Sixty years ago, the married couple John and Leslie Andrews, local music lovers and fans of the canon of writer W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, enlisted amateur musicians and singers (including two church choirs), rented sets and sheet music, and put on a very big show at Roosevelt High School.
It was a makeshift but enthusiastic start for the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, now celebrating its 60th anniversary with the same operetta that started the ball rolling: “The Mikado,” a trenchant spoof of Victorian England plopped into an exotically visualized Japan.
Given the great popularity of “The Mikado” (the most performed of the 14 comic G & S musicals), this is the proudly amateur troupe’s 10th staging of the classic. Mike Storie has been involved in most of them. He’s also presided over many other G & S annual shows, for years working alongside the society’s longtime artistic director, the late Gordon Gutteridge.
Storie grew intrigued with the “topsy turvy” world of Gilbert and Sullivan thanks to a junior high music teacher who brought 78 rpm records to school and played “H.M.S. Pinafore” for students. Storie joined the society in the 1960s, and has served as everything from set-builder to now producer.
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Over the years, the operation and audience have grown. The current “Mikado,” opening Friday, July 11, at Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Bagley Wright Theatre, will cost about $200,000, with an all-volunteer cast of 40 and an orchestra of 26.
In addition to memorable melodies (“Tit Willow;” “A Wand’ring Minstrel I”) and tongue-twisting patter songs (“I’ve Got a Little List”), “The Mikado” has the usual G & S hallmarks of romance, intrigue and witty silliness.
Thanks to a popular exhibition of Japanese culture in Knightsbridge, which helped inspire the operetta and whet the public appetite for it, “The Mikado” was a spectacular hit in its 1885 London debut. Within months, 150 other U.S. and European troupes obtained cribbed scores, and were performing it also.
The story of the show’s gestation and triumph, and the testy relationship of its creators, is splendidly detailed in Mike Leigh’s 1999 feature film, “Topsy-Turvy.”
What the movie doesn’t reflect is a ruffle of modern objections to “The Mikado.” Some Asian-American scholars and others have blasted it for perpetuating racially charged Asian stereotypes and Victorian-era colonialism. Others defend it as a tongue-in-cheek take on all things British.
“As a matter of fact, the satire of ‘The Mikado’ is not at all directed against Japanese things, but exclusively against English things,” opined author G.K. Chesterton.
“We get quite a few Asian people coming to see it, and thinking it’s quite funny,” Storie points out. “It was written 130 years ago, and obviously the titles and names are not Japanese, they’re baby talk, and the place is not Japan at all … Gilbert just made it up. We don’t press the issue or use garish makeup.” He adds that the society’s multi-ethnic casts often include Asian Americans.
Though there have been numerous postmodern twists on “The Mikado,” the Seattle G & S Society takes a traditional approach.
“We have stuck very close to the music, the words, the intent of the piece,” says Storie. There is some wriggle room in the text, however. “Gilbert wrote in his notes that ‘I’ve got a Little List’ should have topical references … so we update the song. The word ‘Bitcoin’ pops up in this version.”
Storie hopes he can turn on more youths to the delights of Gilbert and Sullivan. The society mingles generations, with cast and crew members in their teens and their 70s.
“We don’t have any limit on age. The person has to be mature enough and have a voice and get to places for rehearsal and performances,” he says. “You have your soccer moms. We have opera moms.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org.