TERRY GROSS, host:
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are among the most popular form of musical theater. But, surprisingly few of them have been filmed. Criterion has just released two films that classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says are indispensable to anyone who already loves Gilbert and Sullivan and might very well make new fans out of those who don't.
(Soundbite of song, "If You Want To Know Who We Are")
Unidentified Singers: (Singing) If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan, on many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, in case you don't know them, are not only tuneful and hilarious, they're also very touching and truly literate. The most popular and surely the funniest is "The Mikado" - a satire not so much of Japanese customs, but of English customs filtered through a Japanese lens. Oddly, Hollywood didn't touch it until half a century after its premiere at London's Savoy Theater in 1939, when it was also being jazzed up on stage in such pieces as Michael Todd's "The Hot Mikado," starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
The Hollywood version - directed by Victor Schertzinger, who was also a songwriter - is a Technicolor extravaganza, maybe a little too pastel for Gilbert's wicked jokes about greed, self-interest, conformity and torture. Unfortunately, some of the most delightful and most serious numbers were left out of the film to make room for a silly and unnecessary prologue that expands the role of the weakest cast member, the American tenor Kenny Baker, a pretty-boy with a pretty voice and, shall we say, limited acting skills.
Still, the film is a wonderful record of such legendary D'Oyly Carte stars as Martyn Green, who plays Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor who has become the Lord High Executioner because - in this topsy-turvy world - he was next in line to be beheaded for flirting. Ko-Ko's most famous patter song is cut in most versions of the film, probably because the original lyric included what was in 19th century England a slang theatrical term but is now a racial slur. But Criterion has preserved it on a bonus track. This exert comes before the offending passage.
(Soundbite of song, "As Some Day It May Happen")
Mr. MARTYN GREEN (Actor): (as Ko-Ko) (Singing) As some day it may happen that a victim must be found. I've got a little list, I've got a little list of society offenders who might well be underground, and who never would be missed, who never would be missed.
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs. All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs. All children who are up in dates, and floor you with 'em flat. All people who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that. And all third persons who on spoiling tete-a-tetes insist - they'd none of 'em be missed, they'd none of 'em be missed.
CHORUS: (Singing) He's got 'em on the list. He's got 'em on the list; and they'll none of 'em be missed, they'll none of 'em be missed.
SCHWARTZ: The other G&S film that's just been reissued is "Topsy-Turvy" - not an operetta, but the British director Mike Leigh's 1999 fictionalized account of the creation of "The Mikado" and it may be the best film ever made about the creative process, and especially the torments of collaboration. The composer and the librettist have come to an impasse. Gilbert seems stuck in an old mold, in which a tangled plot gets resolved only through some sort of magic potion. Sullivan has higher aspirations, to compose a grand opera, and he won't compromise by setting to music a trivial comedy he doesn't believe in.
Gilbert's wife tries to shake him out of his lethargy by taking him to an exhibition of Japanese culture. He brings home a Japanese sword that he hangs over his study door, and when it crashes to the floor, voila "The Mikado."
Mike Leigh's sense of history is totally convincing, except that, as one of the G&S scholars on the alternate DVD soundtrack indicates, that famous Japanese exhibition didn't actually come to London until after "The Mikado" was produced. Still, the story of the sword is legendary, and Leigh has a breathtaking eye for period detail and customs, the addictions and affectations of performers, the controlled desperation of the producers and especially the tensions of the rehearsal process.
(Soundbite of movie, ""Topsy-Turvy")
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) The Mikado has left. Grossmith.
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well, another fine mess you've got us into.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, Grossmith. My line is, a nice mess you've got us into. And I should be much obliged if you would play it comme ca.
(Soundbite of handclap)
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Well, a nice mess you've got us into.
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Righto, sir.
(Soundbite of handclap)
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well...
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No. Well...
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well, a nice mess you've got us into with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Mr. Grossmith, you are under sentence of death by something lingering. Either boiling oil or melted lead. Kindly bear that in mind. Thank you.
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well, a nice mess you've got us into with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree. Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to a bald and unconvincing narrative.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, Bagton. An otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) I regret. I do beg your pardon.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, sir. It has only just occurred to me. To an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Much better.
SCHWARTZ: Lee gets infinitely nuanced and poignant performances not only from the two major protagonists, played by Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner, but from everyone down to the most fleeting extra.
You don't have to be a Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic to be enthralled by this complex and gripping depiction of geniuses at work.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor at the Boston Phoenix. His most recent book is a new edition of Elizabeth Bishop's prose. He reviewed the 1939 version of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" and Mike Lee's 1999 film "Topsy-Turvy," both released on Criterion DVDs and Blu-rays.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with "Born to Run," which features a famous saxophone solo by Clarence Clemmons. We were so sorry to hear about his death Saturday.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.