THE moment I heard that the ban had been removed from the Mikado, I had a premonition that Pooh Bah would revisit the scene of his former triumph. Pleasant presentiments have an unpleasant habit of rarely materializing, but in this case it proved a correct one, and the following letter greeted me one morning in April (not the 1st):
This was an invitation amounting almost to a Royal Command, and needless to say, I did “like,” and duly presented myself at the time indicated. The very time, eleven, was a link with the past, the modern call being rarely fixed for anything earlier than noon, and many artists even then being half an hour late; but my old training stood me in good stead, and without the semblance of an effort I was there on the stroke of time. There was another victim present at this portentous “voice trial” in the person of my old young friend Harry Lytton, who was as anxious to qualify for the part of the Mikado as I was for Pooh Bah. We were both, I fancy, highly nervous and horribly afraid of François Cellier, our kindly musical director, for the reason that he carries in his brain-cells every note of these operas as written by Sullivan, and is charmingly intolerant of the slightest deviation from the score of the maestro. In support of this he told me a story at this very rehearsal concerning a well-known tenor who was engaged to play Ivanhoe alternately with Ben Davies, the originator of the part; Cellier was sitting in the stalls with Sullivan at the tenor’s first rehearsal, and at the close of one scene where he should have finished piano, in order to allow the Ivanhoe “motif” to receive full value at the hands of the magnificent orchestra, the tenor introduced a B flat, which he hung on to as we all know tenors do. Cellier jumped up from his seat, and turning to Sullivan exclaimed loudly, “My God, did you hear that?” it being to his mind nothing less than sacrilege. Sullivan appeared a trifle embarrassed and said, “Don’t worry, Frank; I told him he might do it; but if you don’t approve I will speak to him about it.” François, of course, could say no more, but to his great joy the tenor told him later that, “thanks to you, I am robbed of my B flat.” Although I had no desire to emulate this feat, and as I do not possess the note the reason is obvious, I was quite unnerved by the tale, but proceeded to do my best; I had ventured to take with me as a kind of “reserve” my old friend Major Gunston, who had been present at the original production of the Mikado, and who had very kindly definitely promised to remove me should he see signs of the strain becoming too great, and see to it that I recuperated in due form in the Café Parisien; but even he was so overcome by the solemnity of the occasion and the Gilbert-and-Sullivan atmosphere which pervaded the stage as to remain oblivious not only of the lapse of time, but also, mirabile dictu, of the imperative necessity for eating and drinking. However, both Lytton and myself passed the test triumphantly, and Cellier having promised (provided I would have a good hour at the music before the next rehearsal) to put in a good word for us with Mrs. Carte, all ended happily and we unbent in company at lunch.
Of course it was inevitable that I should have forgotten odd bits of my music, and in one number I finished a good half-bar in front of the accompanist, which caused Cellier to remind me of a piece in which I played at the Opera Comique called After All, in which I had a patter-song to sing, and on one occasion at a benefit, with a strange conductor, I came to the end of the song long before the band, and to Cellier’s delight, remarked loudly, “I won.” Of course, it was not Sullivan’s music, or his delight would have been tempered with horror.
For about a week we frolicked (reverently) through our preliminary rehearsals by way of getting into some sort of form before the advent of the author, and then arrived the momentous day. At eleven-thirty on Monday, April 13, 1908, Sir William Gilbert made his first appearance as a titled stage manager, and it was soon made evident that the master mind is as alert and keen as ever, and those of us who were uncertain as to what is “gag” and what is “original” in our parts were feeling slightly nervous. That there was no need for this feeling was soon apparent, for there was a geniality about the proceedings which formed a welcome contrast to the north-east wind which was blowing in the Strand, and had given us all a jaundiced view of rehearsals and work generally. I had made a virtuous resolve to do without my “book” at this rehearsal, but, from what cause I cannot guess, I could not remember one speech correctly, and worse than all felt as if I never should. Of course this feeling wore off, and all kinds of little bits of business kept recurring to me, but even then I had not recovered everything by the first night and have been reminded of some since. In one situation where Pitti Sing, now played by that delightful little artist Jessie Rose, puts herself forward in place of Yum- Yum, Gilbert did not like the “business,” and when told by the stage manager that it was the original way of doing it, appealed to me for confirmation, which I was able to give, whereupon he remarked, “Oh, it’s classic, is it? Well, we must not interfere with the classics.” On the other hand several such introductions of a more modern growth have been sternly suppressed, with much advantage to the piece. It has been Sir William’s aim in this revival to get as near to the original rendering as possible, but it is not always easy to separate the old from the new, especially when some of the artists have been playing the parts at intervals for so long a time.
