where it truly splits into three parts. In our production, the Major turns around when the music drops to piano, making everyone sing quieter.

When the ladies come on, they have a long patter with no place to breathe. As long as people don’t try to breathe between phrases, it works out well. Counsel your ladies to leave out a word in the middle of a phrase, then sneak back in. This is a good piece to use as a diction warm up in rehearsal. Watch those descending passages for chromatic tuning.

No particular tips for the next section, except to counsel your ladies to keep the second note of the octave drops nice and short at “Oh, spare him!”, “Oh, Rapture!”, etc. We triumph now

The “We triumph now” chorus is the last time of many in this operetta where we will hear one group in dotted eighths/sixteenths and another in triplets. The tenor parts are pretty tricky, in terms of the notes, and also because they have both rhythms. The brass writing in the orchestra is really great; they will add a lot of ‘oomph’ to your chorus here.

At the Tutti “Yes, yes, with all their faults”, I inserted a rest as when the police did it. There’s just no other way to coordinate the ‘s’.

Ruth’s “One moment…” is still technically in recit, but it isn’t free because of the eighths in the orchestra. Be sure you don’t let it get too loose in rehearsal or you’ll have trouble getting the strings on board there.

We had fun rolling the r on the word “Wrong”.

At letter P, a lot of people do a little accelerando into that punctuating figure, even thought it isn’t notated that way.

The closing version of “Poor Wand’ring one” has different words, because the sentiment has changed all around. Make note of that. Also make sure all the chorus quarters are short.

If you need some curtain music, go back to the allegro in the overture.

Your Pit Orchestra:

I often counsel music directors not to hire all the players, but with G&S, you’re dealing with a true orchestral color. The original orchestrations are available from Tams, but I can’t imagine why you’d use that when there are available here at a reasonable price or here for free. Reductions can be found here, or here or here or here for example. (incidentally I think we can now stop reducing this one, fellas)

Better that you do G&S than that you ignore it, but do try and do it properly if at all possible, with Sullivan’s magnificent orchestration in full color! Have fun with your production of Pirates! I will be including more G&S as I music direct them!