It’s taken a besotted American to cut Gilbert and Sullivan down to size, writes Kate Copstick
‘It is my secret shame,” says Ray Cullom of his lifelong fascination with Gilbert and Sullivan. “It started with my dad’s album of Flanders and Swann – that was my introduction to English musical theatre, and from there it was just a rabbit hole that I fell down.”
But Cullom is no ditsy Alice in a theatrical Wonderland. In a 20-year theatre career he has been executive director with Nederlander Worldwide, managing director of the famous Theatre Row complex on 42nd Street, and presided over the renovation of seven major arts venues across America, as well as touring in chorus lines of major Broadway musicals. Hailed as “a visionary”, he is currently transforming New York’s Queens Theatre into a fully fledged production house. Perhaps Creative Scotland might like a word with Mr Cullom while he is here.
I am not sure, I tell him, quite how I feel about Americans appropriating the performance of Gilbert and Sullivan. “We’re poaching, yes,” he says, drily. “It would be like you lot doing a Rogers and Hammerstein show.” Touché.
Actually, Cullom’s are about the most caring, most knowledgeable hands that G&S could land in. Even his earliest memories are coloured a Savoyard tint. “The D’Oyly Carte used to tour the US,” he tells me, “I remember seeing this wonderful production of The Mikado outdoors in Philadelphia where I grew up and just loving it.”
At university (Chicago, Anthropology), he says: “The first people I sought out were the Chicago Gilbert & Sullivan Society. I spent five years with them – ending up directing and then moved to Washington where I ran the Washington Savoyards and played the Pirate King in The Pirates Of Penzance three or four times.”
And it was there – now ten years ago – that the idea for Gilbert & Sullivan In Brief(s) first ran the Jolly Roger up the mast of that Penzancian Pirate ship to see who would salute.
“We had a gala to raise money and I had this crazy drunken idea that we would touch on all of the operas in 40 minutes.” A sort of Reduced G&S? He beams. “I welcome that comparison,” he nods. “And that is certainly the spark that got me going on this – hearing about the Reduced Shakespeare Company and seeing it in London, I said wouldn’t that be great if there were something similar for G&S?” And now there is.
The show has just finished a hugely popular two-week preview at the Queen’s Theatre and has garnered at least three obsessive new fans for G&S. “We did a whole season of big rock musicals … and my kids only came once. But they came to this every night and now they are walking around the house singing the Nightmare Song from Iolanthe.”
Like Strephon in that show – a fairy from the waist up but “his legs are mortal” – Gilbert & Sullivan In Brief(s) is a show of two halves. While it does encompass all 14 shows (including The Mikado in eight minutes and a Grand Finale created from the finales of every production in the canon), it is also a comic play about the four singers who are performing and the relationships between them.
“The people who really love Gilbert & Sullivan are a strange lot,” says Cullom, “and this show is really a homage to them as well as the wit of Gilbert and the virtuosity of Sullivan.” Anyone who has ever been within a fan’s flick of a good old-fashioned G&S production will recognise the characters on stage. Each is their own kind of glorious monster. “The hardest part was finding singers who could handle the comedy,” says Cullom. “Good singers are usually comedy kryptonite.” Not these ones, apparently.
None of them has ever been to Edinburgh, says Cullom. “Equity actors in America are used to a certain level of … ‘care’. The Equity contract says: ‘I don’t ever have to iron my shirt,’ ‘I don’t ever have to touch a prop.’ He hesitates. “I think they are all going to be fine.”
Given that by the end of the show the stage is covered with than 100 props and pieces of costume all of which have to be collected and stored in a very specific order, to facilitate the next performance, that is quite a “think”. And, sensibly, Cullom waited until they reached Edinburgh before introducing his cast to the Flyering Process.
Cullom himself has been to Edinburgh half-a-dozen times to view, mostly at the behest of the British Council, but never to produce. And he is very well aware of the dangers. He remembers top US comedian Hal Sparks in his Edinburgh debut. “He was in one of the basement venues at Assembly and there were 12 folding chairs in the room. I was one of three people there, watching this man who fills stadiums in the US. It really knocked him. He came back a changed man. He had got used to this way of performing and treating people and over in Edinburgh he was just another guy in a basement room playing to three people on folding chairs. Probably a good experience for him in the end.”
I do hope Gilbert, Sullivan and their cast have a better one. They deserve it.
Gilbert & Sullivan in Brief(s), Pleasance Courtyard, until 27 August. www.pleasance.co.uk/edinburgh
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Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east