The Saturday List: “Joseph’s Coat” – or a List of Colourful Songs, Part 1

Promotional artwork for Pieter Toerien's production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Promotional artwork for Pieter Toerien’s production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

With Pieter Toerien Productions and the Really Useful Group presenting a South African revival of  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and that revival having had its first performance yesterday in Johannesburg, where it will run until August before transferring to Cape Town, I thought it might be appropriate to run through the famous list of colours that Tim Rice set to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music to create the first of three Saturday Lists, the following two of which will appear in the next two weeks.

The creative team of this production is headed by Paul Warwick Griffin, who will direct, with musical supervision by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and musical direction by Louis Zurnamer. Choreography will be by Duane Alexander. Earl Gregory stars as Joseph, with Bianca le Grange as the Narrator and Jonathan Roxmouth as the Pharaoh. (Bookings, by the way, are through Computicket.)

Here’s a list of songs from musicals which feature the first 12 colours of “Joseph’s Coat” as per the lyrics of the song. Actually, it’s only ten, because there are two colours that have me stumped. Any suggestions? Sometimes, the reference is to the colour itself, but at other times it’s a name or a fruit or something else completely.

‘It was red and yellow and green and brown…’

Our first song is “Red and Black” from Les Misérables. This song, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil (French) and Herbert Kretzmer (English), is sung at the ABC Café during a political meeting between a group of students who are preparing for a revolution that they are sure will follow once General Lamarque is dead. Red symbolises both ‘the blood of angry men’ and ‘a world about to dawn’ in this song.

Next up is “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” from The Wizard of Oz. Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s short number is a prelude to “You’re Off to See the Wizard” and is head when the Munchkins send Dorothy off to the Emerald City. There are several real-life yellow brick roads, two of which may have inspired Oz author L. Frank Baum. One is at a military academy in New Work and the other is near Holland, Michigan.

“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, by Stephen Sondheim, comes from Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This song introduces the character of Johanna, who is kept in seeming captivity by Judge Turpin. “If I cannot fly,” the girl wishes, “let me sing.” The European greenfinch is a beloved songbird, commonly bred as pets in Malta, while the common linnet is declining in numbers and is protected as a priority species in the UK.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s “Sarah Brown Eyes” from Ragtime gives the character mentioned in the title of the song an unexpected appearance in the second act of the show. With Sarah having died at the end of the first act, her beloved, Coalhouse Walker Jr, recalls their first meeting. It’s a tender moment before the musical kicks back into high gear, with Coalhouse planning to blow up J.P. Morgan’s library.

‘And scarlet and black and ochre and peach…’

Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton wrote a title number for The Scarlet Pimpernel, a patter song for Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St Just, Marie, Armand St Just, Lady Digby, Lady Llewellyn and the servants. In the song, they all debate the identity of this eighteenth-century superhero who saved innocents from facing the guillotine during the French Revolution.

In, Hair, James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot wrote a song for three white women of the tribe to express their love for “Black Boys”. The response? Three black women of the tribe explain their love for “White Boys”. While this was an exuberant deconstruction of miscegenation which had been lgeally dismantled in the year of the show’s premiere, Hair tackled other issues about race with a more serious intent.

Ochre has me stumped. I can’t think of a musical theatre song that mentions this colour in its title.

No, No Nanette first hit stages in 1924, opening on Broadway and in the West End the year later. Three film adaptations followed, but it was a revival in 1971 that set in stone the legacy of this show and its score, which was penned by Irving Caesar, Otto Harbach and Vincent Youmans. At the top of the second act, Nanette goes to Atlantic City and quickly becomes the most popular girl in town, the “Peach on the Beach”.

‘And ruby and olive and violet and fawn…’

Some people might consider listing Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Ruby Baby” a cheat. But this song comes from one of my favourite revues, Smokey Joe’s Café, and I prefer it to any of the other options. (There aren’t that many.) This song about a girl called Ruby who doesn’t return the affections of the singer has been recorded by, amongst others, The Drifters, The Beach Boys, Bobby Darin and Michael Park with the original Broadway cast.

In Kismet, Robert Wright and George Forrest asked, using the music of Alexander Borodin, ‘Why be content with an olive when you could have the tree? / Why be content to be nothing, when there’s nothing you couldn’t be?’ Who would have thought that such profound thoughts could be set to the third act trio from Prince Igor? They also told us, ‘If you have heard and do not heed / There is a word for what you are / … Fool!’

