Bringing The Pirates of Penzance to Life

Michael Waterston, Ordway 7/21/15

Musical entertainments are one of the oldest forms of performance art and collaboration. That is, until Gilbert and Sullivan changed how people experienced them. Their revolutionary “Topsy Turvy” worlds laid the groundwork for what would later become American Musical Theater.

Musical Theater relies on the entire cast and crew to rehearse, choreograph, and time every element to perfection long before the curtain ever rises, but the audience rarely has a chance to see how these performances are brought to life.

James A. Rocco, Ordway’s Vice President of Programming & Producing Artistic Director, selects the theatrical programming for each season and, along with his talented design team, sets out to create the enchanting worlds and engaging stories that play out on the stage.

Below is an insider’s look at how they’re bringing Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance to life. SPOILER ALERT: If you enjoy the mystery behind how the final performance is created, you should stop reading now!

Where do you start when adapting a production for the Ordway stage?

James: We begin by researching the original production and any subsequent interpretations to identify the elements that have made it so successful. With The Pirates of Penzance it also became a study of Gilbert and Sullivan. The melodies they created are timeless, and continue to permeate popular culture in TV, movies, commercials, and their influence can still be found in modern theater. The lyrics and poetry are equal parts humorous and heart-rending; “Hail Poetry” actually became the key to our entire concept for the production.

Do you look for ways to update or modernize the original work?

James: Yes and no. Gilbert and Sullivan were well-known for poking fun at their government and society, so it’s important that those elements remain, but in a way that reflects modern society instead of 1880’s Victorian England. We also wanted to stay true to the original music, but with modern orchestrations. We’re not using any contemporary instruments; everything we’re using could be found in the original production, we’re simply highlighting the brighter sounds that you’d expect to hear in today’s musical theatre.

What challenges arise when adapting a musical comedy from the 1880’s?

James: Language, vernacular, and pronunciation. Many of the words used in the original production are no longer part of our vocabulary today, so understanding what the cast was saying became vital. We want the audience to enjoy the songs and laugh at the jokes, but that won’t happen if they have to spend half the show wondering what everything means.

How did your team approach the look and feel of set and the characters?

James: Once we’ve identified a general tone for the show, the design team meets to discuss what the set will look like and how the characters will fit inside of it. The pop-up book vision for the set was a whimsical alternative to the popular pirate representations of late (Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, even The Pirates of Penzance film), and it reflects the characters’ personalities wonderfully. This is a comedy, after all! The pirates have hearts of gold, the Mounties are inept but endearing, and our “damsels” are anything but in distress.

How do you tell a clear story in such a fantastical world?

James: That’s always a challenge when the scenes are filled with mischief, mayhem, and exuberance. I can assure you that every scene exists for a reason, and that they’ve been crafted to keep the story, and the character arcs, moving forward in an engaging way. From the opening curtain, you know why these characters are here, what they want, and what the story demands of them.

You can set sail with The Pirates of Penzance from August 4-16, 2015

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