Paper Tech

Nothing says committed quite like an 8:30 am meeting, and that’s what the Cox and Box staff were up to Wednesday morning when we would have much rather been asleep. Why, you ask? Well, it was an auspicious day in the life of a show: paper tech!

In a “normal” show, paper tech would take place about two weeks before the show and serve as an opportunity for us to talk through the technical aspects of the show and prepare for any potential problems that may come up during actual tech. Although I’ve previously music directed several shows with HRG&SP, this is my first stint as producer. Cox and Box is definitely a unique project, and paper tech is no exception.

For this online production, we’ve broken up this particular event into two parts. In the first part, which happened this morning, we talked through all of the prerecorded video material that will make up the show, led by Sam Dvorak ‘23, our fearless stage director. This is in preparation for actors starting to record their videos, which they will be doing next week!

Sam has made a shot-by-shot breakdown of each music-video style song, and today we took copious notes on changing backgrounds, green screen positions, where we’ll need more complicated editing techniques, and how many recordings each actor will have to make. Sam, our set designer Isaac Heller ‘23, stage manager Ruth Jaensubhakij ‘22, my fellow producers Clarissa Briasco-Stewart ‘24 and Jasmyne Roberts ‘24, and I talked through each shot, bringing up any potential problems and keeping track of things the actors and video editors will need to know to bring the show to life. Even though it was very early in the morning for a group of college students, I think it left us feeling rejuvenated and excited about the show! Sam’s vision and the hard work of our designers, technicians, cast, and orchestra is starting to really come together, and we cannot wait to share it with you!

So what’s next in the job of a producer? Well, we’re starting to put together audio for the songs, so we’re getting all the individual tracks in and Jasmyne is deftly handling audio editing logistics. We’re also getting props and costumes to actors this weekend, and preparing them for their next audio recording deadline in Zoom rehearsals this week. And since I’m playing viola in the orchestra, I have a track of my own to record before Sunday, so I’d better get practicing!

Once we’ve gotten all the recorded aspects of the show underway (or at least acquired footage from the actors), we’ll turn our attention to the scenes of the show, which will be performed live, and the technology necessary to merge prerecorded songs with live scenes!
If you think this sounds like a significant amount of work, you’d be absolutely correct, and we hope you’ll watch it when we’re finished!

Adaptation: A Time-Honored Tradition

Adaptation is a time-honored theatrical tradition. Writers have always taken dramatic material that speaks to them and transposed it to new times, places, media, and structures to better speak to their audience and emphasize the message the original work sought to convey, “haul[ing] its themes and ideas into the present day,” not just in the onstage setting, but also in the dramatic context and the way in which the audience relates to the work (Lane 160). Lane finds adaptation to be an essential part of theater, which he sees to be “stealing and borrowing from existing narrative sources to create new ones” (Lane 157). Though some adaptations work better than others, the act of adapting theatrical works is an essential part of keeping them alive. When a work has become a true cultural icon, it is recognizable and enjoyable even outside of its original form.

Greek dramas are some of the most frequently adapted and continue to elicit emotional reactions from contemporary audiences despite the fact that they are, chronologically speaking, quite out of date. Changing words, languages, characters, and settings does not alter the essence of these works–their message can be kept the same and therefore resonate with an audience of today in the same way the original does in its own context (Foley). Adaptations range from serious, thoughtful engagements with the text and meaning of a work–like Yup’ik Antigone, communicating a “stirring defense of traditional Inuit mores”–to the “irreverent reverence” (perhaps a little more towards the irreverent) of Oedipus for Kids! (a work that is distinctly, absolutely not for kids) (Jain, Varod). Each adaptation provides a fascinating perspective and commentary on the original, on the performance history of the genre, and on the context in which the new work was created–regardless of whether the adaptation is successful. 

The tradition of adaptation continued as the development of Western theater did, most famously with Shakespeare.  The musical West Side Story is clearly a reworking of Romeo and Juliet–scholars like Nigel Simeone draw nuanced connections between bookwriter Arthur Laurents’ paring down of the story and Shakespeare’s work complicating the plot. Laurents worked to “keep those…essences of Romeo and Juliet” that the audience needed to tie the two stories together, ensuring that it was recognizable both as the art form and as Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare himself probably adapted Romeo and Juliet from a “fifteenth-century Italian novella” of the same name and a verse adaptation of that novella by Arthur Brooke (Lane 157). Without constant updating of the story, paring down of the characters, and restructuring to make the novella work as a play, the play work as a musical, and the musical work as a 1996 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Romeo and Juliet would likely not have embedded itself as solidly in the contemporary public conscious or even be seen by people who didn’t consider themselves the target audience for a standard Shakespeare play but might have been more likely to watch a movie version. 

