No longer set in England, the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta has been reconceived by director Gordon Greenberg, lyricist-librettist Nell Benjamin and musical supervisor John McDaniel to be a mid-18th-century tropical musical comedy that borrows the original's famous plot and melodies yet seeks to be a unique riff on the classic.
Greenberg and company have been meeting with commercial and not-for-profit theatres about a future life for the well-reviewed, extended audience favorite. It began previews at the Goodspeed Opera House Oct. 6 toward an opening Nov. 1. Its extended run ends Dec. 17.
Prior to a potential higher-profile future — perhaps in New York City — the show will get another resident theatre production come early summer 2007: at Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ. When it plays there June 6-July 15, 2007, it will be called Pirates!, apparently to better separate it from the original 1880 classic. After all, the musical is now set in a Bahamanian-like locale with "50-60 percent" new text, Greenberg said. (There are also two interpolations, swiped from G&S' Ruddigore and Iolanthe.)
Goodspeed and Paper Mill are not co-producing the show, but the creative team will remain the same in New Jersey (although the set and orchestra will be enlarged to better fill the capacious Paper Mill). Goodspeed cast members — who created the comic business in the show — are expected to be invited back for Paper Mill, but who knows what stars might align for a commercial venture? Greenberg hopes to keep his troupe together, but other jobs or the edicts of future producers may prevent that.
How did this new production begin? During tech for a 2005 Paper Mill production of The Baker's Wife, Paper Mill boss Michael Gennaro said that he and his family enjoyed the The Pirates of Penzance and the Disney motion picture "The Pirates of the Carribbean." "We started to think about simply recontextualizing Pirates of Penzance," Greenberg told Playbill.com. "What would happen if you dropped it into this new setting? The rest kind of grew from there. It soon became clear that we were going to want to tweak some of the dialogue and lyrics so that they applied [to the new setting]."
His first and only choice for a collaborator was Nell Benjamin (of the dawning Legally Blonde), with whom Greenberg worked on Off-Broadway's Cam Jansen. "She's about the smartest person I know, and is a huge, avid fan of all things Gilbert & Sullivan, and has been for many years," Greenberg said. "I knew about her affinity and deep respect for the work of Gilbert & Sullivan — and also her sense of whimsy and fun and satire. I thought she would be expert…"
The original operetta has always been a favorite of Greenberg's. "It's indisputably a work of brilliance, and what we were aiming to do was a kind of take off on it, or a riff, rather than attempting to re-create it," he explained. "It's a wholly new take on it: It's much more 'musical theatre' and much less operetta."
Gennaro said he liked the idea of setting Pirates of Penzance in the tropics, and based on that, "he agreed to do the production," Greenberg said.
Greenberg then went to Michael Price, Goodspeed's executive director, and Price "took a fantastic leap of faith in all of us [in] that with no script he agreed — based on our pitch — to put it in the [Goodspeed] season."
The new production is "entirely in keeping with the spirit of what [G&S] did," Greenberg said. "To me, the most important thing was maintaining and amplifying the kernel of what they were satirizing, which is the fine line between piracy and respectability. It's often hard to tell the difference between a pirate and a hedge-fund manager is kind of the way I went into it. Audiences get that; I really wanted to bring that to the fore."
But the show is not set in the 21st century.
"What we've done is move it backwards in time to make it more current," he said with an ironic lift in his voice. "A lot of what had been poking fun at Victorian politics and social mores [in the original] has shifted. We started to poke fun at basic pirate mythology and British colonialism. Nell and I share this enduring fascination with [the] British Empire and that whole period of colonialism. We set it mid-to-late-18th century, technically. It's the very end of the Golden Age of piracy."
The show is not a pop musical with contemporary sounds, even if a hint of reggae does slip into the experience.
"We tried to create a reality and maintain that, so hopefully there is nothing that is jarringly 20th century," he said. "They do go into a semi-reggae feel in places. We went for a real distinction between factions in the show — the pirates sound is very muscular, rhythmic and percussive; for the British colonialists, it's much closer in tone to the original, so it feels very prim and upright and staunchly British; the sound of the police is the most rooted in island sounds…"
Do characters mention the name of the Caribbean island they're cavorting on? "They don't," Greenberg said. "We imagine that it's not unlike the Bahamas, where, at that time, [the British] were sending governors to kind of tame the pirates and harness the trade industry — to wrest it away from the locals."
Penzance, for the record, is on the coast of Cornwall, in the U.K.
The original operetta was penned by Sir William S. Gilbert (book and lyrics) and Sir Arthur S. Sullivan (music) and is packed with some of music theatre's most popular themes and lyrics, including sequences popularly known as "Poor Wandering One," "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General," "Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast," "I Am a Pirate King," and more.
Warren Carlyle choreographs. Additional book and lyrics for Pirates of Penzance were written by Nell Benjamin. McDaniel, who is acting as music supervisor, provided new musical arrangements.
Goodspeed's Pirates of Penzance features Farah Alvin, Matt Baker, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Matthew Scott Campbell, Jacque Carnahan, Ed Dixon, Joanna Glushak, Kyle Fichtman, Robyn Kramer, Gerry McIntyre, Nick Mannix, Lindsay K. Northen, John O'Creagh, Julia Osborne, Scott Ross, Tory Ross, Michael Rossmy, Roger Preston Smith, Jason Michael Snow, Leah Sprecher, Daniel Spiotta, Rebecca Strimaitis, Leonard E. Sullivan and Andrew Varela.
The adaptation is billed as a "swashbuckling musical comedy featuring pirates, parrots and perilous curses," wherein "swords clash, ladies swoon and policemen sing in a spectacular event for all ages."
The show was extended one week, to Dec. 17, due to ticket demand.
Andrew Varela (Broadway's Little Women and Les Misérables) plays The Pirate King. Ed Dixon (the versatile actor and musical theatre writer who penned Fanny Hill) is the Major General. Farah Alvin (Broadway's The Look of Love, Off Broadway's I Love You Because) is Mabel. Joanna Glushak (Broadway's Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success) is Ruth. Jason Michael Snow is Frederic and John O'Creagh is Samuel.
The role of Sergeant is played by Gerry MacIntyre, while Edith is played by Julia Osborne.
Director Gordon Greenberg directed Goodspeed Musicals' The Baker's Wife and O. Henry's Lovers, Off-Broadway's Jacques Brel is Alive and Well . . ., Cam Jansen and Slut and a national tour of Peter Pan).
Music direction for Pirates of Penzance is by Michael O'Flaherty, who is in his 15th season as Goodspeed's resident music director.
For more information, visit www.goodspeed.org.