I’m glad that I am able to include a song by Jeanine Tesori on this list. This one is called “Promise Me Violet” and has lyrics by Brian Crawley. The situation is this. Monty asks Violet, who is on her way to Tulsa, to meet him when she returns to Fort Smith, where he says he’ll be waiting for her. It’s so seductive. I’d probably succumb. Violet, on the other hand, promises no such thing before the bus pulls away. Rats…

Fawn is another colour that has me stumped. I thought I might find something in The Yearling, but it was not to be…

So… what do you think of the list so far? Which songs would you have picked for these colours? Any suggestions for the upcoming weeks? While you think about that, enjoy this playlist of the songs mentioned in this column, and then head on to the comments section below!

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The Saturday List: Go GREASE(d) Lightnin’ / No GREASE(d) Lightnin’

The cast of GREASE: LIVE

The cast of GREASE: LIVE

It may be almost a week since the much-hyped Grease: Live hit the small screen, but that’s given the dust (and the fankids) a little time to settle. This week’s Saturday List takes a looks at some of the strengths and weaknesses that have revealed themselves since last Sunday. For those of you who need reminding, Grease: Live was a live television event written by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins based on both the stage musical, Grease, and its film adaptation, directed by Thomas Kail and Alex Rudzinski for Fox. Without any further ado, let’s take a look at the five best and five worst things about Grease Live!

Go GREASE(d) Lightnin’

Let’s face it: Sandy is a relatively thankless, yet deceptively difficult, role. Play it too sweet, and everyone’s going to hate you. Too tough, and you lose the arc of the character. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Julianne Hough finds her way in the role, navigating through thin backstory infested waters too. In an adaptation that leans heavily on the film, it’s almost certainly a blessing that Hough didn’t have to adopt Olivia Newton-John’s Australian accent, even she did have to done close reproductions of some of the costumes. Of the leads, Hough best manages not only to make the role her own, but to make her own take on Sandy work.

A huge part of the teenage experience is fantasy. It’s why “Greased Lightnin'” never fails to please: besides the rhythm of the song, the audience is really rooting for those boys because so many of us drove a beat-up old car that we wished was something better. And it’s just one reason that “Freddy My Love” works so well in Grease: Live. It’s one of the few moments in which this adaptation finds its own voice. Imagine what approaching the rest of the score with that same sense of spontaneity might have yielded.

Noah Robbins as Eugene

Noah Robbins as Eugene

There are some gems in the supporting cast of Grease: Live, especially Noah Robbins as Eugene and Kether Donohue as Jan. Robbins works well in his expanded role, nailing Eugene’s role in the halls of Rydell. He plays Eugene as a young man on the way up and builds his character scene by scene. When he arrives to help the T-Birds in a key scene added to this adaptation, it doesn’t ring false because Robbins has developed the character scene by scene. His Eugene is more than dispensible comedy relief. It works. Donohue has it easier in a role that is already an audience favourite, but she hits the mark in each of her scenes. It’s a pity she doesn’t get her moment in “Mooning”.

There are two great cameos by Didi Conn and Barry Pearl in Grease: Live. Both starred in the film adaptation of the show. It was especially fun to see Conn play the reverse side of her scenes from the film. (Has anyone made a YouTube clip of Didi as Frenchy opposite Did as Vi yet?) Was there room for more cameo work here or would that have been overkill? Either way, this was the best of the bunch when it came to stunt casting in this adaptation.

Amidst some pretty uneven work as Danny, Aaron Tveit delivers an exemplary “Sandy”. Written by Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon for the film, “the song replaced the clunky “Alone at a Drive-in Movie”. I must admit I’m not a huge fan of Tveit’s; generally I find his performances lacking in colour. But every now and then he brings it home, and he does that here in spades. This was his most riveting performance in the show.

No GREASE(d) Lightnin’

Jessie J records the title song of GREASE

Jessie J records the title song of GREASE

First things first: the opening number. The inclusion of the title song written by Barry Gibb always causes a bit of a debate. It’s too much for the old guard, who saw and loved the original production, to endure. “It’s not a period song!” the proclaim – and they have a point. Given how associated the song has become with the property, including “Grease” is a compromise I can cope with – if the staging of the number works. The golden standard in this regard, as far as I’m concerned, is the 1993 revival, where the staging of the number establishes the various strata of life at Rydell High School. A pop star walking around behind the soundstages and the backlot with the cast joining in here and there is not good enough. Period. To add insult to injury, Jessie J’s delivery of the song wasn’t exactly first rate either.

