A Musical Education

By Sandra Sylvester | Feb 25, 2013

Knox County — I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful musical education. Though not very musical myself, I did participate in band, the drum corps and chorus at school. Chum Crockett and Winola Cooper taught me well. I also could keep a musical beat while learning how to dance under Madelyn Drinkwater.

One of the most memorable and educational musical experiences I ever had though is the time we campers at Methodist Church Camp, or Mechawana, in Winthrop, Maine, got to go see “The Mikado” at a theater in Monmouth, Maine, which is close to Winthrop.

My “twin cousin” Diane Hilton and I were about 10 or 11 I think when we had the thrill of a lifetime to see our very first professionally staged presentation. Gilbert and Sullivan was a wonderful introduction to musical theater and we enjoyed every minute of it.

I have tried to research the theater we attended but have not been able to find it. I believe the organization behind the Gilbert and Sullivan Theatre at that time was a forerunner of the Theater at Monmouth which was founded in 1970. Diane and I would have seen the “Mikado” sometime in the early 50s so this organization didn’t exist then.

The Theater at Monmouth is a year-round repertory company which was named The Shakespearean Theater of Maine by the Maine State Legislature in 1975. Performances are held in Cumston Hall which is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings since 1976.

This may be the Hall we went to that summer day so long ago, but I’m not sure. They still perform some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. If you would like more information about this theater and the 2013 schedule of performances, go to www.theateratmonmouth.org. You can also find educational opportunities for children at this site.

It was recently suggested to me that I may have seen the “Mikado” at the Monmouth Dinner Theater. But from my research I see that is a mystery dinner theater and it too probably didn’t exist in the early 50s.

In any event, Diane and I had a wonderful experience that day. It was our first introduction to any kind of a professional stage show. The closest we’d ever come to it before would be one of the many local and amateur Minstrel shows with “Mr. Interlocator” as the MC that abounded in the mid-coast area at that time. Of course the black face used in those shows would never be used today.

I have many images of that day in my head. As a kid, make-believe was always fun and exciting to me. This show was the ultimate of make-believe. The “Mikado” was zany and fun. The songs were upbeat and very dramatic at the same time. I was enthralled by the dramatic gestures they made; by the beautiful oriental costumes with the makeup to match.

As with most if not all of the G&S operettas, songs are sung by a lead actor with a chorus behind them who repeat what the actor is saying. It makes for a comic show which kept us laughing and involved for the entire time we were there.

The biggest thrill of the day though was after the performance when we got to meet the actors, some still in their stage makeup. It was hard to believe that they really were not the characters they acted out on stage.

Gilbert and Sullivan

W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan created a partnership and collaborated on 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1896. Gilbert was the librettist and Sullivan was the composer. Of the operettas, ”H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” and “The Mikado” are the best known.

Gilbert created fanciful worlds in which absurdities were common and are what made the operettas so endearing to us. “Fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offense, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy, and pirates turn out to be noblemen who have gone wrong.” (Quotes from Wikipedia).

(From The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players site)

“These operettas were the forerunners of our modern musical. The songs and choruses—mostly light and comic in nature—are interspersed with spoken dialogue rather than recitative.”

Though these operettas are over a century old, they are still performed to packed audiences. Gilbert chose Victorian society for his satire but his wit is as relevant today as it was then. From “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Sir Joseph Porter sings: “I always voted at my party’s call/ And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.” Those words could just as easily belong to most or our modern politicians.

You will find pieces of G&S in a lot of places these days from “The Muppet Show,” “Animaniacs,” and “The Simpsons.” In 1982 Joseph Papp staged a successful production of “The Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway, with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline in two of the leading roles.

G&S on YouTube

If you look up Gilbert and Sullivan on YouTube you’ll find some great modern renditions of some of the songs from the operettas. One of my favorites is “Three Little Maids From School Are We,” from “The Mikado.” See the regular blog space for a link.

My experience in Monmouth that day whetted my appetite for staged musicals. Later on I was fortunate enough to see some summer theater as well as some Broadway touring shows while I lived in Connecticut. I saw Dionne Warwick with The Temptations in a theatre-in-the-round experience. I saw “Two by Two” with Nanette Fabray as well as the touring show for “Grease,” among others.