I renewed my acquaintance with “Simpson’s” during these rehearsals, in company with Gilbert, and although some of the homeliness of the place has disappeared owing to its new and gorgeous decoration, it was very pleasant to find the same waiters and carvers in attendance, the same excellent joints at our disposal, almost the same appetite to enjoy them with, and absolutely the same type of people frequenting the restaurant that I remember twenty years ago; indeed, I believe if not the identical people, they are sons and daughters who worthily maintain the old traditions of “‘Simpson’s’ before a matinée.”
At length we arrived at the first night of our revival of Mikado, and what an excitement there was; the pit and gallery had been filled for hours, in fact since about five o’clock, and Mrs. Carte had very kindly sent them in tea and bread and butter. They passed the time away by singing, led by a girl with a very sweet voice, all the songs and concerted numbers from the whole series of Savoy Operas, carefully abstaining, with excellent taste, from giving anything from the Mikado.
On taking his seat to conduct the overture, Cellier was received almost as if he were the composer, a public recognition of the well-known fact how much his heart is in his work; and then the other receptions; the warmth of my own brought a feeling of chokiness that very nearly prevented me from delivering my first lines. Workman, Lytton, and in fact all the cast were scarcely less warmly greeted, and the scene at the end of the evening was strongly reminiscent of the same scene twenty odd years ago, though to some of us, either side of the curtain, the pleasure was tempered with the sorrow of missing so many old friends. Both the stage and the auditorium seem to me on some evenings peopled with ghosts of those I have seen there so often.
We had a rather funny experience about a week after opening, in the way of artists forgetting their parts, in fact it was a little epidemic. It began with Lytton misplacing a word, then Workman fell over a speech, I cut something, Nanki Poo omitted an entire line, and in the number immediately following the bassoon went wrong; he was a deputy, and when the encore came Cellier looked anxiously towards him, and the clarinette made signs that he had put the bassoon right, but while doing so forgot to take up his own cue, which so disturbed Cellier that he omitted to beat the time. All this sounds like a terrible fiasco, but in reality was only noticeable to the initiated, amongst whom must be included the well-known performer on the drums, Henderson (who was with us at the Opera Comique), who thoroughly enjoyed the situation.
Some of our most frequent patrons are children, who are brought to our matinées in great numbers and who seem to me somehow to know the piece. This may be so in truth, for in one case, during the last revival, Sir Lewis McIver told me that his wife had been used to telling her little ones the story of Yum-Yum and Nanki Poo as if it were a fairy tale, and their excitement when they were brought to see the real thing was immense, all the characters as they appeared being greeted with affectionate recognition. We also have frequent visitors from Japan among our audiences, but they, naturally, do not excite the attention that was bestowed on a boxful of little ladies in kimonos from the Japanese village at Knightsbridge in 1885, who I expect did not understand a single word of what was said or sung.
One point strikes me almost nightly, and that is the way in which the dialogue “goes”; many of the phrases have been adopted as everyday colloquialisms, and yet when delivered on a stage excite the same laughter as before; no little compliment this to the master mind which invented them. The most important up-to-date alteration made has been the addition of an encore verse to Koko’s song, “I’ve got a little list,” and this has provoked a rather curious experience. Workman was unable to learn it in time for the first night, and when he did try it, a few nights later, came to hopeless grief in the latter part of it. We were talking this over and then discussed the merit of the verse, which both of us had the temerity to describe as “not very good”; however, not having an alternative, he persevered with it, and, to our mutual amusement, the first night he got the full value of it he could easily have taken another encore. We have both (silently) apologized to Gilbert for our obtuseness.
It was a great gratification to me to read the dictum of one critic to the effect that “he sings his music with delightful assumption of the vocal mannerisms of a certain age.” I am not absolutely sure whether this is a veiled allusion to my tale of years, or meant to refer to a species of tenor production which I adopt at intervals with a certain effect, but in either case, as I say, it gratifies me almost as much as it appears to amuse my hearers.
A good deal of praise has been apportioned in the present revival to the good work on the part of the choristers, and though well deserved this is scarcely to be wondered at, when considering that many of the choristers of both sexes have played parts in the operas. It is indeed a tribute to their loyalty to the management that with perfect equanimity they will play a part one week and sing chorus the next, the reward being a steady engagement with a manageress whose interest in their welfare is as strong as in that of herself and the plays.
To have been an “old Savoyard,” that is to say, one of the original company, seems to confer not only a great measure of dignity but, in the minds of some, a greater natural activity in old age. This was clearly proved to me some few nights after the Mikado revival by the visit of a friend to my dressing-room. He told me he was sitting in the last row of the stalls and immediately behind him there were two dear old ladies renewing their former acquaintance with the play. At the end of the encores for the “Flowers that bloom in the spring,” one of them said to the other, “Look at that wonderful Mr. Barrington dancing like that.” “Lovely!” said the other. “But why is it so wonderful, dear?” To which number one replied, “Don’t you know? Why, he’s well over seventy!”