While some of the supporting cast members are fantastic, others leave a great deal to be desired. The chief offender here is Elle McLemore, who played Patty Simcox. Sure, the character is grating – but McLemore’s Patty is so annoying that she gives the sidekicks on the Disney Channel’s teen sitcoms a run for their money. Don’t get me wrong – The Wizards of Waverly Place has its, well, place, but nobody wants to see Harper Finkle in Downton Abbey. McLemore’s Patty falters in failing to provide a vital foil for both Sandy and Rizzo, which means that the directors of Grease: Live must share some of the blame. In their push for manic energy, everyone seems to have forgotten who Patty is in the world of Rydell High School and why the character is there in the first place. Close on McLemore’s heels is Haneefah Wood in the comparatively minor role of Blanche.

Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy

Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy

Sometimes a new song adds something to a musical. “I Have Confidence” added a giddy, character-specific transition piece to The Sound of Music. In Cabaret, “Money” helped to communicate that Sally Bowles on film was a different creature in comparison with her stage counterpart, a singer who was capable of far more than performing at dingy cabaret, able to keep her job and who was thus there by choice rather than necessity – get it? Grease: Live added “All I Need Is an Angel” – a generic pop ballad by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Besides its failure to capture any sense of the show’s period, it fails even in setting up the number it introduces, in which Grease: Live presented a trio of Teen Angels – not just the one that Frenchy repeatedly asks for in this number.

“All I Need Is an Angel” segues neatly to the next big problem with Grease: Live: Boyz II Men. Who thought it would be a good idea to hire a smooth R&B vocal group, known for singing ballads and kick-ass harmonies, to put across a comedy number? Vocal riffs and group singing get in the way of punchlines – and this song is all about its punchlines. This was a textbook case of stunt casting gone wrong.

Finally, a question: what do you do with an iconic musical theatre number that just happens to be the closing of your show? Picture that production meeting where it was suggested that “We Go Together” would involve the cast running from a soundstage, mugging at the camera, hopping onto an elongated golf cart and finally arriving to perform some perfunctory choreography on the backlot. Now picture everyone involved thinking that’s a good idea. It’s pretty tough to imagine, isn’t it? What were they thinking?

That’s all that I’m putting on the list for today. What were your highs and lows of Grease: Live? Share them in the comments box below. It’ll be great to hear what you think as we count the days till the next live television musical.

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The Saturday List: The Marvin Hamlisch Musicals Countdown

Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Jonathan Roxmouth in I'M PLAYING YOUR SONG

Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Jonathan Roxmouth
in I’M PLAYING YOUR SONG

The Marvin Hamlisch story is the subject of a brand new show, I’m Playing Your Song, which will be performed during the festive season and through the new year at Montecasino and Theatre on the Bay in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively. Written by Jonathan Roxmouth and directed by Alan Swerdlow, the production stars Roxmouth alongside Sharon Spiegel-Wagner. Hamlisch is lauded as being one of the greatest songwriters of his time, an EGOT winner who has written tunes that have delighted theatre audiences, moviegoers and radio listeners for the past fifty years. In today’s “Saturday List”, Musical Cyberspace takes celebrates the first performances of I’m Playing Your Song with a look at Hamlisch’s five greatest musicals, with a brief look at their best songs, major productions and some suggestions for South African revivals of each of them. So without further ado, let the countdown begin!

5. The Goodbye Girl

When Hamlisch joined forces with Neil Simon and David Zippel to adapt Simon’s film The Goodbye Girl into a stage musical, expectations of what they would deliver must have been pretty high. With Bernadette Peters and Martin Short leading the cast, as incompatible roommates that fall in love over the course of the show, in a staging by Michael Kidd’s, the pedigree of the show was second to none. Imagine everyone’s disappointment when the show shuttered on Broadway after five months in 1993. A revised version of the show opened in Illinois the following year and a production with even further revisions – including new lyrics by Don Black – opened in 1997. With Black’s lyrics – perhaps typically – landing with a dull thud, the licensed version of the show remains the 1994 iteration of the material. Listening to the original cast album of the Hamlisch-Zippel version of the score offers some insight to the mixed reception the show had in its first run. The score is overwhelmingly bombastic at times, particularly in its ballads, but there’s some fun to be had in numbers like “Elliot Garfield Grant,” “Good News, Bad News” and “Don’t Follow in my Footsteps”. In fact, trimmed of its fat, The Goodbye Girl could probably make a snappy one-act musical comedy. Although a major South African production of the show seems unlikely, although it could be a great vehicle to pair up Bianca le Grange and Sne Dladla, who could certainly sell audiences on the material. Maybe their Blood Brothers and Orpheus in Africa director, David Kramer, could head up the show.


