Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



Chris Webster: Has anyone considered talking about whether the Fairy chorus should be played straight or played for laughs as so often we see it. I prefer to see it played straight. How was the traditional DCOC production done - was there the usual 'lump' of a girl playing for laughs? David Duffey: No, it was played 'straight' - and usually all the funnier for it.

Bruce I. Miller: The answer to your question lies in a few places.

Hint # 1: One of the opening night reviews mentioned that the fairies as portrayed in Gilbert's (and Sullivan's) production were unlike the traditional fairies one might expect.

Hint #2: According to either Celia, Leila or Fleta - I don't remember which right now - "Fairy revels are not what they were" since Iolanthe stopped rehearsing their dances. Once can imagine the kind of deterioration which would occur over 25 years of badly rehearsed fairy dancing. It happens in the New York theater all the time during long runs of musicals.

Hint #3: Examine carefully Sullivan's music. Although the D'OC changed his dynamics, and made the fairies all very graceful (at least from the WWI period onwards), it is important to reflect that they sing forte, and that there are some heavy-footed accents in the music:

Trip- ping HITH - er, Trip- ping THITH - er -- not exactly the most graceful rhythm and rather betraying what the original choreography might have been like.

Although I take issue with many of the Stratford liberties, I think they really got it right at the end of the first movement, with the huge unison plodding steps on "We are dainty little fairies".

In staging this number, I worked with our choreographer to give the impression that these fairies were very much like the earnest children we see at dance recitals - they know what the moves are supposed to be, but have only mastered them to a point - they're not ready for the big time yet. The fairies were not clowns, just mediocre dancers, with all the best intentions in the world.

Andrew Taines: While I admire Mr. Miller's reasoned thinking for his concept, I feel that it is too complex an idea to play to an audience, especially today. I think it would still come across basically as a joke. When "Iolanthe" first opened and fairies and supernatural being abounded in the ballet and opera world, it might very well have been possible to play the fairies as "unlike the traditional fairies one might expect." Today, when myriad directors try to joke up productions of G&S because they think the audience won't get the joke, I think it is very important to portray the fairies as traditionally (dare I say, "straight"?) as possible. I would like to see them costumed in Giselle-like tulle and step simply and daintily about the stage. I wouldn't attempt ballet choreography but simple formations and groups. Now that would be the sort of fairy for my money!

Tom Shepard: For what it's worth, I agree with you. The overture and opening music set the stage for real fairy delicacy. These fairies may be a bit stale in their fairy revels, but they are beautiful and graceful, AND, as shown in the Finale to Act One, they are extremely intelligent and well-read. They are really a great bunch, and ought to be treated as such.

Neil Ellenoff: Do many of you know the fairy music in "The Emerald Isle?" Its very Iolanthe.

Marc Shepherd: Chris Webster asked whether the fairies are *supposed* to be inelegant, or whether this is a twentieth-century interpolation. Bruce Miller found support for this interpretation in the music, but Andrew Taines thought this was simply too subtle to be intentional.

While there are certainly many subtle effects in Sullivan, I am not sure that I perceive the effects Bruce does here. Rather, I find the opening chorus suggestive of a magical excursion to fairyland. I also do not recall any of the first-night reviews (those few that I've seen) mentioning that the fairies were deliberately clumsy.

Chris mentioned that, in modern productions, there is sometimes a "'lump' of a girl" in one of the fairy parts. This I am certain Gilbert never would have done, however funny it may seem to us today.

Robert Jones: Wouldn't he? In his sketchbook for Iolanthe, there is a drawing of two dancing fairies, one dainty and lithe, the other stout, ugly and wearing glasses.

Chris Webster: The reason I raised this subject and mentioned the usual lump of a girl was because I have often wondered whether playing for laughs was a concept thought of because, most (dare I say all) amateur, and I suppose, professional companies do not always have the most elfin like females in the chorus, and this can make a 'straight' opening look ridiculous. In most of the other shows, older or larger ladies can be fitted in in other ways (Pirates - maids, Mikado - schools ma'ams, etc.) but this is not as easy with Iolanthe which is why I think many productions do have clod-hopping fairies - to intentionally make light of what would look ridiculous. However, I think Bruce has made a very valid point that the music does have some heavier overtones which may not be construed as apt for dainty little fairies. Now why should this be? There is nothing in the wording of the opening chorus that should have led ASS to write in this heavier manner.

I have (since writing the above words) looked in Martyn Green's Treasury, and for copyright reasons will not quote directly from this, but will say that MG wonders whether these fairies are supposed to be fairylike, or are they a parody of Grimm or Hans Anderson? Judith R. Neale: The Lord Chancellor admits "it seems that she's a fairy from Anderson's library." Harriet Meyer: He's being sarcastic rather than descriptive.

Chris Webster: MG also refers to the WSGs direction at the end of the opening chorus '...all sigh wearily', commenting that they are tired. Judith R. Neale: But isn't that because, as they expound, they don't have Iolanthe around to keep up their spirits in their daily drudging round of dancing, etc.? She did do such surprising things even they had to pay attention.

Chris Webster: This still does not mean that this opening should be comical. I think it is the Brent Walker video that choreographs these opening steps in such a way that the fairies take a heavier 'down' step in these sections which is still dainty, although I seem to recall that even here we have a 'duff' dancing fairy put in for comical effect.

Why, oh, why, was the opportunity thrown away to capture the DCOC original-style productions on film/video. Although much stage business was added over the years, the two examples we have of Pinafore and Mikado, do a least show us fairly straight chorus work which I think is one of the delights of watching a good G & S performance.