In college I took a theater course which was a lot of fun. At the end we did a play in which I played the mother in “My Three Angels,” by Samuel and Bella Spewack.  I played the mother, which is the woman in the gray dress in the cast pictured here from www.coronadoplayhouse.com. It wasn’t a musical but was still a lot of fun to do. The original play ran on Broadway in 1953 and had a year’s run.

I even belonged to a theatre group in Connecticut called The Mark Twain Masquers in which Peter Falk was a member at one time. I did the set dressing for “Most Happy Fella,” a musical with book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser. It originally had a 14 month run on Broadway in 1956 and has had many revivals.

Set dressing is an exhausting job and I was worn out by the end of our two weekend run. At one point I had to put a stool on stage left in one scene under blackness and then do the same thing to remove it in another scene. I must have lost ten pounds during the process of staging, planning, and then the actual show. My cat at that time, Sylvester, thought I had abandoned him as I had to board him with a friend for the duration. I was holding down a full-time job at the same time too.

If I have the opportunity in the future I will most certainly attend any and all musically staged shows I come upon.  If there’s a part for me somewhere on stage, I’m there, as long as I don’t have to actually do any singing. We can never get enough musical education.

Last night we watched the Oscars and when they came to the category for “Adaptation” I thought wouldn’t it be nice if I saw something like this up there on the screen: “The South End,” screenplay by Quentin Tarantino from the book by Sandra Sylvester. I can dream can’t I?

Thanks for listening.

(For pictures as well as the video link, please go to www.southendstories.blogspot.com.)







Comments (3)
Posted by: Sandra Sylvester | Feb 25, 2013 16:18

Bill, once again. Thank you for your comments. We have some wonderful memories to share.

Posted by: William Pease | Feb 25, 2013 15:03

Whoops, sorry to say that my faulty memory caused me to forget that Larry Hatch also is a surviving endman of our minstrel shows who could also write our show memories. He is still another distinguished classmate of the RHS class of 1952 who earned a Doctorate degree. He followed that with a teaching career and a still later 24 year career serving our country well very secretly in the National  Security Agency. Talk about being distinguished! I've always been very proud of our RHS class of 1952.

Posted by: William Pease | Feb 25, 2013 12:48

Yes, you can dream, Sandra. Dream on. And thanks very much for these reminiscences and memories of music in your life. They are wonderful. You are certainly correct that "we can never get enough musical education."

I think that the first great symphony orchestra I ever saw & heard was the magnificent Concertgebouw (spelling?) Orchestra in Amsterdam, Holland, when I was on leave there in the Army about 1954.That was quite an experience. I've been hooked ever since. And back in 1961 I saw my first opera in Boston, "Madam Butterfly." More recent, wonderfully thrilling musical experiences have been seeing "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables" on Broadway in New York.

Night before last Elaine and I went to a concert of the Lancaster (PA) Symphony Orchestra (down here in Pennsylvania) where a 14-year-old genius prodigy named Anita Pari played the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 so masterfully that it was absolutely astounding. She got a 3-curtain- call standing ovation for several minutes on end. If you ever get the opportunity to see her perform, go to it! She is already--at 14  years old--one of the great pianists of the world.

Thanks again for the memories. I should write (or better still, Bobby Annis should) our memories of our minstrel shows during our years at Rockland High School 1948-1952 that you mentioned above. I and Doc. Emery Howard, of happy memory in Rockland, were Mr. Interlocutors and I think your brother Harlan was in the chorus. Or was he one of the endmen in one of the shows? I can't remember because of my Alzheimer's. That's why someone else, like Bobby Annis (another Doctor from our distinguished class), should write the memory of those shows. Or David Bird or Doc Justin Cross (still another doctor from our class) or Bobby Gardner or Maynard Bray (a distinguished marine conservator from our class who has written at least 12 to 15 books, so far). Sadly, Bill McLoon, Billy Hoch, Emery Howard, and your brother Harlan have died. We, the class of 1952 at R.H.S., WERE a distinguished class!

Those were innocent days, indeed.

Keep writing, please.



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