January 22, 2012

When Everyone is Somebody then No One's Anybody

A week ago I got a message from a guy asking if I wanted to come to London to play at a punk rock festival allegedly being put on in Camden Town the following week. I'll help you with the math there: it was merely seven days away. Kind of short notice for transatlantic travel, in other words, though it was nice of him to ask. Word that I had been asked must have got around a bit, too, because I received a few skeptical emails asking if I were really going to be there.

Anyway, in response, I was able to write a sentence I never thought I'd write, particularly with regard to a punk rock gig offer: "thanks for the offer, but I'm afraid I have theater tickets for that evening."

Well, sort of. And last night, the night in question, instead of playing at an alleged punk rock festival in London, I went to see the Lamplighters' production of the Gondoliers by Gilbert & Sullivan in San Francisco. (Warning on that link: it will play music you won't be able to figure out how to turn off.)

I've been told by people with the credentials and imperiousness to back it up that my enthusiasm for G&S marks me as a substandard intellect and isn't the kind of thing I should go around admitting. But people who know me as a lyricist never have any problem "getting" it: I'm sure I'm sub-standard in all sorts of ways, but this particular marker of sub-standardness makes perfect sense for better and/or worse. (People are weird. I get the same sort of attitude when certain people learn how much I esteem Noel Coward, since what's the point of that kind of esteem if you're not gay? Or maybe, they darkly imply, everyone who likes Noel Coward's lyrics is secretly gay in some way, unbeknownst even to himself. The idea that a great lyric is a great lyric, gay or otherwise, doesn't compute when you've been pickled in identity politics, I suppose. But like a Groovie Ghoulie, I don't care where you've been: Motorhead or Chapman/Chin, Noel Coward or W.S. Gilbert. So sue me. No, don't really sue me.)

The Lamplighters and Co. have been doing regular local productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas for an astonishing sixty years. My dad used to take us to see them as a family when I was kid, which is how I acquired the taste for them, and I'm sure this really has affected my writing in all sorts of undesirable ways. I quoted a memorable line for my facebook status after the show, which attracted the immediate comment: "so you're writing more shitty lyrics." Guilty as charged, buddy, but that one wasn't mine.

Before last night, I'd seen, I believe, each of the G&S collaborations in some form, except for the final three, of which sequence The Gondoliers, their last big success, is the first. And even though I listened to a recording a couple times before the show it really didn't click till I actually saw and heard it performed. It's amazing how much of a difference that makes, to be able to watch and hear the songs unfold and come alive, like Frampton. What I'm trying to say is, I hadn't witnessed a G&S operetta for the first time in decades, and I don't think I can communicate how thrilling that was. I mean, I know I can't. I've had the same trouble communicating exactly why it is so thrilling to read a perfectly constructed Wodehouse sentence. I guess good writing just does something to me. Fortunately for me, Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke are rarely, if ever, performed, so maybe I'll be able to "save" those like I should have saved a Jeeves or a Psmith for some future date when I might want to be reminded of what it's like to experience something truly great for the first time.

They're doing it next week in Walnut Creek if you're looking for something to do. It's a great production of a brilliant, cleverly-written, and still genuinely funny show.

Posted by Dr. Frank at January 22, 2012 10:53 PM | TrackBack

Several years ago, I was in a production of Utopia Limited put on by Lyric Theatre (a.k.a. G&S Society of San Jose). G&S tackle the world of industry in that play. Pretty good, although a lot of stuff is borrowed from earlier works. I was surprised to see a reference to Kodak in the lyrics.

Posted by: Bill at January 23, 2012 01:27 AM

I can't say I ever made the connection between Dr. Frank and Gilbert & Sullivan before, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Put Tom Lehrer in the middle of that equation and it's even more on point.

Posted by: Jim Testa at January 25, 2012 06:44 PM

All of my G&S experience comes in the form of bad high school productions that I was forced to watch, and homoerotic Family Guy parodies starring Stewie. And I hate theater anyway. So I guess I'm never going to get into G&S.

Plus, I don't wanna end up gay like Dr. Frank.

(just kidding.)

Posted by: stig at January 27, 2012 06:03 PM

The Zodiac killer was a big fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, as was Sideshow Bob. Just saying.

Posted by: Tom at February 2, 2012 01:24 PM

I'm far too young to have been the Zodiac killer, Tom.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 4, 2012 08:53 PM