Michael Walters: I think there's a very simple answer to that - MONEY. Peter Parker can probably confirm or deny this, but I think DOC did try to achieve this, but no film company wanted to know on the grounds it wouldn't have been a commercial proposition. Like Philip Plumb pointed out in the letter I posted yesterday, its BIG BUSINESS that talks these days, artistic integrity can go to the ****. Incidentally, I believe Brent Walker originally intended to use the D'Oyly Carte for their videos, and then decided the company were not good enough.

Paul McShane: I was introduced to Iolanthe in the Sydney G&S Society, whose director at the time was Evelyn Gardiner (principal contralto for the DCOC 1937-40). Evelyn's style of direction was ultra-traditional, copying what she had learned at the DCOC to the last detail.

Her fairies' chorus (and I'm sure this was what the DCOC did in her time) minced about daintily at the start of the opening number, but changed tack and clumped noisily downstage towards the end, when the chorus sang "We-are-dain-ty-lit-tle-fair-ies..." In was all unison stuff - no single ugly duckling.

Incidentally, strobe lighting is very effective for this number - is it the norm the G&S societies these days?

Mary Finn: However, I dislike productions in which the fairies are purposely *clumsy*, and I burn at the thought of the "non-elfin" being either excluded, or ridiculed. I am considerably less (considerably more?) than elfin myself, but when I was in the chorus of IOLANTHE I was expected to act as dainty as anyone else. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. Bruce I. Miller: This is not a bad idea, especially as it derives from a consideration of the text.

I think some of us have missed the point, which is why I persist in discussing it.

One doesn't have to be clumsy to be over-earnest, or to be rusty. We keep harping on that "c" word, and I believe this is because of a rather natural reaction by those who either portray the fairies, or see in them an extension of themselves (which is what all of us do with G & S, and which is one reason why, IMHO, they remain timely).

No one thinks that the Peers are portrayed wrongly if they are exhibit foibles; why should the fairies be any different? As a matter of fact, they *do* exhibit foibles - most obviously in the 2nd Act.

The negative reaction to their being less than perfect fairies doesn't surprise me, but I think to insist upon that is to misunderstand part of Gilbert's satire. If they exhibit flaws, that doesn't mean they aren't still a "good bunch" - perhaps they make them even more appealing, not less. Judith R. Neale: And you're quite right.

If one has to do something like that, wouldn't it be funnier if ALL the fairies, regardless of heft, were vaguely clumsy and uninspired and forgetting their routines (at the very least) during the opening, and then, when Iolanthe finally returns, suddenly they are transformed instantly into epitomes of grace and remain that way? Harriet Meyer: Me too/Me either (weighing in from the audience)! That a larger size (if that's what *lump* means herein) precludes gracefulness is dismaying. Au contraire (as Judith Neale said about Zero Mostel, for example).

PS: I love it when the FQ kicks butt!

Judith R. Neale: Chris Webster: wrote "I think Bruce has made a very valid point that the music does have some heavier overtones which may not be construed as apt for dainty little fairies."

Plucked strings leading into rapid bowing actually doesn't seem "heavy", again IMHO. If Sullivan had scored for brass throughout, that might be a good argument, but the only horns in the opening sound like distant heralds announcing the arrival of a group of people, which in fact is exactly what's happening. The scoring underneath the fairies' opening is as swirling and swoopy as fairies on the wing (or tripping hitherly) might need as they go about the business of nestling inside flowers or dancing in their rings...

Mary Finn: I think I see what Bruce is talking about. The opening of "Tripping Hither" is light enough, but at the end it gets a bit heavy-footed. I seem to even recall a marking of "pesante" in my vocal score. I can see where it would support the notion that the fairies are a bit rusty.

Robert Jones: Consider their final verse (letter G in my score), marked fortissimo and staccato. It seems far from dainty. Then suddenly, on "most entrancing", we have a lovely florid string obbligato, fading away to a peaceful and dainty ending. This strikes me as deliberate comic contrast. Whatever Gilbert's intentions, the fortissimo passage lends itself more to parody than to daintiness.

A "lump of a girl" might work well in the context of "tripping hither, tripping thither, nobody knows why or whither", though it could easily end up looking like a Benny Hill sketch. The words do suggest less than perfect choreography for all.

Judith R. Neale: Chris Webster wrote: ... and I suppose, professional companies do not always have the most elfin like females in the chorus

IMHO, professional companies can cast exactly whom the director wants, so if they want to go for purely elfin, that's his/her conceptual decision...and of course having "the usual lump of a girl" moving clumsily is again a director's decision, anyone who's seen someone like Zero Mostel move around knows weight or heft doesn't necessarily inhibit gazelle-like grace...

Jeff DeMarco: Mary Finn wrote (in the midst of a very funny physics abstract):

a super-fairy-collider.

This sounds like the description of the opening dance scene after 24 years of lack of guidance from Iolanthe.

Richard N. Freedman: I'd like to take this opportunity to remind those who may have missed it in last summer's Trumpet Bray, of the Ocean State Light Opera's (Providence, RI) presentation of the fairies as klutzes, in sneakers, with Iolanthe particularly clumsy. The LC, on the other hand, was reasonably graceful in his dancing. The result? Strephon, a fairy only down to the waist, was a superb dancer, with graceful leaps and jetes (am I being redundant?) and ballet moves of all kinds. (It just happened that somebody with ballet skills was available, and they couldn't let it go to waste!) The show was nevertheless reasonably traditional.

Updated 28 November 1997