A Potent, Little Metaphor

In the late 1980s, I wrote a musical called Attempting the Absurd, about a young man who has figured out he's only a character in a musical and doesn't actually exist, and that knowledge causes him lots of grief. Ultimately, he wins the day by producing the script for Attempting the Absurd. I recently published the script and vocal selections for the show on Amazon, and I described the show as "meta before meta was cool."

But you know who did meta way before any of us? Gilbert and Sullivan.

Their operettas frequently referred to themselves and occasionally to each other, and more than that, half their agenda was mocking the conventions of opera, as they used them. Since we did our public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January, I've been reading books about Gilbert & Sullivan, and seeking out videos of their shows (I highly recommend anything from Opera Australia). I had seen some of their shows, but I'm discovering the others now as well.

And what I realize is that half the G&S agenda is mocking polite society, politics, and human nature; and the other half is writing operas that mock opera. Gilbert's lyrics mock opera (with wildly inverted sentences, overblown imagery), Sullivan's music mocks opera (the repetition, the bombast, the self-indulgence, and once in a while, forty notes to one syllable), and the two of them together mock opera's seriousness, it's pomposity, its faux exoticism. Gilbert and Sullivan "broke" old-fashioned opera. They laid bare the silly conventions and cliches by both using and abusing them all at the same time. In term's of today's musical theatre, we might call G&S shows neo musical comedies, in the language of opera.

In fact, I think that's what I called Jerry Springer the Opera when we produced it.

Writing The Zombies of Penzance was technically very hard for me, but it wasn't hard conceptually. I get G&S and I've been in love with The Pirates of Penzance since I saw Kevin Kline do it on Broadway in the early 1980s -- just a few years before I started writing Attempting the Absurd, now that I think about it. It was enormously fun getting into Gilbert's voice with this show. Writing the dialogue in his voice was a breeze, but writing lyrics in his style is insanely difficult.

Here's one of my favorite moments of dialogue:
FREDERIC: Oh, would that you could render this extermination unnecessary by accompanying me back to civilization! No doubt the doctors and scientists have by now concocted an antidote, or failing that, they could cut all your heads off with a clean, sharp knife.

KING: No, Frederic, no, no, no, that cannot be. I don’t think much of this tedious, soulless, shadow life we endure, but contrasted with the forty-hour work week, it is comparatively fulfilling. No, Frederic, I shall live and die – and then live again and likely die again – a Zombie King!

But Gilbert wrote some incredibly complex rhymes, and I'm pretty sure I kept every rhyme scheme he set up, interior rhymes and all. This is my rewrite of "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain."
We’re Christian girls on a Christian outing,
No bad words and please, no shouting,
Far away from male temptation carnal,
Where our nethers never quiver,
By the ever-throbbing river,
Swollen where the summer rain
Comes gushing forth;
Gushing forth in spurts and sputters
Sloshing through the roads and gutters,
Pounding through the virgin hills below us.
Scaling rough and rugged passes,
Working out our shapely asses,
There are greater joys, we know, in purity!
Fit and healthy virgin lasses,
Keeping pure our virgin asses,
There are greater joys, we know…!

The one exception to my fidelity is in "Modern Era Zombie Killer," where I added one syllable to the title phrase though it still scans to the music correctly.
I am the very model of a modern-era zombie killer,
I can cut off heads and yet be gentle as a caterpillar.
Since the early days when the initial virus circulated,
When you think of me, you think of walking dead decapitated.
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters metaphysical,
I understand the issues, both the obvious and quizzical.
If I could slaughter zombies, I would cross the River Styx for them.
I’ve seen Romero’s movies and I’ve memorized all six of them!

I like to make them suffer but I don’t think they can feel a lot;
Decapitation’s fun, I know, but zombies really squeal a lot!
In short, I can be fearsome or be gentle as a caterpillar;
I hereby present myself, a modern-era zombie killer.

But I don't think I changed anything else (other than making it into a zombie story). Despite the wacky origin story, I want Zombies to be as authentic a G&S show as this fanboy can make it.

But now as we're blocking the show, I realize, this is a really different kind of performance for the actors. There are so many songs and sections of songs in which the characters turn to the audience and explain the situation, their opinion of it, what they want, etc. Sometimes at great length. For musical theatre actors, that's so unnatural, to just stand and explain.