Apropos the extraordinary fact that you can accomplish feats on the stage which might be impossible without the stimulus of an audience, I have heard it stated as a fact that during the last few months that Buckstone played, although driven to the theatre in a four-wheeler and assisted up the stairs to his room and from there to the stage by his valet, once on the boards he was able to give the necessary spring to enable him to sit on a table and swing his feet. All the same I found the first week rather trying when it came to rolling about on the stage, and at an early rehearsal, when Gilbert remarked rather doubtfully, “Barrington, can you ‘go down’ in the way you used to?” and having confidently replied “Oh yes,” I proceeded to demonstrate that I could. I found it more difficult than I anticipated, but I have since become quite acclimatized.
In July, 1908, comes my first experience of a “repertoire,” in the shape of a revival of Pinafore, which we are now playing on alternate nights with the Mikado.
This opera, naturally, did not require as much rehearsal as many of them, being so short as to necessitate a first piece being played, and as Sir William was at the same time busily engaged rehearsing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (in which he also played the King), he was only occupied in polishing up our brasswork for a little over a week.
It was almost as great a night as the Mikado revival, and I have an impression that it is “new” to many more people than is the Japanese piece.
That it was not new to some of the “galleryites,” and most particularly to one man amongst them, I had ample and personal experience on the first and second nights.
Gilbert had introduced a line into my part which might be, and was, construed into a reference to the present “strained relations” existing between certain well-known and deservedly popular naval officers of high position, and the line was received with mingled laughter and “booing,” some few cries of “Author! Author!” and from one stentorian voice the remark, “Stick to the book!”
It is manifestly unfair to visit the sins(?) of the author on the actor, and might have been somewhat distressing to an artist with a less phlegmatic temperament than Captain Corcoran; but, of course, it is quite possible that if a reproof was intended it was meant for the author, in which case I for one still less can understand the justice of it, for surely the man who wrote the piece has the right to alter or add to his work if he wishes!
This argument, however, would not seem to hold good with these Savoy classics, and Gilbert himself, when giving me the line, said something to the effect that “the Press will very likely object to it, Barrington.”
It was quite like old times to read that I “occasionally failed to quite reach some of my top notes,” a fact of which I was quite conscious, as I also was of a bad attack of bronchitis, which rendered me absolutely breathless after three encores for the dancing number, “Ring the merry bells,” which is followed (without leaving the stage) by a heavy duet with Deadeye and a stormy scene with the eloping couple!
There is another reason why some of Sullivan’s music is difficult to sing, which may appeal perhaps more strongly to musical connoisseurs than to the average listener, and that is that should he require the bass line in a quartette and there is no bass on the stage the tenor has to do his best with it, and vice versa, while a poor baritone is expected to sing everything that comes his way.
This is more noticeable, naturally, in his one or two earlier works, and the part of Captain Corcoran is liberally sprinkled with D’s, E flats, and even G’s.
In spite of these small drawbacks the revival is an eminently popular one, and, as Gilbert himself remarked, “one of the best he has had both from an acting and a singing point of view.” Something of this is due to our new soprano, Elsie Spain, whose method is quite Savoyard; and to Dick Deadeye Harry Lytton imparts a touch of pathos which is extremely effective. Workman is naturally an excellent Sir Joseph Porter, a part which he has had time to mature to great advantage, but it is extraordinary how I miss the magnificent attenuation in figure of my old comrade, George Grossmith.
Apropos this revival I had a bet of sixpence with Cellier that at the first rehearsal taken by Gilbert he would not commence work until he had pointed out that one of the ropes was in wrong position. Cellier asked, “Which one?” But not having Sir William’s nautical knowledge I could only answer, “I don’t know, but some one.” The bet was made and I won it.
After a week of Pinafore it seemed very strange to be playing the Mikado again, and I wondered very much how many people in the audience had come to see Pinafore without duly consulting the advertisements, and whether they were at all disappointed.
The song to the moon, at the commencement of Act II, was “hardly ever” sung by me, even in the old days, the only effect to be got with it being a vocal one, and therefore rather out of my line. I should feel more at home were it of a patter or topical kind; but to suggest such an alteration would make a certainty of something worse than “boiling oil” for all concerned, and the wiser course seems to be to leave it out.
The facsimile letter below was written by Gilbert when returning me the proofs of this chapter, and humorously sums up the situation as regards interpolations in his operas.
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