Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


6.1 Recollections

Paul McShane asked: Can we hear from SavoyNetters who have directed, appeared in or seen productions of Thespis? What memories do you have of the performance(s)? (I'm jealous of you all.)John Atkinson (who wasn't aware of any productions): Methinks you have to have a pretty broad green streak to be jealous of someone who is at least 136 years old, which is what you would have to be to have made any sense of Thespis when it was a goer. A psychic medium could help perhaps. With apologies, etc.Marc Shepherd (rallying to the call of the favoured ones): I have seen two live Thespi, and one on tape, and one on record. The two live Thespi were:

The two live versions were clearly one-off affairs, and neither one was particularly well rehearsed. The Strong version probably had the best *production* of the three. The RRE tape is practically unlistenable.Dr. Stone probably had the best cast, if only they'd been properly rehearsed. Bruce Montgomery has the best score, because it is original -- he's not force fitting re-purposed material.All of these productions had broad, "pie-in-the-face" humor, which is appropriate given the type of opera Thespis is and was meant to be.Michael Walters revealed: I was in the chorus of the 1969 production by Glebe Opera of the Rees/Morton setting, saw the Fulham production (and heard the disc) and the Cotswold Savoyards centenary production in 1971. I also heard private discs of the original London University production. These were the property of Christopher Redwood - Sparkeion for Glebe, who had been in the L.U. chorus. A friend of mine* who saw both the Glebe and the Fulham said that the latter compared unfavourably with the former - he was not the sort of person to say that just to please me! I think the only other performance I've heard is a tape of Jonathan Strong's setting. Incidentally, according to Rees' book, one of the cast of the London University production was a man called Michael Chaplin, and I have often wondered if this could be the same person as the controversial son of Charlie Chaplin. In his autobiography "I couldn't smoke the grass on my father's lawn" Michael makes no mention of Thespis or of being in London at the time, but he would have been the right age to be an undergraduate at the time of this production. Has anyone got any information on this? * (P.S. The person I was referring to was not Ian Bond, I'd forgotten he was there too!) Ian Bond contributed a wonderful posting: I well remember seeing a production of the opera by the Glebe Operatic Society in London on the 1st March 1969. I shall in fact never forget it. I understand that all the performances had been as good as this one, but this particular Saturday Evening performance seemed to take wing and fly. The version used was that by Terence Rees and Garth Morton and had first been presented by the University of London Opera Group in 1962. This version, which uses music from lesser-known Sullivan operas, was the most performed version of the work in the UK and certainly held the stage at least until 1982 when I myself produced it for Topsham Light Opera in Devon.Sadly, the only 'commercial' recording of this version to be made was that issued by Rare Recorded Editions in 1972. This was of the centenary revival by Fulham Light Opera in 1971, and although many of the Glebe cast were in the production, the magic seemed to be missing. Added to this, the recording quality is appalling and gives no real idea of the charm of the piece. I myself have a copy of the tape made of the Glebe production and I can assure all that there is no comparison.Garth Morton arranged a terrific score which (had one not known different) appeared to have belonged to the text forever.A terrific overture based on the principal themes ("Here's a pretty tale", "Little Maid", "Well that's arranged") got the show off to a cracking start.The opening chorus, set to 'All is darksome' (Grand Duke) led to the first of many hilarious scenes as an elderly Diana divested herself of hot water bottles etc. and a very foppish and effeminate Apollo minced limply across the stage.The undoubted stars of this particular production were Carole Beynon as Mercury, Eddie Lewis as Thespis and David Paramor as Sillimon. Bernard Feinstein also displayed some very comic talents in Act One as an incredibly old Jupiter - he also possessed the most amazingly deep bass voice. Savoynetter, Michael Walters was also in the company. The orchestra, under the baton of Roderick Spencer, was one of the best I have ever heard at an amateur production of anything.The music used came from a number of operas. The most familiar was 'I rejoice that it's decided' from Sorcerer, used to set 'You're Diana, I'm Apollo'. The two Thespis numbers were of course left in tact, although it is Gilbertian that the only orchestration that Garth Morton was unable to refer too (by kind permission of Bridget D'Oyly Carte) was that for 'Little Maid of Arcadee', as, of course, it does not exist as far as we are aware. All the other music in the piece used Sullivan's original orchestrations.Dr. Rees and Mr. Morton added several numbers where there was evidence that pieces were missing from the printed text. These additions were: -'Yes, Yes - I am that miserable beauty' for Venus and the gods. Words from Gilbert's 'Eyes and No Eyes' and music from Haddon Hall 'Queen of the garden'.'Were I a King in very truth' for Thespis and the gods. Taken straight from Grand Duke with a minor alteration to the words in the final chorus.Madrigal 'Banish Sorrow'. Words from Gilbert's Princess Toto, music 'When the budding blooms of May', HADDON HALL, sung in Act Two by Sparkeion, Nicemis, Sillimon and Preposteros.Entrance of the Thespians in Act Two. 'As before you we defile' taken straight from Grand Duke with a very minor change of words. (Not used by Glebe).Song for Thespis, 'At the outset I may mention' taken directly from Grand Duke. (Not used by Glebe.)Garth Morton did not balk at the thought of setting two opposing melodies against each other either, just as Sullivan had done: in 'Here far away from all the world', Sparkeion is given the melody of 'When yester'eve I knelt to pray' from Haddon Hall, against Nicemis' 'There's no one by' from the same opera.[Arthur Robinson observed: This is one of the places it worked. The counterpoint is terrific-it sounds very Sullivanesque.]Incidentally, in this version of the opera, Sparkeion could be played by a tenor or a mezzo, Nicemis being an alto and Daphne and Prettia the soprani. Mercury was also written for either a mezzo or high baritone, although I think in most productions a mezzo was used.The following is a breakdown of the music used in this production. Only the principal melodies are indicated.

