The Zombies of Penzance

A few days ago I sent out a press release...



ST. LOUIS, MO . . . New Line Theatre, "the bad boy of musical theatre," has shocked the music world by discovering a long-lost first draft by the legendary British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, who together wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896.

One of the team's best known works, The Pirates of Penzance, originally debuted in New York in 1879, and was revived to great success in the early 1980s with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. What we now know is that there was an earlier, stranger draft of the show, which nobody knew about until now, with most of the same characters but a somewhat different plot.

In Gilbert & Sullivan's never-before seen original draft, titled The Zombies of Penzance (with the unwieldy subtitle, At Night Come the Flesh Eaters), Major-General Stanley is a retired zombie hunter, who doesn't want his daughters marrying the dreaded Zombies of Penzance (for obvious reasons). According to documents found with the manuscripts, Gilbert and Sullivan finished work on The Zombies of Penzance in mid-1878, but their producer Richard D’Oyly-Carte refused to produce it, calling it vulgar, impolitic, and unchristian, and in one letter, "an operatic abomination, an obscene foray into the darkest of the occult arts." In a letter to his cousin, Gilbert expressed his deep disappointment, writing "I fear the walking dead shall be the end of me yet."

Until now, music scholars had been baffled by that reference.

After a battle that almost ended the partnership, the team reluctantly agreed to rewrite their show, and in 1879, D'Oyly-Carte debuted the much more conventional, revised version, The Pirates of Penzance, which added the characters of Ruth and the policemen, and eliminated all references to zombism.

In 2013, New Line artistic director Scott Miller discovered the original manuscripts for The Zombies of Penzance in the second sub-basement of the Judson Memorial Church in New York, hidden beneath some moldy band parts from Rockabye Hamlet and Shogun the Musical, and Miller set about reconstructing the bizarre original show as G&S intended.

Gilbert's walking dead and their Zombie King now make their long-delayed world premiere. Miller has painstakingly reassembled these rediscovered materials into their original form, filling in the gaps with educated guesses based on other G&S shows and drafts. St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes is reconstructing Sullivan's music.

Now, for the first time, audiences will be able to see and hear the comic, flesh-eating insanity Gilbert & Sullivan originally wrought. New Line will host a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January 2018, and then produce the show fully in October 2018, to open New Line's 28th season.

I got a call from Judy Newmark at the Post-Dispatch, laughing and saying, "I don't know what to do with this press release!" She finally just printed it in its entirety.

So whence came all this madness...?

I actually got the idea back in 2012. I can't remember exactly what inspired me, but I know I saw the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer, and I had heard about books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Also, I've been thinking for a while about trying an adaptation. I've written nine musicals, and eight of them were original stories; the other was based on an actual news story. I thought it would be interesting to try adaptation, but nothing had really grabbed me.

Until The Zombies of Penzance popped into my fevered artsy brain.

I've been in love with The Pirates of Penzance ever since my first trip to New York, when I saw the show with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, George Rose, et al. It was so amazing, rowdy, silly, wild, satirical, political, everything I've ever wanted in my musicals.

I decided if I was going to try this, I should start with the legendary patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." I figured if I could write a new lyric to that song, I could handle the rest of the show. It took me a couple days, but I got it done. It is now "I Am the Very Model of a Modern-Era Zombie Killer."

And then slowly I started working on the rest of the show. Sometimes it would sit untouched on my computer for months at a time, but every once in a while, I'd sit down and work through a little more of it. I had to make some big decisions, like cutting Ruth and the Police, but the contours of the story remain the same – which was part of the fun of writing it for me.

Finally, early last year, I decided I needed to finish this thing. So I did. Then I called John Gerdes who had orchestrated and conducted my own show Attempting the Absurd, New Line's second show, back in 1992. Gerdes loved the idea and signed on to adapt and re-orchestrate the music.

The plan is to go into rehearsal right after our fall show, Lizzie, to learn the Zombies score, then present a public reading in January, so we can see how it plays in front of an audience, and if there are any glaring problems. Then we'll go into rehearsal for the full production in August 2018, and run the show four weeks in October.

I've had so much fun working on this, and I think people will have a blast with it. The reaction so far to our announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. I think zombie fans will love it, and I think diehard G&S fans will too.

Yet another adventure begins...!

Long Live the Musical!