Twenty years ago I traveled to a place I’d never been for a performing arts festival I knew little about. It was the fiftieth annual Edinburgh Festival, which, every year, blows up a quaint little Scottish city into a crowded metropolis four times its normal size. What could draw that many people to the top of the earth? What drew me? The chance to see an incredible amount of plays from all over the world.
Well, something else drew ME, but I’ll get to that later.
I was there for a little over a week, in the middle of the three weeks it’s on. Having traveled all this way, I felt a certain pressure to see as many theatre pieces as possible. It was a familiar feeling because, as a teen, I’d taken a two-week trip to New York during which I managed to cram in seventeen shows. But that sort of cramming is for amateurs. Edinburgh had more than 2000 offerings. There may have been thirty or forty venues. And the thing about the venues is that they’re not just theatres. A church converts quite easily. A hillside strewn with pillows. Auditoriums in schools and clubs. Pubs. Each venue had a chalkboard showing that day’s offerings. They started early and ended late.
8:00 Burns For Breakfast
11:00 No Exit
12:30 The Miser
15:30 The Real Inspector Hound
17:00 The Gondoliers
20:30 Oedipus Rex
23:30 The Rocky Horror Show
If one wanted to, one could sit at one venue and catch eight shows in a day. But one didn’t want to. You plan your day, calculating travel time from venue to venue. (Edinburgh’s small size is an asset.) And one needs breaks for meals, museums and palaces.)
Actually, Burns For Breakfast, unlike some of those others, was a real show I actually saw – first thing one weekday morning. It was a one-man show in which a fellow costumed as Scottish bard Robert Burns joked with the crowd, recited a few poems, and then, the moment of truth, we all got on a line to taste haggis. This famously awful concoction, served cold, was not for the faint of heart. But I was a brave heart. And hungry. And when else was I going to try it? But the ante was really upped when I saw that there was no beverage to be had, no water fountain. Nothing to wash it down until I arrived at the next venue across town, for a Japanese Noh play.
I know; this sounds like a song:
I’ll know just what haggis tastes like, with no drink till the Noh play / Like no business I know
OK, not quite Robbie Burns there.
Consider this: There are a million theatre fans, from all over the world, trudging from venue to venue from dawn till past midnight, every day. Is this not madness?
Now consider the challenge of planning each show-catching day. You’ve over 2000 choices. Winnowing those down to the six or seven you can see on one day is enormously difficult. This was long before the internet was in our hands. Back in the last century, the smartest course was to pick up an actual newspaper, The Scotsman.
The Scotsman, helpfully, published short reviews of everything that opened. And for those scanning lists, who didn’t have time to read, they had a rating system. A three-star attraction was worth seeing. Four stars meant very good. Five stars was awarded to fewer than 1% of the productions. Good luck nabbing tickets to those. The moment one of those very rare five star reviews came out, the entire run of a show would sell out.
This is because the masses of theatre-goers truly relied upon The Scotsman to glean what was good. The truly clever figured out the time and place The Scotsman first hit the stands. It’s a point that gets lost in arenas dominated by God-I-Hate-Critics kvetches. When a 2000-item smorgasbord is spread before you, a bit of professional guidance is a valuable thing.
Earlier, I hinted something else drew me to Scotland and it was this. Students from the University of Edinburgh were performing one of my musicals, Murder At the Savoy. This was a gloriously no-sweat-off-my-back boon. I merely sent off the script and score, and they produced and performed it as written. I just showed up, this ambassador from the west, collecting compliments and plaudits.
The reason they had the wherewithal to do my Murder, and the reason it was of interest to them, is that they were the campus Gilbert & Sullivan Society. A lot of schools had such a thing back in the day, especially in Britain. They tend to do G & S and nothing but. However, the Festival Fringe forces groups to think small. Gilbert and Sullivan only wrote one one-act, their reputation-establishing Trial By Jury. Back when my college Savoy group wanted to do Trial By Jury, I wrote them a piece to fill out the evening. Now, these Edinburghers, tired of the travail of Trial every summer, seized on my backstage whodunnit, which is written entirely in the same vocabulary.
It was a great pleasure to see how they brought my characters to life, and, of course, they knew more about the reality of a British bobby than I ever did. For one thing, no police officer refers to himself as a bobby, though my Detective Pulley of the Yard did. And there were many other locutions I got wrong. Yet, nobody seemed to mind, so tickled were they by the humor throughout the operetta.
There’s a famous precedent. American Alan Jay Lerner adapted a Shaw play, set in London, for the Broadway stage. One of the most famous songs used an Americanism no Englishman would ever utter, On the Street Where You Live. Brits say In the Street Where You Live. But, for American audiences, that conjures up images of Eliza having no roof over her head, sleeping in Covert Garden, and the song comes later in My Fair Lady, when she’s respectably ensconced in Mayfair. Lerner was writing for a New York audience, and when the hit was produced across the pond, the English politely tolerated what the young American lad got wrong. Just as they did with me, I like to think.
But by now I’m sure you’ve guessed how this happy memoir ends. The Scotsman came out with its review – the critic was inspired by my rhyming to render his verdict in verse – and, for those too busy to read, the show garnered five stars. Instant sell-out. Thunderous ovations. Twenty years later, the laughter still rings in my ears.