Act I
Thespis SongUsed Music From
Overture From morning prayer Rose of Persia
Melody used to set So that's arranged 1 The Chieftain (I think)
Opening Chorus All is darksome Grand Duke
Mercury's Song I once gave an evening party Grand Duke
Quintet I such honour undeserving The Chieftain
Duet Here, far away Haddon Hall (as noted above)
Pic_Nic Scene Drawing Room Music Utopia
Diddlesex Junction Not Long Ago Cox and Box
Extra Number (Venus) (noted above)
Extra Number (Thespis) (noted above)
Finale Act 1 So that's arranged The Chieftain
Here's a pretty tale With martial gait Rose of Persia
Soli for Sparkeion, Nicemis and Daphne What these may be Utopia
Solo for Timidon A lauging boy Yeomen
Here's a pretty tale With martial gait Rose of Persia

Act II
Thespis SongUsed Music From
Opening The Good Grand Duke Grand Duke
Madrigal (noted above)
Little Maid Original
Mercury's Song Happy are we in our loving frivolity 2 Sorcerer
Quartet (noted above)
Entrance of Gods 3 Storm music Haddon Hall
There's noting I'm certain The Chieftain
Entrance of Thespians (noted above)
Thespis' Song (noted above)
Finale We can't stand this (?) 4
Jupiter, Mars and Apollo Our heads we box Haddon Hall
Let us remain From morning prayer Rose of Persia
Now here you see Not long ago Cox and Box

This is just a very brief list of the principal pieces used. The entire piece was excellent entertainment and when I produced it in 1982 we found that we were able to fill a 250 seat hall for three nights with absolutely no problem. Partly because this was the only chance people in our area had ever had to see the work in any form, and partly because the cast and all connected with the show were so bowled over by the jollity, zest, freshness and general enjoyability of the piece that they went out and 'sold' it to everyone they came into contact with.Sadly, although my local society would like to present this version in 2000, I understand that all the vocal score and band part material has deteriorated to such an extent, (through being stored in damp conditions) that it is unusable.Arthur Robinson supplemented: (1) Yes--the "French song" from The Chieftain ("Ah oui, j'etais une pensionnaire" or something of the sort).(2) I'd always wondered where this music came from![Editor's Note: This was the original Act II opening chorus of The Sorcerer, but dropped in Sorcerer's 1884 revival and in all subsequent D'Oyly Carte Co. performances.](3) Is the title "There's nothing I'm certain" from the David Eden revision of The Chieftain, or was it in Burnand's original?(4) I believe this is the song that begins The Chieftain and/or The Contrabandista ("Hush! Hush!")I have seen Thespis twice--both times Bruce Montgomery's version, once in 1971 (the centennial) and once in 1989, at the Basingstoke conference (previously mentioned). It was fun--Mr. Montgomery is not Sullivan but the style seemed right to me, and one number in particular, "You're Diana," was wonderful.I too have heard the RRE recording (incidentally, the above-mentioned Mr. Paramor plays Sillimon on it). I have reservations about trying to fit music to words with which it doesn't scan (some excellent music and clever words just don't go together), but in places it works extremely well.By the way, can anyone tell me the source of the music for Thespis's solo in the Act I finale, "When might Jove goes down below," come from? (It sounds familiar but I can't place it.)Peter Parker noted: I attended the Fulham Light Opera performance at Fulham Town Hall of which the RRE recording was made. All I can say about that is that the recording does not do justice to the performance as I remember it. I agree the recording is awful; I have it on LP rather than tape. The performance also included The Zoo and it was that ''unveiling'' which prompted the BBC to make a radio broadcast of The Zoo using professional performers on 31st Dec. 1972 which is in my opinion by far the best performance of The Zoo that has ever been done. Its only defect is the somewhat occasional intrusive zoo animal noises. All I can now remember of Thespis was that I liked it but it was the first time I had seen it. I thought the musical arrangements by taking other Sullivan music was clever and appropriate. The recording recalls that but unfortunately is badly done.Larry Garvin put in: Besides the Montgomery, Strong, Stone, and Rees/Morton versions that others have spoken of, I've heard or at least played through two others, both original scores. One was written by Jerry Bilik for the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society in the 1950s. Though I wasn't there, not yet having become a tax deduction for my doting parents, I do have the piano-vocal and a recording. The score is first-rate, up there, I think, with the Montgomery. Bilik doesn't use Sullivan's "Little Maid of Arcadee," interestingly, though he does use "Climbing over rocky mountain." The score feels a little more like period musical comedy than like operetta, but there is some fine ensemble writing. The other is by Robert Brandzel (himself a former UMGASS musical director). This was never performed by UMGASS. The score is in the Library of Congress, if anyone's interested. I do have a copy; it's rather bland.I should add that Roger Wertenberger and colleagues put together a version in the -- what, Ron? 1970s? -- that's quite good, especially as pastiches go. Parts of it were incorporated in the Toronto production of a few years back, which seems like a must-have in the Thespis world.By the way, I don't recall any comments on Frank Miller's score for the Savoy-Aires. Is anyone familiar with it?Ronald Orenstein responded: Roger, Gersh Morningstar and I put this together in 1971. Five numbers "survived" in the St Pat's version, whose details are given on the archive site.I've played Jupiter twice, in two different all-Sullivan versions, and enjoy doing the show and the part - though I think (unlike other G&S works) that it requires a much broader style - there should be, as there was at the Gaiety, increased scope for gags. I'm afraid I added, for St Pat's, the following bit of dialogue after Tipseion's revelation that the grapes of - not Mytilene in our production, but Niagara-on-the-Lake - give ginger beer:

