BWW Interviews: Carol and Bill McAndrew of PRINCESS IDA
BroadwayWorld spoke with Carol and Bill McAndrew, Director and Producer, respectively, of the West Michigan Savoyards' production of Princess Ida, opening Thursday, May 15, at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids. Here's what they had to say about tackling Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera:
Thank you for taking time to speak with me today! First of all, can you tell us a little bit about the West Michigan Savoyards and your efforts to keep Gilbert and Sullivan and the Savoy Operas alive in the Grand Rapids area?
Bill: The West Michigan Savoyards was first organized in 1998, by founder Gary Hicks, himself a charter member of the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society. It was started as an over-50 group, and the first production was The Mikado in 1999. The group's popularity increased, and soon after that the over-50 requirement was removed. Shows have been presented annually since then, at the Women's Literary Club until 2005, and at Wealthy Theatre since 2006.
Princess Ida was Gilbert and Sullivan's eighth collaboration, opening in 1884, and is not as well-known as some of the other Savoy Operas, like Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore. For those who aren't familiar with the play, what is Princess Ida about?
Bill: The story is about a prince and princess from two different kingdoms (played by Shane Lynn and Caroline McNeive Monahan) who were wed at infancy. While the prince anxiously anticipates meeting his now 21 year old bride, she has started a women's university, preaching the virtues of woman over man, and that "man is nature's sole mistake". When Princess Ida does not show up as agreed upon, Prince Hilarion and a couple of friends infiltrate the university as new students, and hilarity ensues. The two kings threaten war to solve the problem, the prince offers love. Ida must decide whether she can continue her noble experiment.
During the late Victorian era, when this operetta was first produced, women's' education was just coming into fashion and was met with both support and opposition. How does Princess Ida handle the conflict?
Bill: Yes, in 1884, the concepts of women's rights and higher education were new and even laughable ideas. Today, these are well-accepted and well-practiced ideas-or, after reflection on recent headlines, are they?
Do you find G&S's treatment of the female characters in Princess Ida to be misogynistic, or an integral part of the humor of the show?
Carol: I indeed wanted to remove any hint of misogyny from the show. Act One contains a high level of testosterone, Act Two has more than enough estrogen, and in Act Three we finally find a balance. The show actually pivots on the sexuality of Melissa (played by Anna Cormier). While not the main character, she works "behind the scenes" to get the Prince and Princess together, because she has discovered that she likes boys, she really likes boys! And that is freeing for her.
It's interesting that this show crosses many time periods, with a medieval theme, but Victorian cultural references and mores. How do you feel the show relates to today's audience? Do you feel there are any challenges in making the language or humor relevant to the modern viewer?
Bill: This show has challenges on three levels: language, topical humor, and concept. The first two are typical of almost all G&S works. Gilbert was a wordsmith, with an incredible vocabulary. His words, and consequently, Sullivan's songs, are full of words like "peripatetic", and "effulgent"-words that have meaning today, but are lesser used than most. Beyond that, he uses words like "abjure", "obdurate", and "un-annealed", which most would have to look up. Sometimes these words must be changed in order to get the humor across. For example, in Ida they used the word "perambulator". We felt it necessary to give the audience a little help with this word in order to get the laugh.
As the G&S operettas were topical parodies of life in England, we often need to update 1880's references to something the audience will grasp. So something like "Sewell and Cross" becomes "Abercrombie and Fitch". Very often the patter songs song by the comic baritone role contains extra verses to poke fun at modern situation. Sometimes you just have to let the references be what they are, and just consider it part of G&S. If the song is about Captain Shaw, a notable London fire chief in the 1880's, you must sing about Captain Shaw, even if that name is lost to history.
Poking fun at the then-absurd concept of women's higher education does not translate easily. Gilbert, who specialized in turning situations "topsy-turvy" to ridicule them, may find this work turned around by Carol in turn.
What has the rehearsal process been like for this show?
Bill: We've been putting on these shows for 16 years now, and we seem to know what we're doing. We start early with the chorus music, block the show, run it a few times, move to the Wealthy [Theatre], and it's done! (Would it were that easy!). The cast has put a lot of time and effort into mastering some non-trivial music and traveling between two different rehearsal sites in Holland and Grand Rapids. Because Gilbert based Princess Ida on the Tennyson poem "The Princess", it is written in blank verse, which some have found harder to memorize.
Do you have any favorite moments in the opera?
Carol: I have no one favorite scene, but I love Lady Blanche's aria, mainly because she sings it so well. It is often cut from the show, but with a voice like Molly Alman, you just have to have that aria in there, along with the duet between Blanche and her daughter, Melissa. They have such beautiful strong voices that anything they sing would be a hit! I love both arias that Princess Ida sings, but the trios, quartets and quintets just make the show roll right along, and it's a long show, so it needs to roll along at a good pace.
I also wanted to keep the chorus busy. With a musical score that isn't as familiar as some of the other G&S shows, I wanted to have a lot of movement and activity on the stage. I think we have achieved that. I also encourage chorus members to make up personalities and act them in the show. We don't have a bunch of homogenous chorus members. Almost everyone has a distinct personality that they have developed. Those are my thoughts, and luckily I have learned to speak and can articulate them (joke from the show).
The West Michigan Savoyards also have a scholarship program happening alongside the production this year. Will you tell readers a bit more about that, and how they can get involved?
Bill: The WMS scholarship program awards a $1000 prize for the winning essay written about Princess Ida. The scholarship is open to all Michigan high school juniors and seniors. A $500 honorable mention prize will also be awarded this year as well. Applications can be obtained at the scholarship table in the Wealthy lobby during our shows, along with details of the points that need to be covered in the essay. Entries must be submitted by May 31st of this year.
Any last thoughts for West Michigan audiences who would like to catch the show?
Bill: Princess Ida is a great show, with a funny plot line and wonderful music. Although not ranked with the "Big Three" shows (The Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore, and the Pirates of Penzance), Princess Ida has its own charms. I don't believe Michigan audiences have gotten a chance to see this show since the last time we presented it in 2004, and we are not due to present it again for another 20 years. Don't miss your opportunity!
Princess Ida is presented by the West Michigan Savoyards at the Wealthy Theatre, 1130 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids; Tickets (616) 459-4788 ext. 131 or www.westmichigansavoyards.org. Running Thursday, May 15 through Sunday, May 18; Shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.