4. Smile

A 48-performance flop, Smile was the result of Hamlisch’s collaboration with Howard Ashman, who had had great success with Little Shop of Horrors. Chronicling the search for the ideal Young American Miss, the only record of Smile was a demo recording made for Samuel French to use in promoting the show to potential producers. This recording reflected some changes that had been made to the Broadway version of the show, some of which were reinstatements of earlier drafts of the material. Some of the songs – “Disneyland,” “Smile,” “In Our Hands,” and “Maria’s Song” surfaced in the Unsung Musicals recordings, with the first of those songs finding particular favour in the hands of original cast member, Jodi Benson. Songs from the musical also appear on the recording Howard Sings Ashman, where the composer and lyricist perform their own material. Although Smile has developed something of a minor cult following since its premiere, no major South African production of the musical has been produced. Perhaps Mixing Bowl Productions, who have been working hard to market the “new musical theatre” brand in their revues and concerts, could tackle this one. While Smile is certainly not recent enough to typically be considered “new musical theatre”, the approach is there in the material, and it is time for this fledgling company to start dealing with the complexities of narrative in musical theatre storytelling.


3. Sweet Smell of Success

Although Sweet Smell of Success only ran for 109 performances on Broadway in 2002, the show still represents Hamlisch’s best work for the stage since A Chorus Line in 1976. While critics at the time were less than complimentary about the Bob Crowley’s design, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography and Nicholas Hytner’s direction, Hamlish and the lyricist who crafted a literate set of lyrics for the show, Craig Carnelia, were nominated for a Tony Award and separate Drama Desk Awards for their score. John Guare also received a nomination for his book, which told the tale of 1950s Broadway gossip columnist, J. J. Hunsecker, who uses his influence, with the help of a struggling press agent, to interfere with his sister’s relationship with a hot young piano player. The cast recording is a testament to a score that is by turns jazzy, witty and touching, including the expository “The Column”, the soul-searching “At The Fountain”, the tender “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” and the sharp-as-nails “One Track Mind”. There are plenty of other rewards to be had to upon listening to this recording. In fact, with another round of revisions and a different production team, I am convinced that Sweet Smell of Success could truly hit its stride as a first class musical comedy. With no South African production having taken place, the man to head up the job would have to be Steven Stead, whose KickstArt Theatre Company has seen him helm productions like Sweeney Todd, Shrek and Cabaret. Add the unstoppable Roxmouth himself into the mix as the struggling press agent, put him alongside his Sunset Boulevard co-star Bethany Dickson as the woman around whom the entire plot revolves, cast her Singin’ in the Rain leading man, Grant Almirall, as her lover and put his fellow Chicago cast member, Craig Urbani, in the role of J. J. Hunsecker, and you’d be all set for a killer night’s entertainment.


2. They’re Playing Our Song

Hamlisch collaborated with legendary pop lyricist Carole Bayer Sager to create They’re Playing Our Song, which was based on their own romantic relationship, bringing to life at the same time the dynamics in the relationship between a composer and lyricist. Although the score failed to nab a Tony Award nomination, Hamlisch was nominated for the Outstanding Music Drama Desk Award. Highlights of the score includes a couple of toe-tapping numbers in the title song and “Working It Out”, but also more tender pieces for each of the lead characters, namely “Fallin’” (for him) and “I Still Believe in Love” (for her). Following a 1978 world premiere in Los Angeles, They’re Playing Our Song opened on Broadway the following year and transferred to London in 1980, with a UK revival being staged in 2008. Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke produced the South African premiere of the show in 1980, with Mike Huff and Marloe Scott-Wilson playing the two leads. I wonder what Janice Honeyman could do with a revival of this show. How about putting her at the helm of a revival with Toni Jean Erasmus, who was a wonderful Sister Mary Robert in Honeyman’s production of Sister Act this year, and Dean Balie, who is currently one of the featured actors in Orpheus in Africa? It could be a fantastic prospect for Honeyman and her often-time Joburg Theatre producer, Bernard Jay.



