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Score One for the Nuts

Reviving Gilbert and Sullivan's lost operetta

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Gilbert and Sullivan fans are big on the rhetoric of obsession. They call themselves "nuts" and refer to each other, admiringly, as "mad." They all seem to have a story about the moment they got "hooked for life." And the rhetoric fits--they really are crazed.

Consider their attitude toward Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, the so-called "lost operetta." The first collaboration between librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, this simple little burlesque--in which the Greek gods go on vacation--was written in a hurry and given a negligible 64 performances at London's Gaiety Theatre in December 1871. Nobody's idea of a hit. The pair would go on to the bigger, better, more obsession-justifying endeavors--H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, for instance--over the course of the next 25 years.

The only thing that distinguishes Thespis, besides its chronological primacy, is the fact that it's come down to us all but stripped of its music. Only two songs survive complete; one of them, "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain," wound up in The Pirates of Penzance. The rest of Sullivan's score disappeared at some unknown point, never to be seen again.

You might suppose this would render Thespis unperformable--but that's not how the Gilbert and Sullivan nuts think. The idea that one of the masters' works hovers beyond their reach only motivates them. They've got to do it, even if the it they're doing isn't precisely it. Consequently, there's a minor tradition of mounting productions using songs either stitched together out of material from other Sullivan opuses or (re)created whole.

Kingsley Day became part of that tradition in 1982, when he heard that a now-defunct Chicago theater company, Pary Productions, was planning to produce Thespis but didn't have any music for it. A self-professed G & S fanatic and an accomplished composer (his musical Summer Stock Murder was a hit that same year), Day offered his services. In one wild month he came up with a chamber production for voices and piano.

It's possible that the Pary/Day collaboration was better received than the 1871 original. Richard Christiansen of the Tribune wrote, "Day has written and arranged music that would do credit to the master himself." The Reader's Bury St. Edmund called the show "a lighter-than-air theatrical pleasantry." And in Gay Life Lawrence Bommer said, "The great delight of this production is Kingsley Day's wittily reverent score." It was predicted that Day's version would be picked up and performed by Gilbert and Sullivan nuts everywhere.

But that didn't happen. After just one more use, in the 1983 Chicago Gilbert and Sullivan Series, Day's Thespis went unproduced for another 20 years. The reason: a lack of formal orchestrations. "I wrote this in such a rush," Day says, "that I never wrote out a voice/piano score"--much less one for multiple instruments. In rehearsals for the Pary production he'd simply given the performers their individual parts and improvised along with them. Which, incidentally, is exactly what Sullivan used to do.

Day didn't want to undertake the massive job of writing a real score for Thespis unless he was sure it was going to be produced--but Gilbert and Sullivan troupes didn't want to produce it unless they could see a finished score. And so there things sat for two decades.

Since 1998 Day has kept his English operetta habit fed by performing with the Savoyaires, an Evanston-based community theater dedicated to producing the G & S canon. Two years ago the Thespis question resurfaced, as was inevitable. This time, though, Day had technology on his side in the form of Finale, software that makes it easier to generate orchestrations. More importantly, he had Francis Lynch, who turned up in the male chorus of Ruddigore in 2001 and has been involved with the troupe ever since. A computer software engineer, Lynch felt compelled to help Day realize what he calls "this tantalizing thing that somehow wanted to be brought to life." So he set to the gargantuan task of inputting Day's piano and voice parts into Finale. Luckily, he'd also picked that moment to sign on for a 6,700-mile, 30-day eco-cruise of the Kerguelen Islands in the south Indian Ocean, so he had plenty of free time. By the end of the trip he'd gotten through 150 pages of music.

Lynch, Day, and Savoyaires musical director Dan Robinson have been working together since last November on developing and refining orchestrations for a 25-piece orchestra. This weekend the Savoyaires will mark their 40th anniversary by premiering the finished work. Lynch is in the cast, appropriately playing a character named Preposteros.

Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old

When: Fri-Sat 10/1-10/2 and 10/8-10/9, 7:30 PM, and Sun 10/3 and 10/9, 3 PM

Where: Chute Auditorium, 1400 Oakton, Evanston

Price: $5-$20

Info: 847-251-8767

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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