The Very Model of a Modern Director/Conductor: Ted Sperling Prepares for Public Theater Penzance Gala

By Carey Purcell
June 5, 2013

Ted Sperling's career has gone full circle. The Tony Award-winning conductor, whose Broadway credits include The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific and Guys and Dolls, recalls The Pirates of Penzance as one of the first Broadway productions that he purchased a ticket to in the early 1980s. Now, Sperling is directing a production of The Pirates of Penzance June 10 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.



The one-night-only gala performance, which will also pay tribute to late Academy Award-winning writer Nora Ephron, will feature a star-studded ensemble including original cast member Kevin Kline returning to the role of the Pirate King, which he first played in 1980.

The 1980 production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was adapted by William Elliot and choreographed by Graciela Daniele and was first staged at the Delacorte by Wilford Leach in August 1980 prior to transferring to a Tony Award-winning Broadway run in December. The original cast featured Kline (Cyrano, On the Twentieth Century, "A Fish Called Wanda"), Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, Rex Smith as Frederic and George Rose as Major-General Stanley.

Along with Kline, the 2013 performance will feature Glenn Close as Ruth, Eric Idle as The Sergeant and Martin Short as Major-General Stanley, as well as Anika Noni Rose, Jonathan Groff, Norm Lewis, Betsy Wolfe Montego Glover and Rocío Del Mar Vallés. The ensemble will include Becca Ayers, Craig Bennett, Sarah Bolt, Alvin Crawford, Doug Eskew, Maryann Hu, Amy Justman, Justin Keyes, Orville Mendoza, Darius Nichols, Eliseo Román, Martín Solá, Asa Somers, Matthew Stocke, Frank Vlastnik, and Kevin Vortmann.

Sperling, who attended productions of Shakespeare in the Park while in college, said he did not sleep in the park, a technique many passionate fans utilize now to obtain the highly coveted tickets, but he remembers seeing Kline perform and describes him as a "fearless performer" and the gala cast as "a really special group of people."

Along with Kline, Daniele will revisit her role from the original production, by choreographing the gala performance.

The Pirates of Penzance premiered in December 1879, and Sperling credits its longevity and popularity to the show's entertaining and fun atmosphere.

"The show appeals to young people as well as older people," he said. "It's playful, it has pirates, a beautiful young sexy couple that don't take themselves too seriously."

Kevin Kline
Photo by Monica Simoes

One of the playful aspects Sperling remembers from the Public's original production of Pirates was the conductor engaging in an on-stage swordfight with the Pirate King, using his baton as a weapon. He also remembered the staging featuring a pastoral ramp between the orchestra and the audience, rather than housing the orchestra deep in a pit. This technique gave the audience a view of the orchestra, and Sperling could see percussionists "going crazy" on the xylophone.

"I like that trend," he said of orchestras being featured onstage or keeping them visible. "It reminds people that the orchestra is an integral part of musicals, and it's real people playing the music."

Along with his history of attending performances, Sperling also has a long history of working with the Public Theater, where he serves as musical theater initiative consultant, and where his credits include See What I Wanna See and February House.

"There's lots of musical activity at the Public," he said. "It's very exciting."

Sperling also recently directed the Off-Broadway production of The Other Josh Cohen, which he described as "very fresh and different."

"I like to keep doing new things," he said. "I like to challenge myself."

Along with the Public Theater gala, Sperling's upcoming engagements include conducting a concert production of She Loves Me June 22 and 23 at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, NY. Serving as another example of his career going full circle, She Loves Me is an adaptation of "The Shop Around the Corner," which also inspired the movie "You've Got Mail," a Nora Ephron film Sperling lists as one of his favorites.

Sperling will also conduct "A Broadway Romance," featuring the New York Philharmonic and soloists Betsy Wolfe and Andrew Samonsky at the Vail Valley Music Festival in Vail, CO, July 24.

Sperling, who also has two-year old twin girls, laughed when asked if, given the versatile and prolific nature of his work, he ever sleeps.

"I'm a good napper," he said. "[I'm okay] as long as my work keeps me on my toes. When I sit down, that's the problem."

With a cast that includes comedic stars Idle and Short, being kept on his toes probably will not be a problem.

The Pirates of Penzance Gala will take place June 10. Tickets and more information can be obtained by calling (212) 539-8634, e-mailing gala@publictheater.org or visiting publictheater.org/gala.

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George Rose, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Kevin Kline in The Pirates of Penzance, 1980
Photo by Martha Swope/ŠThe New York Public Library