Librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan were harbingers of modern musical theatre. The duo’s comic operas are full of absurdist class commentaries, deft juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, and head-spinning wordplay that’s referenced in everything from Aaron Sorkin productions to “The Simpsons.”
“Although Gilbert and Sullivan are no longer part of the mainstream, I suspect there will always be a place for this music...there will always be a desire for this particular strain of lunacy,” says Barbara Heroux, artistic director of Lamplighters Music Theatre, one of the oldest Gilbert and Sullivan companies in the country.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Lamplighters was launched by two committed Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts, Orva Hoskinson and Ann Pool. According to Heroux, when the company was launched in 1952, Gilbert and Sullivan standards had just entered public domain. “All of a sudden people could put on these musicals, and many church choirs and ad hoc companies did so.” While many companies would dissolve after the shows were complete, Hoskinson and Pool found that they were the common denominator in local Gilbert and Sullivan performances. “They liked working together, they liked the material, and it made sense to start a company together,” says Heroux.
Heroux began with the company in 1974 as a singer in the chorus and performed in more than a dozen shows over 15 years before taking over Hoskinson’s post as artistic director. While Heroux absorbed Hoskinson’s approach to the material, she notes that his style was more regimented than hers. While a more old-fashioned treatment has the ubiquitous chorus standing in uniform rows, Heroux prefers to scatter her chorus around the stage in small clumps to draw “give each character a chance to shine at different moments.”
Because there are only a dozen productions in the Savoy repertoire, the company doesn’t solely feature Gilbert and Sullivan performances. Heroux makes a point of including other late comic operas and European operettas. Her own tastes tend toward American musical theatre, and Lamplighters also does semistaged versions (“everything but the set”) of classics like “Show Boat” and “Carousel.”
For its 60th anniversary season, on the heels of the mayhem-filled satire “The Mikado” in July and August, Lamplighters will present the gender-bending farce “Princess Ida” in January and a lesser-known comedy of errors, “The Sorceror,” in March. This fall, Lamplighters will celebrate its diamond jubilee with a gala event that “reflects 60 years of company history,” says Heroux.
Heroux is directing “Princess Ida,” which is the first show she directed for Lamplighters in 1989. It was revived in 1995 and garnered a handful of awards at the international Gilbert and Sullivan Festival. “At first we were tentative about taking this British operetta to Britain because I’d done some editing of the libretto...but they loved it, which was a huge validation.”
While reliving past triumphs is a natural pastime for the anniversary, the next generation of Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts is the focus of Lamplighters’ outreach and education efforts. One of its more popular offerings is a school assembly program in which performers present a musical Q&A wherein they ask the ghost of Sullivan (played by music director Baker Peeples) why the material is still relevant.
One comment Heroux is accustomed to getting from audiences has to do with the contagious glee that is part and parcel of a Lamplighters show. “For two or three hours, people get to forget their bills and job and state of the world, and go into this little fantasy land where everything is okay at the end.”
Heroux says that, given the longevity of involvement for most company members, the shared history and trust is one of the things that sets Lamplighters apart from other theatre companies. “It isn’t simply a matter of a shared performing style—there’s also an ineffable quality that people who are attracted to this material have in common. If you aren’t that kind of person, you tend to self-select out. But if you like it and respond to what we’re doing, you’ve found a home, a family.”
In the coming decade, keeping the material fresh (including bringing in more midcentury classics) is a significant goal for the company. Although its beginnings in a wee San Carlos playhouse were modest, Lamplighters now tours Walnut Creek, Mountain View, Livermore, Napa and San Francisco. “We’d like to expand beyond this, maybe head to Sacramento and Portland,” says Heroux, “basically do whatever we can to spread the gospel a little farther.”
Nirmala Nataraj is an arts writer based in San Francisco.
William H. Neil, Robby Stafford and F. Lawrence Ewing in “The Mikado.”
Photo: David Allen