A British tar is a soaring soul… or a Gilbert & Sullivan Fanatic

Anna Hubbel 

  • OnStage Columnist

I have decided that for my first column, I will write about my experience with student theatre and two individuals that consumed most of my college nights: Gilbert and Sullivan.

Yes, in college I was active in the school’s Gilbert & Sullivan student theatre group. If you are familiar with the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, you know that the storylines are bizarre and confusing, the roles hysterical, and the music catchy but complicated to learn. But most assuredly, you know that once you are involved, the stress, drama, and inside jokes and innuendos are endless…

For those of you who are not familiar with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, the two men, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, were partners in compiling Victorian-era operas with comic twists and turns. From what I have learned, when it comes to Gilbert & Sullivan, you belong in one of three groups: 1) you are obsessed with everything about Gilbert & Sullivan; 2) you know absolutely nothing about Gilbert & Sullivan; or 3) you know more than you’d like to, but you can’t escape it. I fell somewhere in the third category. 

I was rarely a lead character in our G&S productions; in fact, I am not even sure how I became involved with the group. (It was most likely “a friend of a friend needed friends to gather friends to join the club so it had more than two people in it” type of deal.) I performed in Princess Ida (“Sacharissa”), H.M.S. Pinafore (Sir Joseph Porter’s “Aunt”), The Sorcerer (“Lady Sangazure”), The Palace of Truth (“Queen Altemire”), and Ruddigore (a “Bridesmaid” and a “Ghost”).

Honestly, any sensible mind would have tossed the cold roast lamb (some G&S humor) after our pitiful production of Princess Ida my freshman year. Everything that can go wrong in a theatre production – dropped lyrics, miserable vocals, missed cues, costume and prop malfunctions – happened during that show. It was all due to poor direction, as our director at the time only focused on the choreography (the only decent element of the performance), with hardly any attention focused on costumes, music or dialogue. Plus most of those involved were recruited within only weeks prior to opening night (it was a dwindling club). Things were going so badly, some of our cast was even drunk on stage by the last night. We were the laughing stocks at the mercy of the entire theatre department. In all likelihood, it will forever be known as the worst G&S student performance in college history.  

That being said, Princess Ida gave us the drive to work harder and become better. That’s the beauty of student theatre: as long as there are students involved, the club goes on. H.M.S. Pinafore turned out a little better, although it definitely needed tweaking. (My costume was made of flowered upholstery… I was essentially a walking curtain rod.) It was The Sorcerer that salvaged our reputation and drove more students to audition for the club. It was also one of my favorites, as I actually had lines and solos (and played a crazy old woman who falls in love with the “Sorcerer” after drinking a love potion). The sets were better, the costumes were better, the music was better, and we even had a smoke machine for when the “Sorcerer” is dragged down into the underworld. 

Remember what I said about the three categories of G&S? Well, our director (elected after Princess Ida) fell into the first category: obsessed with everything about Gilbert & Sullivan. She highlighted our club on the school map, but oh golly was she “mad with fascination”! (More G&S humor.) She expected us to skip our classes and put all homework aside for the sake of the show. She had her small posse that followed her lead and adored her; the rest of us tiptoed around her glares of blazing insanity. Her obsession caused many stressful nights, angry tantrums, and much drama. But hey… that’s what drama clubs are all about, right?

We can all agree that music takes time to learn and can be challenging at times. But imagine what it’s like trying to teach a group of music amateurs their different ranges in complex compositions for an operatic play… only two or three weeks before opening night. Our music director pulled that card for nearly every show and it drove the rest of us into a panicked frenzy.

Palace of Truth was my favorite production of all for multiple reasons. For one, it was a straight play, which eliminated the stress of learning the complicated G&S musical numbers. Secondly, it was the first major lead role I had. Lastly, it was the most fun I have ever had on stage. The dialogue allowed much room for improvisation, so we never knew when a member of the cast would switch it up on us (many times during the actual performance). The most difficult part was keeping a straight face. 

For example, as I was “Queen Altemire”, most of my scenes involved interacting with “King Phanor”. In the scene when the queen asks the king what he’s been doing, he responds that he was with his mistress, “Mirza”. However, the kid changed the original lines every night, so I never knew what he would say. I nearly lost it when he said, “Why, I was boinking Mirza, of course!”

Ruddigore was a bittersweet production for me. Yes, it was fun being a “Ghost”, crawling out of a portrait and chanting spells nonsensically, something different every night. But after my performance in Palace of Truth, I was certain I would be given some type of lead role. But alas, politics and friend cliques had their way and I was placed as a mere chorus member to make room for cast that didn’t know their lines but knew our director’s favorite everything and kissed her feet. I almost said, “ain’t nobody got time fo that!” but for some reason, I stuck it out. And it turns out that it was the best decision of my life, as it was during that difficult period that I discovered my best friend (and beloved), Carolyn Smith.

All in all, I enjoyed my experience with G&S and if you have a G&S group at your college, I encourage you to look into it. You might love it, think “what the heck?” or try to claw your way out some time later. In the end, an experience is an experience, so it really doesn’t matter… matter, matter, matter, matter…

(More G&S humor.)