It’s not just Shakespeare. More contemporary writers from Chekov to Ibsen find their work rewritten as operas, as translations into modern speech patterns, and placed in new locales and times. Even Oscar Wilde, a contemporary (and acquaintance) of Gilbert & Sullivan, is frequently re-staged, rewritten, and inserted into other works, like the play Handbag, in which the characters from The Importance of Being Earnest interact with a modern cast of characters living their own story (Lane 159). Playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs find themselves moved by these and other classic works and are inspired to “honou[r] traditions of the past while envisioning possibilities for a new future” (Jain). Reworking a piece of art becomes a new way for the writer, the directors, the designers, the actors, and the audience to engage with it and connect to the most essential parts of the work that draw them in. It can help “discover new aspects of the story” and solidify people’s love for the art in question, as well as drawing in an audience that might never have felt the original work was written for them (Jain). 

We’ve seen some of these adaptive practices emerge with Gilbert & Sullivan’s works over the years–not just in HRG&SP, although we’ve done our fair share of changing locales and exploring creative visions. Productions across the globe experiment with settings, casting, added text, and more. A recent example is the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s 2018 production of Princess Ida, which returned to the original Tennyson text to clarify Gilbert’s ambiguous potential critique of the education of women, a belief no longer compatible with contemporary society. Speaking of Ida, Gilbert’s libretto & lyrics, including the blank verse of the dialogue, is a direct adaptation of a Tennyson poem, The Princess, which was highly popular at the time and influenced not only Gilbert’s plot, but also the structure of the show and the choice of speaking convention (blank verse is unusual compared to his other operatic collaborations). A 1992 version of Ida at the English National Opera set in a Japanese theme park led to the following review:

“I can hardly bear to think about Ken Russell’s production… I can’t recall three hours in a theatre which have left me feeling more dismal… the tit-and-bum vulgarity, the pathetically witless sexism of the staging pushed the proceedings beyond any redemption.” (Christiansen). 

Princess Ida is far from alone on the list of Gilbert & Sullivan shows to have received the adaptation-of-a-classic treatment. The Hot Mikado, an early jazz adaptation of Mikado, received a completely new score including elaborate dance numbers and featuring an all-Black cast. Mikado also became part of the play The Mikado Project, in which an Asian-American theater company grapples with the work. HMS Pinafore has been recreated with a “jazz score,” as a completely different musical under the name Memphis Bound, and set in locations as far removed as the fictional universe of Star Trek. Pirates has been turned into a ballet, a reorchestrated Broadway revival, and a very 1980s movie adaptation. The creators of the children’s show Veggie Tales! wrote a Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired episode entitled Lyle the Kindly Viking, which is not only immediately recognizable as a Gilbert & Sullivan show, but contains all the essential elements of one reworked for the purpose of a Biblical children’s show with talking vegetables. The play Mr. Burns takes inspiration not only from the form of Victorian light opera, but even includes music from and references to G&S in its dialogue. I know that when I’m reading, researching, or listening to music, I’m excited to see a Gilbert & Sullivan reference, hear a snippet of Sullivan’s music captured for a new purpose, or come across someone who was inspired by their work. Not only is it nice to “get” the references, it’s also thrilling that something so time-period specific (their work isn’t called “Victorian light opera” for nothing) can live on in the minds of scholars, writers, and artists today. 

Those of us who love G&S should find relief that by the adaptation measure, Gilbert and Sullivan have solidly entered the realm of the classics. We can rest assured that their legacy will be preserved and continue to draw the love and appreciation of fans, and that their work will continue to be adapted for the future in ways that we may enjoy or find confusing (or both). We can grumble about the versions of their work we don’t like and discuss why, but at its heart, meaningful theater is the process of adapting common truths, stories, and work to communicate things that matter both to the performers and creative team, and to the audience. We can look at the long history of adapting the classics for reassurance that no matter what new Gilbert & Sullivan creation comes along, their original work will not sink into obscurity–no one has forgotten Romeo and Juliet since the animated children’s movie Gnomeo and Juliet came out. Rather than shorten the lifespan of the works of G&S, change, from restructuring to rewriting, ensures their longevity as the inspiration for new generations of theater.

References:

Allen, Brooke. “Adapting the Classic.” The Hudson Review, vol. 66, no. 4, 2014, pp. 694–700. 

Bull, John. “Add-Aptation: Simon Stephens, Carrie Cracknell and Katie Mitchell’s ‘Dialogues’ with the Classic Canon.” Journal of Contemporary Drama in English6.2 (2018): 280-99. 

Christiansen, Rupert. “Princess Ida.” The Spectator, 28 November 1992. 

