This week, Harvard undergraduates got an email from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean that confirmed that we would be returning to campus in the fall. While we don’t exactly know what this means for theater yet, I remain hopeful that we’ll be putting on shows in the same physical space once again. There are a lot of reasons I’ve sorely missed in-person theater this year. Boxes of greenscreen setups, lights, and costumes are piled in my room; the perpetual fear of spotty internet connection clouds every performance; and the prospect of staring at yet another Zoom screen has often made me dread going to rehearsal. But what I definitely miss the most are the unscheduled moments, where we just get to be together, share snacks, exchange hugs, and perhaps burst randomly into song. These opportunities for connection are not only a great boost for my currently lacking social life, but an integral part of the art-making process. And that brings me to the story of how our spring 2021 show, Cox and Box, came to be.
Sir Arthur Sullivan and F. C. Burnand met at a party of musicians and artists hosted by a mutual friend. At the time, Burnand was already quite an experienced writer of satire, burlesques, and comic opera. Sullivan, however, had composed much more “serious” work, including a symphony, several settings of Shakespeare, and liturgical music. It was only when Burnand invited him to one of his own parties that Sullivan made his first foray into operetta. Often the partygoers at the Burnands’ would write, perform in, and/or watch small amateur productions, one of which was an adaptation, which Burnand proposed he and Sullivan write, of John Maddison Morton’s farcical play Box and Cox. It was only ever meant to be performed for and by a small group of friends, all as a way to have some light-hearted fun through making art together. But it was so well-received that it made its way to a three hundred-performance run at the Adelphi Theater, eventually spawning another professional Burnand-and-Sullivan collaboration and starting him off on the path to becoming England’s most influential composer of comic opera.
In my experience, it is situations like these from which some of the best art comes—gatherings of passionate people, bonding over what they can create together, encouraging one another to challenge themselves and grow, and building community and friendship along the way. Though we at HRG&SP are very lucky to have opportunities to connect despite being physically so far apart, I can hardly wait for the day when those opportunities are a little easier to come by.
Hibbert, Christopher. Gilbert & Sullivan and Their Victorian World. American Heritage Publishing Company, 1976.