1. A Chorus Line

Hamlisch’s most enduring stage work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Chorus Line. Following a stint of 101 performances Off-Broadway in 1975, the show transferred to Broadway where it ran for a record-breaking 6,137 performances. Marvin Hamlisch won (along with the show’s lyricist, Edward Kleban) the Tony Award for Best Original Score as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music for the show. The score features several unforgettable numbers, including the haunting “At the Ballet”, which Hamlisch described as the song that set the shape and color of the entire musical. There’s also the catchy “I Can Do That”, the hilarious “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” and the thrilling “The Music and the Mirror; each is a number that brilliantly delineates the character that sings the song. The masterful “Montage” juxtaposes the teenage experiences of all 17 dancers on the line. And that’s not even mentioning the show’s two biggest takeaway numbers, “One” and “What I Did for Love”, or the extensive underscoring that pulsates throughout the show. At present, the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever, A Chorus Line opened in the West End in 1976 and was adapted into an almost universally disliked film in 1985 before being revived in New York in 2006 (the casting for the revival being the subject of a documentary, Every Little Step) and in London in 2013. In between, A Chorus Line had its South African premiere in Cape Town in 1992, with Troy Garza restaging the original direction and choreography. Maybe when Pieter Toerien Productions is done with Singin’ in the Rain, the theatre mogul can cast a thought towards reviving this classic piece of musical theatre with our current generation of musical theatre performers – but only if it means we get to see Michael Bennett’s unbeatable original staging of the work.


Besides these five musicals, Hamlisch has also composed scores for the musicals Jean Seberg (1983, featuring the beautiful song, “Dreamers”) and The Nutty Professor (2012), as well as the many hit songs he wrote for films like The Way We Were (1973), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). If you’d like to hear which of Hamlisch’s songs Roxmouth and Spiegel-Wagner sing in I’m Playing Your Song, book your tickets for the show at Montecasino (where it runs until 10 January) or Theatre on the Bay (where it runs from 13 January – 6 February). Bookings are through Computicket.

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Monday Meditation: I am Not Over the Old Masters

Sheet music from Victor Herbert's BABES IN TOYLAND

Sheet music from Victor Herbert’s BABES IN TOYLAND

Hamilton may be breaking new ground in musical theatre, with Lin-Manuel Miranda consolidating breakthroughs in mainstream musical theatre production that may or may not redefine the form, but while I enjoy keeping up to date with new developments in musical theatre, I find myself continually returning to the works of the book-writers, lyricists and composers who laid the foundations of the form as it know it today. Sometimes its easy to forget just how far musicals have come; it’s also easy to dismiss how much the ground-breakers were doing at the time.

I don’t know why I have such an intense obsession with musical theatre history. I guess I like to see the origins of things and to imagine what making and seeing theatre might have been like prior to the 1930s.

What was it like to hear Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” for the first time in 1928? What must it have been like for Herbert Fields, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to create Dearest Enemy in 1925? How do the “new” Gershwin musicals really compare with the their originals? When Irving Berlin saw his debut musical, Watch Your Step, staged, did the audiences of 1914 anticipate a full score by the writer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” the same way that the audiences of today anticipate the full score of Waitress from “Love Song” songwriter Sara Bareilles? How much do Disney’s new fairy-tale musicals on stage owe to Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s Babes in Toyland and The Wizard of Oz, with its The Lion King-like – in length – list of contributors.

There were of course many more – including Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and others who came before them – who crafted and influenced the musical in its formative years and some of these theatre-makers were still making musicals decades later, reacting to later developments in the form and – in some cases – innovating these developments themselves. When you’re downloading Hamilton later this week, why not pick up a recording of Fifty Million Frenchmen, Oh, Kay!, The Red Mill or Sunny and see what you think?

In the meantime, tell us who your favourite “old master” of musical theatre is in the comment block below. Any recommendations of recordings or books to read would be great too!

This post is inspired by and a response to “I Am Not Over the Founding Fathers” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

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Musical Theatre Sunday School: In Pandora’s Box, There Was Also Hope…

Lea Salonga and George Takei in ALLEGIANCE. Photo credit: Henry DiRocco

Lea Salonga and George Takei in ALLEGIANCE. Photo credit: Henry DiRocco

Many of us are familiar with the Greek myth of Pandora, a woman who opened a container holding all of the evils that would become manifest in the world. (Why does mythology place always slander women by placing the burden of sin in their hands? Eve too received what some might call a bum rap.) At the bottom of the box or jar, was hope. And while the situation surrounding The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ now-cancelled production of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado is just one sign of the insidious prejudices that still lurk in our midst, still there is hope.

One recent article I read that is a testament to that hope appeared in The New York Times on 10 September: “This Broadway Season, Diversity Is Front and Center”. The article discusses productions like On Your Feet!, Allegiance, The Color Purple, Amazing Grace, Shuffle Along, Hamilton, The Gin Game, Hughie, School of Rock and Spring Awakening, which give voice to Latin American, Japanese American, African American, Caucasian and Deaf narratives.

