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Who ya gonna believe, my libretto or your lying eyes? - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Who ya gonna believe, my libretto or your lying eyes? [Mar. 27th, 2011|08:25 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I have a problem with The Pirates of Penzance, and it's the same problem I have with Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall novels.

I should back up and say that I love The Pirates of Penzance with a fierce and irrational love. I can sing the vast majority of it (if it's shifted by the appropriate octaves etc.), but I have had a preferred role since I was 11 years old, and that role is the Pirate King. (It is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King. Trust me on this one.) I had backup singers, when I was eleven and singing that song, friends who would chime in to do, "Hurrah, hurrah for the Pirate King!" for me. We are all nearing three times as old now, and I still love those girls, and more rarely and preciously, I still love the women they've become. But that is a long, long digression, and full of Arthur Ransome and Rosemary Sutcliff and heaven knows what else.

But Pirates. Right.

So the thing about Pirates is that I see it whenever I have the chance, and yet it hardly ever gets the Ruth/Mabel thing to match the libretto. For those you who are unaware, Ruth is written to be a plain, frumpy 47-year-old, and Mabel is to be a beautiful 17-year-old.

Also Menolly of Dragonsong and its sequels is the most brilliant songwriter in generations.

Both of these are no problem whatever when I put it down like that, and quite a bit of a problem when you can check for yourself. And I get, and I totally support, that a) very few of us are the most brilliant songwriter in generations and also want to write a novel*, and b) when you are casting an operetta, voice is the most important quality. I do understand all that. But I feel that in the case of the novels, perhaps having everybody on the planet's surface react to your character with "OMG BEST EVAR" is not the thing, and if you're insisting that it is the thing, perhaps the songs themselves ought to remain shrouded in mystery so that the reader does not say, "I can do better than that, and I'm 11 and don't write songs."** And in the case of the operetta, there is such a thing as...dare I suggest it...costuming and makeup?

The worst Pirates I ever saw had a Ruth and a Mabel who both looked like they had reached their mid-fifties or early sixties through a great deal of hard living, and Frederick looked 14. This is almost impossible to do anything about, so if those are the voices you have in a small town production, you will just have to live with it. But today's Pirates! Today's Pirates with GSVLOC had cast a perfectly reasonable-looking young woman as Mabel...and another perfectly reasonable-looking young woman as Ruth. And I kept thinking, "Slap a grey wig on that girl! Put makeup lines on her face!" The singer, Therese Walth, was clearly the correct voice for Ruth--I don't mean she shouldn't have had the chance to play the role. (Which is a better role than Mabel anyway--but I am not a soprano, and I have made every effort in my life to never, ever be an ingenue.) I just felt that especially in her closing costume, Frederick was being shown to have rather specific tastes more than anything else. It is a risk of live theater. It is a risk of librettos that describe too particularly. Sigh.

We've now been going to GSVLOC since 2005, missing only when Grandpa died, and this is apparently long enough to acquire a favorite regular in their company, or at least long enough for me to do so. I am greatly fond of Christopher Michela, who played the Sergeant of Police today, who was particularly memorable as the Mikado a few years ago, and who generally has a notably expressive face and voice. But it's also long enough that I could spot when one of the Major General's wards had a cold today. I hope she feels better soon--she did a credible job anyway, poor dear--but I'm a bit pleased that I get to go to this thing every year, that the company shifts and changes and yet has continuity also, and that I get to see enough of it to know that sort of detail. It makes me happy.

Or maybe I'm just in a good mood because of the Pirate King song. Who knows.

*Although I have great hopes of the forthcoming Josh Ritter novel, "most brilliant songwriter in generations" rather overstates. I am not given to overstatement of this kind. It is enough--quite more than enough, given some of the places they've held in my life in the last few years--that I love Josh's songs. They need not prevent me from loving other songs to earn that.

