Friday, July 22, 2011


This is traveling well outside the juvenile operetta canon, but the heck, right? THE GEISHA (1896) has sufficient theatrical pedigree to make it worth the trip. The book is by Owen Hall, the lyrics are by Harry Greenback, and the music is by the incomparable Sidney Jones, the same team that went on to write the overlooked classic A GREEK SLAVE. But it's GEISHA, first produced at the Gaiety Theatre in London, that shows them at their most playful.

The synopsis (courtesy Wikipedia) goes like this:

Stationed in Japan, far from his financee Molly, Lt. Reggie Fairfax of the Royal Navy is lonely. He begins to spend much of his free time at the Tea House of Ten Thousand Joys which is run by chinaman Wun-Hi. There he meets the lovely geisha O Mimosa San, with whom he builds a friendship, but she is in love with Katana, a soldier, so she discourages him with her tale of 'The Amorous Goldfish'. However, Reggie gives Mimosa a lesson in kissing.

The relationship does not go unnoticed by Lady Constance Wynne, a touring English aristocrat, who catches Reggie engaged in his tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte with Mimosa and reminds him that he is engaged to Molly. Lady Constance contacts Molly, telling her she had better come to the Orient as quickly as possible. The local overlord Marquis Imari, who also fancies Mimosa, is annoyed that his intended bride is consorting with the newly arrived British sailors, and he orders that the teahouse be closed and the girls be sold off. The Marquis himself is pursued by the French interpreter Juliette.

Molly arrives unexpectedly. Left alone, Molly is joined by Mimosa and Lady Constance who tell her how fond Reggie has become of one geisha in particular. Mimosa then suggests that Molly should dress up as a geisha herself to try and win him back. It is now time for the sale of the geishas' indentures. The Marquis tries to buy Mimosa for himself, but Lady Constance manages to outbid him to keep her out of his clutches. Unfortunately, she can't stop him from purchasing lot number 2, a new geisha called Roli Poli whom nobody has seen before. Only after the Marquis has made his purchase is it revealed that this geisha is actually Molly in disguise.

In the chrysanthemum gardens of the Imari palace, Molly, still disguised as Roli Poli, awaits her impending marriage to the Marquis, who has become much attracted to her. Mimosa proposes a plan to save Molly from her fate: Mimosa will sneak into the bridal suite and exchange the veiled Molly for another veiled bride - Juliette, the French interpreter.

The wedding ceremony starts, and the plan is put into effect: Juliette is exchanged with Molly, and the Marquis unwittingly marries the wrong bride. On discovering the ruse, he accepts his fate philosophically, concluding that "every man is disappointed in his wife at some time or other". Mimosa is now free to marry her lover Katana, and Molly is re-united with Reggie, declaring that she would never marry a foreign nobleman when she could have a British sailor.

The synopsis doesnt even come close to conveying just how wondrously mad this little comedy is. The scene, for example, when Molly (as the geisha Roli-Poli) is sold, her disgust at going for the relatively cheap price of a hundred dollars is delicious fun, as is the scene when she negotiates the terms of her marriage to the Marquis Imari. Juliette is a picture-perfect characterization of the scheming socialite who wants to marry up, while Imari moves from laughably autocratic to wittily philosophical when the switch off is revealed.

THE GEISHA was a huge hit, by any standard. With companies traveling across both Europe and North America, it was arguably the biggest sensation of the period, with some 8,000 performances in Germany alone. That it came on the heels of THE MIKADO should be no surprise whatsover. Greenback and Jones were, of course, contemporaries of Gilbert and Sullivan, and at some moments it shows. But Jones had his own style, a lighter, more lyrical approach that seemed better suited to a work that, contrary to the G&S approach, is less pop culture satire and more vaudeville with a layer of romantic operetta slathered on top. "The Amorous Goldfish", the breakout hit from the show, is Mimosa's telling of the sad tale of a goldfish that loved a sailor:

A goldfish swam in a great glass bowl
As dear little goldfish do
But she loved with the whole of her heart and soul
An officer brave from the ocean wave
And she thought that he loved her too
Her small inside he daily fed
With crumbs of the best digestive bread
"This kind attention proves," said she
"How exceedingly fond he is of me."

Alas, her heart is broken when the sailor shows up with a young lady, and she pines away, eventually dying when the maid knocks the table and her glass bowl shatters. The music is just sly enough in its winks at Madama Butterfly.

And of course one very big reason for THE GEISHA's success were the Gaiety Girls, a sort of standing chorus line that was featured in almost every production mounted at the Gaiety. Their job in every production was pretty much just to stand here and look pretty, and fashion designers all over London (and sometimes even Paris) fought to have their latest couture seen on the Girls, no matter how anachronistic it might have seemed for the play in question.

Viewed today, THE GEISHA, with its British patriotism on full display, seems almost snide in its view of other cultures, particularly the exotic Japanese and Chinese. The script has one character, a Chinese laundryman, whose badly written "accent" is almost a British equivalent to blackface performances in the US.

But in some respects, you have to forgive that, because the core of the work still holds you tight with its charm and insouciance. It holds up very well for a century-plus-old work and, lacking the more contemporary potshots of a G&S musical, could easily play as is. Molly is a prime role for a singer/comedian and would be a fascinating challenge for today's crop of musical theatre stars.


bix1951 said...

welcome back
I also missed your blog.

Sean Martin said...

Thanks, Joe! That's much appreciated. And I promise not to be so loose and late with it again/