As you may have noticed, The Milk Made was not written by Gilbert and Sullivan. It was commissioned by the HRG&SP board in 2020 and written by two Harvard undergraduates in 2021. Only five other times in HRG&SP’s sixty-five year history, and twice within the last two years, have we mounted a production outside the fourteen canonical G&S shows. So why put on The Milk Made, and why now?
Our company has the “Big Three” G&S shows—H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado—on a four-year rotation. We did Pinafore in fall 2019 and Pirates in fall 2021, and now it’s just about time for Mikado to make its next appearance. HRG&SP’s 2016 production, however, was met with widespread protest, and Gilbert’s text makes it easy to see why. Written in the heyday of Orientalism, an artistic movement that made superficial imitations of Asian cultures, Gilbert leans heavily into stereotypes depicting Japanese people as submissive and emphasizes Japan’s cultural “otherness” from England. It is no surprise, therefore, that despite significant changes to the aesthetic setting compared to more traditional productions, our 2016 Mikado was unable to make itself palatable to our contemporary audiences. For this reason, our company has decided not to produce The Mikado again for the foreseeable future. In the spirit of providing more respectful Asian representation, we encouraged our writers to use this Rewrite Project as an opportunity to explore their own cultural identities—an opportunity which our librettist, who is herself Chinese, decided to take. I think The Milk Made is a great example of how themes unrepresented in traditional G&S shows can fuse seamlessly with the classic G&S comic spirit, a feat which I’m very proud of our company for accomplishing.
I make no judgments about whether The Mikado was problematic in its time. Historical reception of the show and its characterization is a complex topic that I am woefully ignorant about, and it would take much more than a blog post to address it. But the fact remains that its words are insensitive to modern ears, and as the times change, so must we.