A Topsy-Turvy World
The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' artistic director enthuses about G&S and the company's current productions.
Now in its 27th year, NYGASP proudly claims the distinction of being New York's only fully professional Gilbert and Sullivan repertory ensemble. (Two venerable amateur societies offer G&S locally on a regular basis: the Blue Hill Troupe and the Village Light Opera Guild.) The 52-year-old Bergeret is an eloquent, passionate spokesman for the librettist-composer team to whom he's dedicated his entire adult life. He readily admits that his easygoing demeanor at the Sorcerer rehearsal this writer attended was only because he was serving as conductor rather than director; company veterans Stephen Quint and Mary Lou Barber are co-directing. As a director, Bergeret remarks in a quote from H.M.S. Pinafore, he's more likely to be "tedious, fretful and dictatorial." According to his daughter, a student at Oberlin College, "He's mellow two days a year--Thanksgiving and Christmas." NYGASP productions are often a family affair; Bergeret's wife, Gail Wofford, is costumer for The Mikado and a member of the wardrobe crew for The Sorcerer/Trial By Jury, while his daughter is a production assistant and his son is helping to move and assemble the sets.
Bergeret runs the organization from a cluttered office in a Greek Orthodox church on the Upper West Side. He administers, directs, conducts, helps to build scenery and props, and at times even dresses wigs. Although NYGASP receives grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and Wine Spectator Magazine, which sponsors children's performances for the New York City public schools, the company depends largely upon ticket sales to survive.
"About 10 years ago, we were $100,000 in debt," Bergeret comments. In response, he cut back on staff, and since that time has run the company as "pretty much a one-man show." He says that NYGASP "has gone from the brink of bankruptcy to financial stability." He expects that the popularity of last year's Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy will help in bringing sellout crowds to this season's Mikado. But, even before the release of that film, NYGASP was well established as a New York institution that often draws capacity audiences of aficionados. The company also tours to Wolf Trap and elsewhere each year; a smaller ensemble, The Wand'ring Minstrels, performs for schools and community groups.
Bergeret is happy to expound on G&S. He notes that Gilbert wrote dozens of successful non-musical plays in his time and Sullivan was England's most eminent 19th-century composer, the creator of symphonic music, art songs, and hymns including "Onward Christian Soldiers." Both collaborated with other partners to create works for the theater; yet their greatest professional triumphs were the comic light operas they wrote together, originally produced between 1871 and 1896. (Thirteen of these works survive; nearly all of the music to the first Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, Thespis, is now lost.) Their other work, Bergeret comments, "never quite has the sparkle of the two of them pushing each other. Together, they were intent on creating something new, and they did."
During the 1870s and '80s, G&S' reputation as pop tunesmiths was as great as that of Lennon and McCartney nearly a century later. At one time, New York alone had eight productions of H.M.S. Pinafore running simultaneously. While most works originally created for the Victorian stage have become footnotes to theater history, these light operas continue to be produced successfully by professional and amateur companies worldwide. Gilbert's sophisticated wordplay, memorable characters, and subtle ironies of comic plotting combined with Sullivan's effervescent, witty scores still charm audiences more than a century after they were written; with the exception of Shakespeare, perhaps no other playwright or team is more amply represented in the number of English-language productions mounted each year.
The way Bergeret sees it, "Gilbert and Sullivan have thrived because there's more to them than simply the reflection of the Victorian era. They had an uncanny way of wedding their works to human nature that transcends any given era. As the fathers of what we know as modern musical theater, they certainly made their mark. I see the works as being relevant at any given time. I'm often amazed at how they often seem to relate to yesterday's headlines."
The Mikado, Bergeret notes, "clearly is a political satire that lands in any era. Pooh-Bah is the fat cat, the politician on the take." The Sorcerer, which features the famous patter song, "My name is John Wellington Wells," is "a bit of a silly story, but it has a lot to say about class distinction and the evils of the ends justifying the means." And Trial By Jury--one of the team's earliest successes, set in the Roaring Twenties for the current NYGASP production--is a "no-holds-barred sendup of the judicial system, the perfect antidote for long, drawn-out courtroom dramas that are played out endlessly in the media these days."
Bergeret's passion for Gilbert and Sullivan began in high school when he played French horn in the orchestra for a production of Iolanthe, which remains his favorite Savoy opera. As an undergraduate at Columbia University in the late '60s, he tried out for the Barnard College Gilbert and Sullivan Society and subsequently worked on 20 of their productions. NYGASP began as an outgrowth of that company, offering its first production in 1974: a street theatre Mikado in Strauss Park at 106th Street and Broadway. From the first, the organization's aim was to create a fully professional ensemble. Since 1978, the company has performed at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, though renovations will force the players to seek a temporary home elsewhere next season.
In the mid-'80s, the company's fortunes skyrocketed when John Reed, formerly the leading actor of England's famed D'Oyly Carte company, agreed to do a series of guest appearances. At that time, Reed had left D'Oyly Carte (which subsequently disbanded) and was freelancing all over the world. Bergeret met him while he was performing in Washington, DC, and invited him to appear with NYGASP. The D'Oyly Carte company in its last days had become stodgy, weighed down by ossified tradition; and Reed, "eager to explore the works with a fresher perspective than the D'Oyly Carte," instantly accepted the NYGASP offer. "That elevated our prestige and attracted people who wanted to work with us after that," Bergeret recalls. "It gave us a sort of legitimacy, a certain cachet."
In subsequent years, the company brought in a number of "name" guest stars--according to Bergeret, they were "mostly former television personalities" whose "participation was rather hit and miss." Last season's Princess Ida starred Frank Gorshin, the Riddler on the 1960s Batman TV series, as King Gama, while earlier seasons featured Addams Family star John Astin as Sir Joseph Porter in Pinafore and ex-pop star Noel Harrison as Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance. One of NYGASP's most memorable guest stars was the recently departed talk show host and songwriter Steve Allen, who played the title role in The Mikado.
"He was intent on rewriting everything," says Bergeret of Allen. "He felt that it wasn't funny the way it was written. The audience laughed their heads off at Borscht Belt comedy rather than Gilbert and Sullivan, but it was still awfully funny." Coping with Allen's helter-skelter improvisations during performances, Bergeret recalls, the company's actors "learned how to cover themselves under any circumstances."
In fact, Bergeret has often altered the texts of the works himself; he also allows company members to improvise in rehearsal, and many of those improvisations are retained in performance. Two years ago, a reference to the newly invented telephone in the 1878 opus H.M.S. Pinafore yielded an extended bit of business with faux cell phones and interpolated dialogue. Bergeret says that he alters the libretti in order to make them more vital and relevant to modern audiences; the G&S operas often contain once-topical references that audiences would miss, he explains, while more contemporary allusions tend to hit home. (In this, he's far from alone: Ko-Ko's patter song in the current "New" D'Oyly Carte Mikado in London, for example, features references to the English soccer team and pot smokers.)
Bergeret grants that criticism of this approach is inevitable. "Occasionally," he admits, "we get a purist who says, 'I didn't come to see Doggerel and Sullivan.' " Still, he feels that Gilbert himself would have approved of the changes: "I think that, as a man of the theater, he would love them. He would write them himself if he were around. He might think that we go a little bit overboard, but my aim is to promote the thoughts and intents that Gilbert had."
The operas, Bergeret adds, are "pieces of living, breathing musical theater. They're not archaic, museum-like, or quaint, nor are they only for those who are steeped in the material and have educated themselves in the references. I like to make the works as alive as they would have been for the audience they were written for."
[For show dates and other information, click here to visit the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players website, www.NYGASP.org]