Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 66:4 February 24, 2000 p.13
Mike Leigh's Oscar-Nominee, Topsy-Turvy
Making an Opera on Film

[A Music Critic Looks at the Film
Topsy Turvy]
663 words
reviewed by Leonard Lehrman

Opera-lovers who are also moviegoers are fortunate this season: three films worth watching show the true-to-life backstage stories of productions of operatic works that have become classics. Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, on the making of Gilbert & Sullivan's 1885 The Mikado, is the only one nominated for any Academy Awards--for art, costume, makeup, and screenplay. But it ought to receive a special award for its soundtrack [(available on Sony Classical 61834)], arranged (and conducted) by Carl Davis entirely from the works of Arthur Seymour Sullivan.

Works alive and kicking to this day

The only non-Sullivan music in the film is Olympia's aria from Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, sung in falsetto by a pianist accompanying two gyrating bare-breasted cocottes in a French cathouse where Sullivan is indulging himself. (Hence the R rating.) The sentimental indulgence of composer-conductor Sullivan (Allan Corduner), combined with the fastidiousness of satirical librettist-stage director William Schwenk Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), is what has kept their joint works alive and kicking to this day, far outlasting any of the many independent efforts of either of the creators, who could barely stand each other.

The film vividly depicts the foibles of both Gilbert and Sullivan[, not pathographically but] with understanding and sympathy, as well as those of principal actors George Grossmith (Martin Savage) and Richard Temple (Timothy Spall). Mr. Grossmith, who created the patter roles later associated with such greats as Martyn Green, was apparently a morphine addict, so his simpering, schlemiel-like character seems to some extent to have been drawn from life. (He was not Jewish, though: in fact he almost turned down Gilbert & Sullivan's theater troupe for fear of not being able to perform at YMCAs and other "religious-affiliated" organizations after that.)

The backstage drama of the film revolves around Mr. Temple, cast in the title role of the great Mikado of Japan, only to be told, cruelly, by Gilbert, on the night before opening, that his solo number is to be cut. (Gilbert blames himself for "having written the damn thing in the first place." Its relatively raw sadism may have felt too close to his own neuroses.) In a moment of cast solidarity almost as moving as the climactic moment at the end of Tim Robbins' film Cradle Will Rock, a few courageous choristers decide to protest, and the song, "A More Humane Mikado" (also known as "My Object All Sublime"), is restored.

Quintessential signature tune

Just as The Mikado would have a longer initial run than any other G&S opera (672 performances), so this song would become the quintessential signature tune of the duo. [In their 1940 Lady in the Dark, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill parodied the line "let the punishment fit the crime" as "let the melody fit the rhyme," and Ringmaster Danny Kaye commented: "This is all immaterial and irrelevant. What do you think this is? Gilbert and Sellivant?"

If only Tim Robbins' brother David had not indulged himself in writing his own irrelevant klezmer-tinged background music for the Cradle film, but rather had followed Carl Davis' Sullivan example by adapting and arranging works of Marc Blitzstein, then Robbins' film could have been as musically satisfying as Leigh's is. Exactly that model has been demanded by The Kurt Weill Foundation in the background music now being assembled for Ron Frank's documentary of the 1999 Chemnitz production of Kurt Weill's opera The Eternal Road, which has been previously reviewed here, and will be coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music February 28-March 5. (The film will be shown there March 12.)]

Davis used gems from four other G&S operas besides The Mikado (Princess Ida, The Grand Duke, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers) as well as two beautiful Sullivan songs written without Gilbert: "The Lost Chord" and "The Long Day Closes." [Frank's film will use excerpts from The Eternal Road and the Dreigroschenoper Suite. Though neither film boasts the star performers that graced Robbins' cast, the musical satisfactions promise to be greater.]

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