With all the comings and goings, commemorations and celebrations, I just realized that I’ve missed a big anniversary, of the premiere of the first of my musicals I ever saw produced, Murder at the Savoy – then called Pulley of the Yard.
Another show of mine had been produced, Through the Wardrobe, but I didn’t get to see it, as it was in England.
Coincidentally, Britain’s taken to Murder at the Savoy in a big way over the past 16 years, with three mountings at the Edinburgh Fringe Festval and two in nearby Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. I caught some, but not all, of those productions, and it was quite an eye-opener seeing what actual Brits did with a young New Yorker’s (mis-)conception of what Englishmen talk like.
The college I chose to attend I chose to attend, in part, because of a bait-and-switch. I’d been (mis-)led to believe that, after many years of dormancy, the school had revived its hallowed tradition of an annual student-written musical revue. It hadn’t. So I was forced to beg and plead with the handful of student-run theatre groups if I were to ever get an original musical on the boards.
The only outfit on campus that did musicals with any regularity was The Gilbert and Sullivan Society and, unsurprisingly, they did nothing but Gilbert and Sullivan. If you’re picturing priggish, tradition-bound Philistines who break out in hives over the mere mention of anything new, you’re right. They were firmly committed to performing the same operettas, over and over again, like a pit bull with a postman’s leg locked in its teeth. And I refer, of course, to their performance style.
But Gilbert and Sullivan, God bless ’em, left a loophole. They wrote a one-act opera, Trial By Jury, and the group couldn’t fill an evening with so short a show. I asked how long it had been since they’d done Trial, and they said “Five years!” longingly, as if that had been an annoying long period of time. So, I made my pitch: I’d write them a companion piece, that is, one that could play on the same bill with Trial By Jury: that way they could get to perform their heroes’ earliest surviving collaboration, and I could get an original show on the boards. They admitted, with clear-eyed honesty, that their players were only used to playing certain kinds of characters, the archetypes from the Savoy operas. I responded that I would write those sorts of people into my show. They warned that they couldn’t invest in a separate set or costumes; I said my piece would work on the set they build for Trial and use the same costumes. They said their voices couldn’t handle modern music; I assured them that everything I wrote would be exactly in the same style as Sullivan. Convincing the Board – or whatever the controlling coven of the Society called itself – was the great act of politicking of my life. I cajoled, I flattered, I said precisely what they needed me to say. They agreed to produce my then-unwritten show.
But what a corner I’d painted myself into. No set? No costumes? Pre-defined characters? Every word must be Gilbertian; every note Sullivanesque. This was a tall order for a young writer. But having strict parameters can be freeing. As can the adoption of someone else’s style. All these years later, I’m flashing on a memory of a college course in modern poetry taught by the estimable Kenneth Koch. After every section dealing with an individual poet (say, T.S. Eliot), he’d assign us to prove we understood by creating a poem in the poet’s style. And now another memory has flashed in my head: in high school I wrote a long line-by-line parody of Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock set around the Sunset Strip music scene, called The Love Song of J. Alfred Punk Rock. So, I had some experience writing in the style of other writers, from the Koch class and previously. Composing, too. My unusual composition teacher would have me write chorales in the style of Bach, and explained where I’d done particularly Bach-like things and where I hadn’t. At social events, my father and I would take turns at the piano, improvising in the styles of various classical composers.
And all those improv shows I played: I’ve spoken before of how useful it is to investigate The Elements of Style of a particular creative artist. Knowing about Hemingway’s unembellished short sentences or Aaron Copland’s fondness for open fifths: this is the stuff that comes up in musical theatre writing all the time. Think of how the pastiche songs in Follies are modeled on particular between-the-wars songwriters. (Compare Losing My Mind to Gershwin’s The Man I Love, for instance.) Of the musicals I wrote before Murder at the Savoy, one was set in the 1920’s, and I went wild with shuffle rhythms and augmented chords; another is set in Europe during World War Two and is heavily influenced by Kurt Weill.
In setting out to write a backstage murder mystery in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, I had before me a large set of tropes. Most obviously, I’d need a patter song. Sometimes, in G & S, such songs handle exposition, so I wrote
The day we started our company
We said we’d be willing
To pay out a shilling
And offer top billing
Then we soon decided we’d dump any
Who slurred the libretto
Or sang in falsetto
Or drank amaretto
Why amaretto? For the rhyme of course. Vodka would have made just as much sense but would have spoiled the fluidity. Luckily, making a lot of sense wasn’t important to Gilbert. His shows abound in strange points of law and twisted logic. So, I incorporated similar silliness into my plot.
While I had many bright ideas about spoofing Gilbert and Sullivan, I didn’t know much about murder mysteries. I’d recently seen Tom Stoppard’s spoof, The Real Inspector Hound and was familiar with Sleuth. These had much influence on my plotting. But it had to be a short show. All I had time to do was introduce the various suspects and their motivations, and then bring on a detective. It’s not a serious mystery in any sense, but I’ve never encountered anyone who figured out who the murderer was before the big reveal.
In Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan has a character confess something in a soliloquy song, and of course that sort of song would be useful in a mystery. And once I brought my detective on stage, he’d be able to deduce using Gilbertian logic and hideout on stage (the Trial By Jury set, if you remember) to eavesdrop on people. This video is not from a production (although it is from England). But the lines “the listeners respond with sighs and tremble in each joint” are there to give the eavesdroppers a funny bit of business, which doesn’t happen on this video.
Speaking of singing in counterpoint, I of course utilized quodlibets. (Can’t help it.) There’s one in the opening number, and I’ve five counter-melodies simultaneously running in It’s So Simple in which each suspect comes on to divert suspicion by ascribing a motivation to another character. Such as:
Yesterday I overheard a heated spat
Maud and Dapple arguing; the matter was financial.
Maud declared “I’ll kill you if you ask for that.”
Just a bit of evidence I hope you find substantial.
But back to school. At the time, I was taking some advanced course in Modern World Drama, taught by my faculty advisor, Martin Meisel. But with all the rehearsals (and somehow I was also cast as the lead in Trial By Jury), I could barely keep up with the reading, all plays by obscure Europeans, like Vaclav Havel (and how likely was I ever to hear that name again?). So, I feared I’d get a bad grade and bring down my Grade Point Average. Luckily, the school had something of a chicken exit option – you could switch, by a certain date, to pass/fail. If you did this, you’d eventually find out what grade your professor gave you, but it would only say “pass” on your record. Chicken, I was. But a busy chicken. And it’s not as if I wasn’t learning while I wasn’t doing the homework. Opening night, to my surprise, Professor Meisel was seated right behind me. As soon as the curtain came down he clamped his hand on my shoulder and said “That was marvelous!” Wonderful as his reaction was, I knew then and there that I never should have opted for pass/fail, for, at the end of the term, he rewarded me with an A, despite my shoddy work in his class, because he so appreciated Murder at the Savoy, or, Pulley of the Yard. But my record merely says “pass” and the A didn’t count on my GPA. Oh well: there goes grad school.