Wednesday, April 7, 2010

PIRATES OF PENZANCE

Now you're probably thinking, "PIRATES OF PENZANCE? Huh? What's that got to do with this place?"

Well, nothing actually -- and yet, in its own way, everything.

See, here's the thing: Gilbert and Sullivan had a terribly time with copyright thievery. Their shows would open to rave revues in London, but before they could bring a production to the US, half a dozen producers here would have already stolen the material and put it on the boards in blatantly unauthorized (and yet, given the copyright laws of the time, perfectly legal) productions. G&S simply never got a chance when it came to productions in America...

... until PIRATES. Shrewdly, they decided to premier it in the US first, obtain the US copyright on the work, then take it back to London for its proper premiere at D'Oyly Carte.

So, in 1880, New York got to see PIRATES before London, and it was, of course, a sensation. Almost immediately, two national tours were released -- both under the very careful supervision of G&S. It was only then that they sailed home.

However, between the US premiere in 1880 and the London premiere in 1882, they tinkered a bit with the script and the score. Not in huge ways: a slightly rewritten scene here, an almost barely reworked song there. The biggest change comes at the end of the second act, when the ensemble sings the amazing chorale about Poetry. The pirates are revealed to be all lords gone astray. "What, all?" asks the Major-General. "Well, nearly all," replies the King. This exchange doesnt exist in the official playscript, and I was a little surprised to find it intact in the edition of the score I now have. Looking further, it seems that the copy I have is marked "Authorized Copyright Edition", with the date 1880 -- so it seems that I have managed to acquire one of the rehearsal scores used by one of the very first national tours, one printed specifically for the purpose of covering the copyright needs. It was owned by Lois Jane Barth, who played the part of Ruth, but sadly I cant find out anything more about Ms. Barth.

As I read through it one night, a few other things emerged: a different overture, for example. Not different in big ways, but still, different. Some different phrasings in Frederic's "Stay, Ladies, Stay". Taken all together, it wouldnt so much be like looking at a different show so much as it would be that nagging sense of "Okay, it sounds almost right, but why does it feel... not quite right?"

It's almost impossible to express my excitement at finding this. I've always loved PIRATES, ever since seeing it in Central Park with Kevin Kline (who will always be my Pirate King) -- a rowdy, boistrous production that no doubt would have made G&S giggle a bit themselves. But to find the prototype score... reader, you honestly have no idea what visceral pleasure this gives me. The book itself is in gorgeous shape for something 130 years old, and it's almost joyous to see these woodblock printed pages with their carefully reduced piano versions of "Climbing over rocky mountain" and "When a felon's not engaged in his employment". This version doesnt even try to emulate the sound of the orchestrations -- it's about as bare bones as you can get, and I have no doubt it's exactly as Sullivan originally wrote it on his piano.

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