Jupiter (horrified): But that would make Canada dry!

(Do I have to explain this to anyone?)The biggest regret I have about the St Pat's version (which I still think is pretty good, and Selwyn Tillett told me he thought it was the best all-Sullivan version he had heard, so the heck with false modesty) is that it was never orchestrated. If anyone wants the job (no pay, no benefits)....Arthur Robinson posted: I gather from Rees's research of the reviews that at least five numbers were encored on opening night: "Oh I'm the celestial drudge," "I once knew a chap," "Little maid of Arcadee," "Olympus is now in a terrible muddle," and a "waltz" for Nicemis whose identification is uncertain (see Rees p. 67).Tim Devlin said: A comment, on the first London runs, from Vinia de Loitte in Gilbert and Sullivan Opera in Australia (16th ed. 1936): Though Thespis, Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer had been fairly successful..(!)

6.2 Reinventing Sullivan

Philip Sternenberg made this informative posting: I'd like to use this as a springboard to discussing attempts to present Thespis today despite the disappearance of most of its music. I have been exposed to six different Thespis scores (no, not including the original!), and I know that's far from all of them. The six I've heard fall into two categories, and I've never heard of another score that isn't one of the following two types:

Type A: Music freshly composed in an attempt to simulate Sullivan:
Composition by Bruce Montgomery Composition by Eugene Minor

Type B: Genuine Sullivan music from other sources:
Early 1970s British LP set (Fulham Light Opera?) Arrangement by Michael Stone Arrangement by Jonathan Strong
St. Pat's Players