In the article, Lea Salonga – the first Asian woman to win a Tony Award – is quoted as saying:

Whether it’s providential, coincidence, or meant to be, the fact is what’s happening on Broadway is so diverse it’s almost utopian. It shows how many stories are out there that should be told, and can be told — so many experiences that make America what it is.

The telling of diverse stories is, of course, not only a challenge for Americans, but also one that faces us all. So, if you’re the kind of person who’d like to share your story with us, what do you do to encourage diversity in the arts in your community? Maybe your groundbreaking work will inspire us all.

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The Saturday List: 10 Reprehensible Responses to the NYGASP “MIKADO” Fiasco

George Grossmith made up as Ko-Ko in THE MIKADO

George Grossmith made up as Ko-Ko in THE MIKADO

Yesterday, in Musical Cyberspace’s Forgotten Musicals Friday column, I discussed the situation that surrounded the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ planned production of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado, a controversy that has been widely covered on theatre websites like Playbill and BroadwayWorld. With the announcement yesterday that the production had been cancelled, indignant responses that criticised the Asian American community’s response to the production’s marketing materials, which featured Caucasian actors representing Japanese characters, and the fact the inclusion of Pan-Asian actors and actors of Asian descent in the production was embarrassingly minimal. Reading through some of these responses left me bewildered. In what world are these people living? Alongside which people? Why are they missing the point?

My Saturday List would normally consist of a light-hearted collection of observations about musical theatre, but after reading some of the reprehensible responses to the fiasco surrounding the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ cancelled production of The Mikado, I felt that I had to address these in some way. One could select ten similar responses to these on almost any social media platform that engages with musical theatre or opera, but I thought it useful to respond to a set of responses in one place: the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook, a public group on Facebook where people volunteer their opinions in an open forum. In fact, these responses are all to be found in a single thread, started by group member Anthony Garcia, who describes the entire affair as a ‘how-de-do’, a phrase taken from one of the songs in The Mikado.

Right. A deep breath. And here we go.

Rutland Barrington as Pooh Bah in THE MIKADO

Rutland Barrington as Pooh Bah in THE MIKADO

1. One belief, held by many and put forward in this thread by Mathias Kayser, is that The Mikado is a parody of Britain in the 19th century, therefore casting white actors is not problematic. It’s true that Gilbert and Sullivan were presenting a satire of the politics and institutions of Victorian England. But here’s the thing: we are not living in Victorian England or one of its colonies. The society that is being put under the spotlight existed 130 years ago. The satirical aspects of The Mikado are largely no longer valid unless we assume that the British have remained stagnant as a society for that period of time. Britain’s “imperial century” is over. Many countries continue to deal with post-colonial trauma following the United Kingdom’s process of decolonisation and decline. The defense that The Mikado remains relevant as a satire is a pretense. The world in which The Mikado was written has been dismantled; the conventions around the casting of white actors in this comic opera should be too.

2. Cathy Bulfin offers the view that critics of productions that cast white actors in The Mikado ‘don’t get it at all’. What is it, exactly, that we don’t get? Racism perpetuated in the name of art? That white men have suppressed opportunities for people of colour in every industry over time, including the entertainment industry? That there is such a thing called restorative justice, which is a valid and necessary process? Because those are some of the things that Ms Bulfin and her peers seem to fail to understand.

1885 poster art for THE MIKADO

1885 poster art for THE MIKADO

3. You get some folks who only read the headlines and who get lost in their own gut reaction. Like Robert Watson, who considers anyone who might take offence at the use of white actors to represent Japanese people in 2015 to be ‘blind inartistic trouble-makers’. He should consider the grace that actress and writer, Erin Quill, extends to Gilbert and Sullivan about the intentions of their piece before offering any sort of criticism of The Mikado. Only then does Quill say, ‘We, the Asian Americans, do not want to ‘take away’ your precious Mikado – we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes – more full of the respect G&S were trying for.’ Somehow, Mr Watson and his ilk interpret this as persons suffering from ‘white guilt and bigoted Asians’ simply attempting to ‘wreck the whole story’ of The Mikado – an inconceivable point of view for any rational person.

4. Mr Watson voices another popular response to situations like these: ‘These are simply PC troublemakers who want to censor art.’ It is not the denotation of political correctness with which Mr Watson is concerned, namely ‘the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against’, but some connotation of the word whereby the noble intentions of political correctitude is stripped of its integrity. Is it really censorship to suggest that an established practice should be interrogated? And when did art become a free platform for bigotry?