**Eleven was not chosen randomly here. It was a big year for me.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: roane
2011-03-28 01:30 am (UTC)
Ha! Speaking as someone who played Ruth at the tender age of 18 in a college production, yes. :) At least I DID have some age makeup on me.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-28 01:33 am (UTC)
I expect it in college productions: there are few enough continuing ed students that you're going to have to use makeup and costuming to indicate age. In the outside world, however, I wonder if people lose track of that option because it's not constantly needed.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2011-03-28 08:13 am (UTC)
Somewhat more believable because no one on Pern was any good at anything.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2011-03-28 02:34 pm (UTC)
Back in the day, I heard word of a local Penzance (not the current value of "local") where Ruth was old enough to be Mabel and Frederick's mother, but moreover, in actual fact, WAS the mother of the actor playing Frederick. I bet that added an interesting frisson to the dynamic.

Ruth is a so much better role than Mabel it's not even funny.

Penzance was a character insight for me in some ways; I attended a Penzance when I was quite little (like: six) and so that may have been one of the earliest conscious sensations I had that I was never going to be a Pirate King, but would have to be try to settle for being a Sergeant of Police instead. Tarantara.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2011-03-28 02:38 pm (UTC)
N.B. I should add that I basically grew up in the green rooms of various Little Theatre troupes, and got the behavior mods at a tender age, so that even at the age of six it was possible to take me to a Production for Adults with only extremely minor amounts of shushing. This may explain why I am so very intolerant of people today who act in theatres like they were raised in a barn.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-28 02:46 pm (UTC)
This is possible for many small people, if their parents start early.
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[User Picture]From: rmnilsson
2011-03-28 03:49 pm (UTC)
The Menolly stuff reminds me of Tina Fey's comments about sketch comedy on 30 Rock. When 30 Rock and Studio 60 were both new, Tina Fey made the decision not to show the sketches, because she didn't think they could be funny. She thought that the audience would be too removed from the sketches to find them funny. Aaron Sorkin decided to show the Studio 60 sketches, and boy did he prove Tina Fey right.

It also reminds me of one of the criticisms the writers over at Television Without Pity make about the inclusion of bits of speeches in The West Wing. That when Sorkin writes a speech to include in the script, and then writes a bunch of characters praising that speech, then it's Sorkin telling you how impressed you should be with his speech.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-28 04:20 pm (UTC)
Yah, I am consistently more convinced by Toby going, "This speech is CRAP! I have lost my touch! I cannot write ANYTHING!" than by people going, "Oh wow this is BRILLIANT!" I really felt that most of Bartlett's "best" speeches that were really big deal best speeches should have a cut after, "My fellow Americans."
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[User Picture]From: genarti
2011-03-28 05:02 pm (UTC)
On a reread of the Harper Hall books this year, I did at least appreciate that Menolly's basically writing the equivalent of pop songs. Most of the feedback she gets is "That's awesome because it's cute and simple and super-catchy! We will have other people writing the complicated quality music, but you write fun little earworms." You still have to kind of skim hastily past the fact that the lyrics are doggerel all through, but it was at least a partial mitigation to me.
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From: lynnal
2011-03-28 06:17 pm (UTC)
My take on the Harper books is the same as genarti's. I got the impression that she was technically a good musician and could harmonize and improvise well. That did not seem to be unusual in an of itself, the reactions of the masters was extreme because she was a girl. Her music was presented in the 'catchy sing-a-long' class, not as great art. Which would fit perfectly with your impression that any decent poet could write better lyrics. Most catchy pop tunes have inane lyrics.
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[User Picture]From: hbevert
2011-03-29 06:59 pm (UTC)
I have had the same experience w/a different fantasy series of "the story of the best poet/bard ever in our people's history" which I though worked well w/ the idea by having many of his performances be things extremely appropriate to the setting but written by other people. And then it didn't hurt that the novelist was also a decently competent poet, if sometimes a little schlocky.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-31 03:22 pm (UTC)
Heh. I am so Minnesotan it hurts.

Mostly it hurts other people, though.

Have you been to GSVLOC before? I think they do a great job, especially for the scale of budget etc. they have.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-31 05:06 pm (UTC)
Yah, when we watch the more minor shows we tend to see why they're more minor, but they do tend to have less of the "we are doing a famous one!" baggage to get past.

We have often gone to the Lake Harriet Bandshell show also, although this year I don't know, since it's Pirates again, and on the one hand I am a Pirates fanatic, and on the other hand I'll just have seen it in full production.
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