Lives in a Song: Biddle brings Gilbert and Sullivan Greats to the Stage

Jackie Leahy ’14
Arts Editor

 

Elizabeth Anne Biddle ’13, director, writer, choreographer and co-music director of The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan, grew up worlds away from where the British songwriting pair Gilbert and Sullivan lived and worked back in the Victorian age.

“Growing up in Hong Kong,” said Biddle, “I was consistently in children’s choirs, in opera choirs and taking voice lessons, particularly in jazz and in classical repertoire. During my deferral year before Smith, I trained in five kinds of dancing (especially tap and ballroom) and took serious classical voice lessons.”

It was during her deferral year that Biddle starred in productions of an original musical, the British pantomime Cinderella, as the titular character, and in a production of High School Musical 2 as Sharpay Evans. Though “both productions really trained me in dance and improvisation,” skills Biddle used in constructing the show, at this point, Gilbert and Sullivan were largely unknown to her.

“I knew nothing about Gilbert and Sullivan before I came to Smith,” said Biddle. Though she had heard of their work, even singing their pieces in the children’s choirs of Hong Kong, it took Biddle’s role as Edith in Ellen Kaplan’s production of The Pirates of Penzance at the end of her first year for her to be introduced to the duo.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Biddle, “but I still didn’t know just how fabulous Gilbert and Sullivan operas were. The wit of the Savoy operas had not dawned on me.”

During her junior year abroad, after a semester at the National Theater Institute, Biddle headed to Oxford University, and, within a week, was cast in another Gilbert and Sullivan production as one of the leads. “Patience was when I started to realize just how dazzling G and S operas were,” she said.

The sense of community in the Gilbert and Sullivan society at Oxford encouraged Biddle to learn more.

“They knew the operas all so well, and I wanted to be part of that experience,” she said. “At the G and S Society Ball, they sang ‘Behold the Lord High Executioner’ from The Mikado for their president, and I knew that I needed to learn more about G and S.”

The seeds of the project having been sown, it was last April that the idea of writing a new opera with excerpts from all the Savoy operas, and scenes imagining life at the Savoy Theater, dawned on Biddle.

“No one has ever done what this show aims to do: showing the 25-year scope of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera tradition while giving audiences insight into the real actors and actresses of Gilbert and Sullivan,” said Biddle. “I wanted to show the audience who the performers were that brought the iconic characters to life, and who the men were that created these operas.”

For those who do not know the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, Biddle provides this background: “Gilbert and Sullivan were the very first to combine witty, well-written plots/characters with classical operatic compositions; hence, they created operetta and began the foundations of musical theater.  Both operetta and musical theater today are based on their work ethic and their collaboration.”

Although Gilbert and Sullivan worked over a hundred years ago, according to Biddle, their work is remarkably current, “thanks to Gilbert’s thorough critique and criticism of government, culture, treatment of/towards women, nobility, authority and love.” In the scenes Biddle authored, she aimed to capture the “on-and-off collaboration” of the pair, who “certainly did not get along,” and to make the characters “as real and relatable as possible.” With students as cast members, the story of the Savoy Operas, on and offstage, comes to our generation.

For Biddle, the age of Gilbert and Sullivan’s canon testifies to the enduring appeal of their work.

“The characters are larger-than-life … memorable, lovable and thoroughly entertaining, and you will leave the show humming at least one song.”

The show will run April 19, April 21 and April 28 in Earle Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free, but limited. To reserve one, e-mail ladiesofgs@gmail.com.

 

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