But as I think about it, I realize that's exactly what Threepenny does. Next to Normal does it a lot, also Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, High Fidelity, and so many other shows. Even Sweet Smell of Success, which we produced last season. In these shows, the actor has to be both (or alternately) inside the scene and outside the scene -- but still the character either way -- both narrating and living through the moment, both in the place and time of the story, but also aware of and talking to the audience. That's a hell of a tightrope.

Also, like the original G&S show, we have a small stage and a relatively big cast, so staging is limited when everybody's onstage -- which is the last 10-15 minutes of both acts. I know being so physically static onstage for such a long time also feels weird to the actors. But having seen a lot of G&S shows now, they really do work this way. The music and text are so funny, and the plot is so insane, that the audience doesn't get bored in the least. The audience needs time to focus just on the words.

In fact, G&S shows usually follow a rule I learned from Hal Prince -- the more complex the content, the less active the scene should be physically. Think of brilliant musical theatre moments like "Being Alive," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "I'm Still Here," "Rose's Turn"... there's not a lot of movement, because there's so much going on emotionally, narratively, thematically.

If we make the audience choose between visuals and content, they'll choose visuals. Humans are visual creatures. We have to make them choose content sometimes -- well, often in a G&S show.

So our actors have all kinds of obstacles thrown at them this time. To find that neo musical comedy style, exaggerated, highly stylized, but still really honest -- that's not always easy (especially when you're playing an unusually high-functioning zombie). To find that reality that contains both the crazy inside world of our story and also our performance and audience. To get comfortable in the slow telescoping time of opera, even slower than musical theatre time. The scripts for musicals are much shorter than scripts for plays, because it takes longer to sing words than to speak them, because music operates on a different kind of time, a slower time. In musical theatre, actors learn to live inside those extended moments of time, fully alive but staying in that moment, that emotion, that reaction. Opera slows time down even more, because the music is even less in constant service of the storytelling. And Gilbert and Sullivan sometimes slow time down opera time even more than that, to mock the repetition and narrative pace of opera. Mabel's first entrance in Pirates/Zombies is one example. So are both act finales.

So the challenge for our actors is to create an interesting performance not in physical zombie shtick as much as in character, reaction, backstory, social context, and our wonderfully absurd set of circumstances. The idea of zombies eating, then marrying these girls has to seem to be a Very Serious Matter Altogether.

'Cause really, are marriage-friendly zombies any more ridiculous than man-eating flytraps? The secret to Little Shop is for the actors to take it totally seriously, to believe that Audrey II is a genuine threat. The material takes care of the funny. It's the same for us.

But our guys are playing zombies, after all. They have to be recognizably zombies. Zombies who sing operetta, including patter songs. Even though they can't walk very well. Because, did I mention, they're zombies.

All this reminds me of a great, weird show we produced called Bukowsical. The central joke of the show is that it tells the dark, ugly, cynical life story of the brilliant American writer Charles Bukowski, but in the most inappropriate form possible, a cheery, colorful, upbeat musical comedy. And that's essentially what The Zombies of Penzance is. It's a horror story told in the most inappropriate form possible, a bouncy, dry-humoured British comic opera.

And that wrongness, the frequent self-reference, the mismatch of form and content, and the constant violations of period (even though we're pretending this was written in 1878) are all part of the meta joke.
My zombie hunting habits, though a potent, little metaphor,
Are really more subversive than the critics give me credit for.
In nineteenth cent’ry operetta, comedy or thriller,
I am still the very model of a modern-era zombie killer!

We're telling the audience Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Zombies in 1878, but as you watch the show, we're constantly reminding you that Gilbert couldn't have possibly written these references to movies, to George Romero, to Pepto Bismal or the Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and he certainly never would have used the word fuck, which our show does a few times.

The fact that I rewrote Pirates as Zombies, and then concocted a ridiculously meta origin story, means it's a meta meta musical. It was already self-aware as Pirates, but now The Zombies of Penzance carries with it, every second, an awareness of Pirates, and for people who know Pirates well, there's even more fun to be had there, in how close to the original my "translation" often is.

Meanwhile, our actors will find their way. They always do. We often do shows that are just so weird or so unique in their particular rules that it takes the actors a while to figure out how it all ticks and how they fit into that clockwork. Luckily, they all trust me, so I just keep moving forward and they keep lumbering along beside me.

So much fun ahead. The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

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