Everything Old Is New Again at the Skylight
Dale Gutzman directed 23 shows at the Skylight Opera Theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. He created about a dozen of them, and he acted in 20 more. Then co-directors Francesca Zambello and Stephen Wadsworth, intent on bringing in outside talent and raising the little company’s national profile, banished Gutzman.
Gutzman wrote and is directing An Evening with Gilbert & Sullivan, which opens Friday (May 28) at the Skylight’s intimate Studio Theatre.
“I waited 25 years for that call,” Gutzman said, in an interview Wednesday. “It was like the Skylight of old; Bill [Theisen, Skylight artistic director] said, we want you to do a Gilbert & Sullivan revue, but we don’t have a script or a score. So you can do anything you want.”
Theisen chose Gilbert & Sullivan because this company is renowned for its savvy and lively revivals of G&S’s brilliant comic operettas, which are among the most enduring artistic achievements of Victorian England. In recent years, Gary Briggle and John Muriello have been key figures in the Skylight’s G&S shows. They are masters of the style. Theisen cast them as Gilbert and Sullivan, respectively — or at least he meant to cast them that way.
“We came in for a workshop, just to read through,” said Briggle, who joined Gutzman at the interview. “At the first break, Bill said, Wait! I made a mistake! You’re supposed to be Gilbert!”
But Gutzman liked them the other way around, and Briggle will be Sullivan and Muriello will be Gilbert.
Theisen got another surprise as the show came into being. He was expecting a revue, a collection of songs with maybe a little banter and background, like the legendary 1959 Jim Keeley/Ray Smith G&S show that was the very first Skylight production. Gutzman, now best known as artistic director and founder of Off the Wall Theater, gave Theisen a whole play wrapped around 17 G&S musical numbers.
The lyricist and writer, W.S. Gilbert, and the composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan, were notoriously quarrelsome in life. Gutzman places them together in heaven at the start of the play.
“Someone up there thought it would be a good idea for them to be together for eternity,” Gutzman said. “Their heaven is a British gentlemen’s club.”
Gilbert thinks this a capital idea. Sullivan isn’t so sure. With the help of Meadows, a sort of angel character played by pianist/music director Jeff Schaetzke, they review their creative lives together. They also take a trip to Milwaukee, where their work burns brightly a hundred years later at the Skylight.
Briggle, who has researched Sullivan thoroughly, finds the story as poignant as it is amusing.
“He is a man absolutely of his own time and place,” Briggle said. “He was refined, erudite, sophisticated. He was poised for greatness and burdened by an empire that required a Great Composer. That was his place, his destiny. Then along comes this irresistible way of making money. The thing he did best was not the thing he wanted to do or be.”
He wanted to be a composer of grand Romantic operas and oratorios. Queen Victoria commissioned a number of them from Sullivan and knighted him for it, but never bothered to attend. At that point in her life, the Queen was deaf, anyway.
“What does that tell you as a composer, when your greatest patron is deaf?” Gutzman said. “He lived to see those things gathering dust on the shelf.”
Contemporary critics frequently accused Sullivan of squandering his talent on trivial stage comedies and thus failing to be Britain’s figurehead composer.
“The expectation that he would be the next Henry Purcell broke him,” Briggle said. “He would struggle to write something like ‘Ivanhoe,’ which would fail, and then dash off Ruddigore in 10 days and have a hit.”
Sullivan died thinking himself an artistic failure. Gutzman and Briggle are pleased to give him some redemption and satisfaction.
“I get choked up when Sullivan realizes that he did attain immortality and admiration,” Briggle said. “I’m happy to be a part of this tender benediction on a tortured life. That is a gift that the Skylight Opera Theatre has given to Sullivan over and over again.”
An Evening with Gilbert & Sullivan opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, where it will run through June 20. Tickets are $33.50. Call the BTC box office, 414-291-7800, or visit the Skylight website.