Gilbert’s own illustration of “A More Humane Mikado”, one of the numbers in THE MIKADO

5. There is something wrong when white communities are denied access to a potential theatre production when roles representing members of any suppressed ethnicity cannot be played by white actors, is Ian Bond’s summary of the situation. His suggestion? That it is ‘time to start fighting back’ to preserve the tradition of yellowface performance in productions of The Mikado and of blackface performance in productions like Show Boat! The world of which Mr Bond dreams is one where white performers can dress up as Japanese people, Chinese people, African people, Indian people, Middle Eastern people or Native American people for the diversion of white audiences, no matter whether this compromises the dignity of the people being represented or not. The solution is very simple, though no doubt a difficult one for Mr Bond and his cohorts to hear: if the show cannot be cast appropriately, the show should not be produced. Somewhere, someone will value the great sacrifice made by white audiences in this regard.

6. Because it was done in the past, that makes it acceptable today. So thinks Mr Bond, and Helen Booker, who herself performed in blackface in Show Boat in 1985, agrees. ‘It wasn’t considered racist then,’ she protests, ‘and I can’t understand why it should be now.’ Just because something wasn’t considered racist doesn’t mean that it wasn’t. Injustices are always perpetuated and justified by those who reap the benefits.

J. Hassal's THE MIKADO illustration

J. Hassal’s THE MIKADO illustration for a theatre poster for the show

7. Mr Garcia returned to the thread he started to propose that avoiding the trappings of yellowface – buck teeth, slanted eyes and so on – fixes everything. The thing is, representation is about more than make-up, whether this may be full yellowface, some variation of Geisha makeup, or any variation of generic Orientalism. An assimilation of an entire culture has to take place.

8. Mr Bond returns to the fold to posit that because the satire is about the British, there are no Japanese stereotypes in The Mikado. I never knew that the use of baby-talk (Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum Pooh-Bah, Pish-Tush, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) as a substitution for Japanese names, the Westernised depiction of the Japanese Emperor or the invention of national traditions could be considered free of prejudice. There’s also something in the viewing of an entire culture – no matter how tasteful the intentions for its portrayal might be – as nothing more than a vehicle for exploring the concerns of another.

9. Offence is in the eye of the beholder, claims Sarah-Jane Hall, who says ‘there is a conscious choice on the part of the offended to feel that way’. It follows, then, that ‘the offended’ should have no opinion on the way they are portrayed in the arts or whether, indeed, they should have the first option to represent not themselves, but their cultural background. Worst of all, it means that being offended by an insulting depiction of your culture is an adopted posture, an academic position that has no basis in public historical practice or personal emotional resonance. What a degrading view to have of the genuine suffering of ‘the offended’, a mendacity constructed to preserve one’s own supposed superiority.

A 1926 costume design for Ko-Ko by Charles Ricketts

A 1926 costume design for Ko-Ko by Charles Ricketts

10. The issue of race in productions like The Mikado is an American issue brought about by the American mindset. As far as AJ Ua Néill is concerned, ‘the rest of the world isn’t obsessed with race’. Well, if there are Americans who are working to counteract the effects of centuries of racism, they should be applauded. But they are not the only ones. People in countries around the world are engaging with these issues. Sometimes without elegance. Sometimes at the cost of human life. Sometimes taking small steps forward. Sometimes making huge strides that take them into the future. Perhaps it is time for Mr Ua Néill and his cronies to be present in the world in which we live, where – to cite just one example – economic wars fought over resources in central Africa have everything to do with serving the technological whims of people around the world. It must be comfortable to pretend that race is not an equation in contexts like these, but that’s yet another reality willfully ignored by those who benefit from, in this case, war caused by corporate competition. The issue of racial representation in the arts may seem like small fry in comparison, but the same attitudes inform both situations.

While this tenth item brings my Saturday List to a close, the thread from which these statements are taken continues to flourish and so does, one hopes, the discussions that push us forward in this renegotiation of generations of rehearsed practices that continue to flourish in contemporary performance practice. Feel free to join the discussion using the comments section below, or visit the the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook to enrich the discussion of these points there. This is one of those things about which we need to talk, so that tomorrow can be a better day.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE MIKADO

The image that caused all the trouble: promotional photography used to promote the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' production of THE MIKADO

The image that caused all the trouble: promotional photography used to promote the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of THE MIKADO

All right. It’s hardly forgotten – and, strictly speaking, it’s not a musical either. But The Mikado has been placed under the spotlight once again this week, so I thought I would feature W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s classic comic opera in this column to reflect upon some of the issues raised in the controversy around the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ planned production of the piece, which was announced as having been cancelled earlier today.