Crystal, Ben. “‘Gnomeo and Juliet:’ A Tragic Take on Shakespeare’s Tale of Woe.” The Atlantic, 14 February 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/02/gnomeo-juliet-a-tragic-take-on-shakespeares-tale-of-woe/71198/

Foley, Helene P. “Modern Performance and Adaptation of Greek Tragedy.” Barnard College, Columbia University. 1998. https://classicalstudies.org/sites/default/files/documents/FOLEY98.pdf

Jain, Ravi. “In adapting a classic, honour tradition and break the rules; When imagination is let loose, the old and new come together and speak to the present moment.” The Toronto Star, 17 October 2017. https://global-factiva-com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ga/default.aspx

Lane, David. “Adaptation and Transposition – Reinterpreting the Past.” Contemporary British Drama. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 157–187. 

Varod, Gil, Kimberley Patterson, and Robert J. Saferstein. Oedipus For Kids! Samuel J. French, 2009. 

Washburn, Anne. Mr. Burns and Other Plays. Theatre Communications Group, 2017. 

Orchestration: Who Does It And Why Does It Matter?

Some of the biggest changes to take place on Broadway in the 20th century involved orchestration, or the choices about how many and which instruments would be used in the musical theater pit orchestra. Prior to the early 1900s, composers would write down each note themselves to be reproduced by a copyist. As composers began to churn out more material at a higher speed to keep up with demand and changing technology, the role of orchestrator became essential to the production of new Broadway shows like Kiss Me, Kate!, The Sound of Music, and other “Golden Age” shows. Max Dreyfus, who later became the president of Chappell & Co, Inc. (a company that produces one of two standard editions of G&S libretti and materials), was one of the first “orchestrators.” Most Broadway shows today have an orchestrator separate from the composer who makes artistic choices about the instrumental color they would like to hear on a particular line, writes incidental music, and generally brings the score to life. 

Robert Russell Bennett, orchestrator of the 1949 production of Kiss Me, Kate!, was the hot orchestrational commodity of the time. Employed by Chappell & Co., Inc., he worked on many shows written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, etc. with other Chappell & Co. collaborators. You may be wondering why this matters. What makes Sullivan’s orchestration of his operettas different from Bennett’s orchestration of Kiss Me, Kate!? Two big things.

First, Kiss Me, Kate! and other shows of this era and style used a piano in performance. This isn’t unheard of in opera, especially for recitatives, but by and large the use of a piano as part of the orchestra pit is a musical theater phenomenon incited by shrinking pits and shrinking budgets–a piano can cover far more lines than, say, a trombone, and you only have to pay one person. 

The biggest change in Broadway orchestration was also a response to cuts in pit size and budget–reed doubling. Reed or woodwind doubling refers to the now-common practice of requiring a musician to play more than one, and sometimes up to seven or eight different instruments in the same performance. Like the use of piano, it was not a completely novel development, but was taken to the extreme. 

The impetus for woodwind doublers came from the invention of the saxophone and jazz bands that required saxophonists to double on clarinet. Before the 1920s, Broadway merely required the standard orchestral doublings (e.g., flute and piccolo, oboe and English horn), but composers and orchestrators started asking for extensive doubling to obtain a wide variety of orchestral colors without costing the producers too much money or writing for an orchestra that wouldn’t fit in a Broadway pit. 

A prime example can be found in the orchestrations of the version of Kiss Me, Kate! that HRG&SP intended to perform this semester. We licensed the 1999 revival orchestrations of the show, which were done by Don Sebesky and called for the following woodwind players:

Reed 1: Piccolo, Flute, Clarinet, Soprano & Alto Saxophone

Reed 2: Flute II, Clarinet I & Alto Saxophone

Reed 3: Flute III (or Oboe), Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet II, Soprano Saxophone (or Clarinet) & Tenor Saxophone

Reed 4: Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon & Baritone Saxophone

Despite the logistical challenges of getting one musician to play all of those instruments well, doubling on Broadway has led to a wider variety of sounds in each production. Orchestrators in the 1920s and 30s demonstrated their ability to think outside of the box, and in a time when arts industries struggle to make a profit, doubling has ensured that shows keep the timbral palette interesting. 

However, the increased prevalence of doubling does raise questions about the importance of music and musicians on Broadway. Sir Arther Sullivan wasn’t worried about the number of musicians in his pit–he used around 30 musicians for each show. The average Broadway orchestra is nowhere near that number, and they wouldn’t fit in the pit if they were. My question for you all is: when budget cuts need to be made in the musical theater industry, should the music be the aspect that gets cut? 

For more information check out:

https://www.local802afm.org/allegro/articles/the-evolution-of-doubling/Suskin, Steven. The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations.  2009.