Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

Philadelphia Diary, 1996


Two years ago, Ian Smith launched what seemed like a quixotically absurd enterprise-a two-week international festival of Gilbert and Sullivan in the unlikely English town of Buxton. Though the festival lost money, interest was keen enough to justify a second festival last year, which seems actually to have made a small profit. In 1996, Ian and his team took an ambitious leap forward with the addition of a new first-leg of the festival in Philadelphia. After a week in Philly, the festival returned to Buxton for another fortnight. There are actually a couple of dozen people, not counting staff, who found the time to attend all three weeks of the Festival, but the Philly leg was all I could manage.

The week in Philadelphia offered much to tempt the G&S nut, and it attracted fans not just from the Northeast, but from all across America and many from the UK, as well. The week offered eight different shows, including two given by stars of the original D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, plus numerous "coffee and conversation" mornings and afternoon master classes, and a jolly midnight cabaret each evening.

In Buxton, the Festival is already an institution, and understandably so: aside from a brand of mineral water, Buxton has no other industry besides music festivals. Being home to the G&S Festival extends Buxton's tourist season by an extra fortnight, a boon for which the town fathers are obviously grateful. Philadelphia presents a very different problem: in a city that hosted the baseball all-star game and a national Teamsters convention earlier that month, a G&S festival that drew under a thousand out-of-town visitors was an event of little consequence. This is a reality the Smiths will have to adjust to, as there is no American city equivalent to Buxton-interesting enough to tourists, big enough to accommodate such a broad array of activities, yet small enough to consider it a Big Deal.

The International G&S Festival has become quite a cottage industry. Besides the performances themselves, the organizers offer tee-shirts, sweatshirts, note cards, mugs, figurines and videos for sale. Ian Smith has even secured marketing rights to the 1954 film The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, the 1966 D'Oyly Carte film of The Mikado, and the 1970s "G&S For All" video series." Yet, lest you fear that this is nothing but a scheme to line Ian Smith's pockets, it is abundantly clear that he lost boat-loads of money on the Philadelphia leg of the festival. In addition to the high rental fee of a Broadway-class unionized theater in the heart of the city, he imported his own orchestra, chorus, tech staff, and all the D'Oyly Carte stars.

Until late in the week, the future of the Festival in Philadelphia was in great doubt. There are more G&S fans in the Northeast than in any other region of the country. Yet, houses at the 1850-seat Merriam Theater were only about half-full, even for the D'Oyly Carte performances. Understandably, the Smiths found themselves doubting whether they'd chosen the right city, and there was talk of rotating the Festival each season, instead of choosing a permanent U.S. home.

Several factors argued against this strategy. While no one would dispute that the Festival was a success overall, the Smiths made numerous mistakes clearly attributable to being in an unfamiliar city. Were the Festival to keep moving, each year would invariably bring a new set of missteps. By staying in Philadelphia, the Smiths can build on what they've now learned, instead of starting from scratch somewhere else. In addition, the Smiths were clearly hurt by marketing blunders, including excessive ticket prices, a local marketing strategy that started too late, and the lack of a Mikado or Pirates on the program.

Fortunately, word-of-mouth and press were excellent, and the Festival had a brisk box office throughout the week. On the final night in the Merriam Theater, Ian Smith announced that the Festival would indeed return to Philadelphia in 1997. Ian has already committed to bring the Festival to Berkely, California, as part of British Government-sponsored tribute to the Golden State. Counting Buxton, there will thus be four weeks of Festival performances next summer. How Ian will fill such a large bill remains a mystery, but the man is full of surprises. He even promises an Australian Festival by the end of the decade.

There was no lack of mistakes: lack of food in the cabarets and coffee mornings; hotel snafus; lack of air conditioning at many of the venues; and, lack of capable accompanists for some of the pot-luck shows. Neither of the headquarters hotels was particularly good. The week's end also left me a bit unfulfilled, for this Festival, like its predecessors, was competitive, but no awards were given until the final day at Buxton. The overwhelming majority of people at Philly who, like me, were not going to Buxton, left with only a list of nominees for the major prizes.

Yet, through all this, the Festival remains a magical event. Warts and all, I think it left most visitors craving for more.


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