All six of these use whatever genuine Thespis music was known at the time of construction, meaning that only the last two include any part of the ballet. Now which type is better? In Type A, we have music written to fit lyrics provided, just as Sullivan did. Assuming the composer is competent, it will be a good fit. But will it really sound like Sullivan, or is a composer's style as individual as his fingerprints and incapable of being reproduced? I'm not in a position to judge Montgomery as I've heard his version only once after Minor's version, in which I performed, was firmly ensconced in my head. As a result, Montgomery's work sounded odd to me, but by that time I imagine Sullivan's original would have, too. People without my prejudice have reported favorably about Montgomery, and I'll admit that with the aid of a few excerpts he provided in his lecture at "Basingstoke!" shortly before I saw the full show, I left the theater humming his catchy "You're Diana" melody. As for Minor, his melodies usually come to mind when I see the lyrics. I like them, but in a few places I'll say to myself, "Sullivan would never have done that." I'm not enough of a music student to dissect a composition sufficiently to say for sure; it's just a feeling I have. Anyone who knows Montgomery's score is welcome to comment on it in this area.One other Type A score of which I've heard is the Frank Miller version mentioned by Leslie Baily that may have been the first reconstruction ever produced. I know someone who was in it, but she never saved a score, and it was over 40 years ago. Only a piano accompaniment was written, and Miller wrote his own music for "Climbing over rocky mountain" and "Little Maid of Arcadee." That last fact makes me feel it was more of an attempt for Miller to put his own stamp onto Thespis rather than an effort to re-create Sullivan's score.So what about Type B? We avoid the biggest flaw of Type A and have music that sounds like Sullivan because it IS by Sullivan. Unfortunately, each score has places in which the lyrics are shoehorned into the music in an awkward fit. Either a few words are repeated to provide the proper number of syllables, or single notes are turned into multiple notes. Maybe worse, the mood of the music is sometimes totally inappropriate.Within Type B there seem to be two overall approaches, whether to use familiar (Strong's version) or unfamiliar (the others) Sullivan music. Strong deliberately made sure that each extant G&S opera was represented at least twice except for only one use of a Trial song. He didn't want the audience to spend their time playing "Name That Tune" instead of listening; i. e., they'd recognise the melody right away, sit back, and enjoy it. I presume the other arrangers wanted music that most of the audience wouldn't recognise and would therefore accept to a certain extent as fresh. I enjoy the latter approach better because I AM pretty familiar with the obscure Sullivan operas and enjoy hearing music rarely performed elsewhere, plus I LIKE playing "Name That Tune" and find it more challenging with uncommon music.I'd like to praise the St. Pat's production (take whatever bows you deserve, Ron Orenstein) for its successful attempt in consistently providing the appropriate mood throughout, a difficult feat for a Type B version.[Ronald Orenstein blushed: Thanks - and I'm sharing the bows (for the St. Pat's production) with John Huston, Ron Cahute, Gersh Morningstar and the late Roger Wertenberger - the last two of whom were involved in my first Thespis, the 1971 University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society Small Company version, some of which appears in the St. Pat's score. Geez, I've been through this process twice...]One section that deserves particular praise is that which begins "Phoebus am I" in the Act 1 Finale. The lyrics provide four stanzas in identical meter for different soloists and a chorus refrain for each. Supposedly Sullivan could have set them all to a common melody. My guess is that he treated it like "Then one of us will be a Queen" (Gondoliers), giving a single melody to the first two verses and varying the other two, only to have them conclude as the first two did. This is close to Minor's approach. St. Pat's turned each verse into a major production with about as different music as possible from the other three (the pleasantly smooth Thespis ballet waltz for Sparkeion turned Apollo, the haunting "Hassan! Thy pity I entreat" from Rose of Persia for Nicemis turned Diana, the fierce "Who'd to be Robber-Chief aspire" from Contrabandista for Timidon turned Mars, and the hymn-like "The Lost Chord" for Daphne turned Calliope). Although I doubt this was Sullivan's approach, the mood of each verse was perfectly captured in its setting, and I'm certain the audience enjoyed it.[Ronald Orenstein modestly revealed: One spectator described the Act I finale as "spectacular". Here's how collaborators fit in: My original idea was to use the waltz for both Sparkeion and Nicemis, with the other two tunes as described. John Huston came up with the idea of using "Hassan" - and remarkably effective it was, too.] Occasionally someone feels, as Ron did in the comments I quoted at the top, that he might have hit upon the original Thespis music for a particular number. Unfortunately, Ron's example is of music that was part of L'Ile Enchantee and composed seven years before Thespis.[Ronald Orenstein admitted: Yes, well, true... In fact John and I were so startled by how well the slow movement of the cello concerto fit "Here far away" that we had to check to be sure the concerto came first. I'll still argue, as I have in the past, for "If you ask me to advise you" from Rose of Persia as a better fit for "You're Diana" than for the Rose tune and a possibly genuine Thespis original.]To believe it's the real Thespis setting is to believe either that Gilbert wrote words to an existing melody or that Sullivan recycled a melody to fit around lyrics not written for it, and either way would have been an extreme exception for G&S. Nevertheless, who can completely rule it out?In summary, any attempt at reconstructing Thespis seems to present difficulties that may never be completely overcome; it's just a question of WHICH difficulties to tackle. I'd like to make a proposition, though, at least a theoretical one much easier to propose than to execute: Let's see if we can put together an "All Star" Thespis. A production panel could be presented with as many different Thespis versions as possible, both Type A and Type B, and asked to pick the best setting possible FOR EACH INDIVIDUAL NUMBER. The selections would be put together into one complete Thespis score that could be presented as, say, a Festival Production. Some numbers might have to be altered, most likely by transposition, to guarantee consistency for each role; e. g., picking one voice description apiece for Sparkeion and Mercury, whom I've seen played by both men and women.Any volunteers?[Ronald Orenstein gushed: With so many collaborators, I would have thought that the St Pat's version was!!! All it needs is an orchestration.... I'd love to see it as the Festival Production, and I know John would love to resurrect it for a festival - alas, he's in Saskatoon...]

Updated 6 Dec 1997