The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu debuted in 1885, the ninth collaboration by the widely popular Gilbert and Sullivan. A satire of Victorian England, looking both politics and other institutions of the time, librettist Gilbert used the setting of Japan as a disguise for his commentary. Plot-wise, The Mikado tells the tale of Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado of Japan who has fled his father’s court to escape marriage to the elderly Katisha. Disguised as a ‘wandering minstrel’, arrives in the town of Titipu, where he falls in love with Yum-Yum, the young ward of Ko-Ko. Complications ensue, but everything works itself out before the final curtain.

The creation of The Mikado was itself the subject of a film, Topsy-Turvy and, if you are unfamiliar with the show, there are many audio and film recordings through which you could familiarise yourself with this much-beloved comic opera, including an adaptation using jazz and swing music (The Hot Mikado) and one set in the Caribbean using rock, reggae, blues and calypso to flavour the score (The Black Mikado).

Caucasian actor Peter Kramer as the Japanese Mikado in the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society's production.

Caucasian actor Peter Kramer as the Japanese Mikado in the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production.

I must admit, this is not the first time The Mikado has been on my radar this year. Earlier this year, a local amateur dramatics troupe, the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society, mounted a production, which included many – mostly – Caucasian actors in both principle roles and the chorus. Back then, I had had problems with the fact that nobody seemed to bat an eyelid at this casting and the production company’s silence on how it would enable its mostly white cast to represent Japanese people in the production – given that cultural appropriation was a trending topic on many South African social media accounts at the time and that South Africa is a country which has its history and present tied up in tensions around race adn ethnicity. That The Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society and its production of The Mikado escaped any kind of scrutiny whatsoever, barring two tweets where I tried to start a conversation about the issue, is – at the very least – surprising to me.

But let’s get back to the issue at hand.

An etching of Gilbert and Sullivan

An etching of Gilbert and Sullivan

On Wednesday, Playbill reported that a flyer sent out by The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players about their upcoming production of The Mikado had offended members of the Asian American community. The flyer featured four white actors playing Japanese characters from the play. When it was reported that the company barely featured any cast members of Asian descent and that the company’s previous production of the comic opera was historically inaccurate and culturally insensitive, things worsened. Speaking to Playbill, actress and writer, Erin Quill said that a character named “The Axe Coolie” had been added to that production, “coolie” being a slur used to describe Chinese workers, while another character ran around the stage shouting the stereotypical exclamation, “High ya!” She added that:

(Some actors were) just in a costume and doing their track, others were taking special delight and making a large effort to use stereotypical behavior. There was pulling of the eyes, there was shuffling of feet, there were exaggerated gestures in many regards, but when one cast member both pulled his eyes and gnashed his teeth — it was clear that this production had nothing to do with Gilbert and Sullivan any longer, it was an excuse to indulge in caricature that was degrading and hurtful.

With a precedent like that, is it any wonder that Quill and others who spoke out against this new production feared that The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players would once again mount a production of The Mikado ‘for cheap laughs at the expense of Japanese Heritage.’

J. Hassal's THE MIKADO illustration

J. Hassal’s THE MIKADO illustration

The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, of course, claimed the opposite, choosing to focus on the fact that – in a statement released to Playbill – the production would have avoided the practice of Yellowface, the use of make-up to appear Asian, that – on their Tumblr page – the production was simply in line with the original intent of The Mikado as a vehicle to satirise Victorian England. There’s almost a sense of surprise in Exective Director David Wannen’s statement, “I really believe that the issue is a larger issue, obviously, than who is Asian and who isn’t.”

Of course there are larger issues at play! One only has to take a look at the responses on social media sites about this situation to see that. Today’s column is getting a little long, so I’ll share some of the shocking attitudes reflected in social media statements about this situation in tomorrow’s Saturday List – statements that point to some of those larger issues.

But to close off for today, I’ll share a final quotation from Quill:

No Asian American disputes that The Mikado is a staple of the G&S canon, nor that the music is lovely. The Mikado, in mocking British mores of the time, says many things about being an individual, about standing up against petty tyrannies, that love will find a way no matter what age you are, and that ultimately if you speak your truth to power, reason will prevail. (Yes, there are large amounts of ‘poo’ references in the names of characters and the town itself. At the time, it was funny, now it is a bit of a ‘groaner.’) We, the Asian Americans, do not want to ‘take away’ your precious Mikado – we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes – more full of the respect G&S were trying for.

I think these words offer an incredible gesture of grace towards Gilbert and Sullivan’s intentions, with a reasonable request for a shift in the way that a piece like The Mikado is handled today. I hope that people are listening.

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