17th-21st April 2012
At the beginning of March 1885 London was a city in shock. The appalling news of the murder of General Gordon in Khartoum had just arrived just two days after Irish terrorists had bombed the Tower of London and Westminster Hall. It was gradually dawning on Victorian society that British imperial power, so often thought impregnable, was now in very obvious decline.
For the titans of Victorian musical society WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the prevailing gloom had impacted on their last operetta "Princess Ida" which had closed after a very modest run compared to previous triumphs of the likes of "HMS Pinafore", "The Pirates of Penzance" and "Iolanthe". Gilbert came up with a new idea for a musical about a magic lozenge, but Sullivan thought it ridiculous and tried to call off their association.
Desperately casting around for inspiration, Gilbert caught sight of a Japanese executioner's sword hanging on the wall of his library. This was an age of deep fascination with the far east; the previous year over 250,000 people flocked to a groundbreaking Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge. "A Japanese piece would afford opportunities for picturesque scenery and costumes," Gilbert recalled, "and moreover nothing of the kind had ever been attempted in England".
The result was The Mikado which opened on 14th March 1885. Stage rehearsals had not gone well, and Gilbert fretted that the dress rehearsal had been a "disappointing business". A last minute attempt was made to cut the Mikado's song to shorten Act 2, which was only re-instated following a deputation from the cast. But when the crowds poured into the luxurious Savoy theatre for the premiere, cramming into the plush red boxes and blue velvet seats, many still marvelling at the electric lighting, Gilbert's worries evaporated. The Mikado was a massive and instant hit with the public.
Reviews were, however, mixed - The Athenaeum pointing out that the appeal of the operetta was not for its enthusiasm for Japanese culture, but for its use of the oriental setting to satirise our home political and social life. Reviewers also worried that the "cynical topsy-turveydom" of the work would soon be out of date.
More than a century and a quarter on, the Mikado is one of the most regularly revised musicals ever written. Successive productions have tailored and revised the social commentary in the piece, updating and referencing the piece to the current issues of the day. Many of the songs such as "A wandering minstrel I, Three little maids from school and I've got a little list," are familiar even to people who have no interest or knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan at all. Moreover some of Gilbert's phrases from the piece - "A short sharp shock" and "Let the punishment fit the crime" have entered into the English language, often being wheeled out during media panics about law and order.
For our production, the traditional setting and treatment of the score have been preserved. The usual modifications to The Little List song and the Mikado's song have been made and topical references where traditionally placed in the lib have been included. Needless to say particular mention of the proposed closure of a certain leisure facility very dear to our hearts has been regularly included!
The cynical topsy-turveydom - so popular with the Victorian audience is revisited in our production. The Mikado is a truly quirky piece of British theatre. We are lucky to have a wonderful cast assembled to do it justice when our production hits the stage in mid April. An interesting night of entertainment lies in store.