The Mikado is undoubtedly the most popular piece of musical theatre of all time, when its 132-year history is taken into account. For decades, a production of G&S’s satirical opera could be seen somewhere in the English speaking world every day of the year. Its libretto has found its way into our language, with expressions such as the grand Pooh-Bah and “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Several films have been made of or about the work, including Mike Leigh’s 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, which presented an intimate portrait of the characters of Sir W.S. Gilbert, Sir Arthur Sullivan, and the repertory cast of the original D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, following G&S’s inspiration and development of the very first Mikado production.
Recently, a great deal of controversy has arisen around The Mikado in New York and in other cities across the United States. Last year, when the Asian-American community raised concerns over representation and casting, NYGASP listened for a simple reason- it was the right thing to do. We believed that, with the necessary time and effort, we could develop a new way to present The Mikado, one that performers and audiences from all backgrounds would enjoy.
We also knew we had to maintain the artistic integrity of the piece. Some life-long fans of Gilbert and Sullivan expressed concerns about losing a classic part of the G&S repertoire, or suffering changes to The Mikado that would render the comic opera unrecognizable. NYGASP has been working with Asian-American arts leaders to build an inclusive cast and creative team, and to institute new performance practices for the 2016-2017 production — all while striving to uphold The Mikado’s characters, storytelling, themes and most of all its universal satire of human nature.
Oscar Wilde, a contemporary of Gilbert’s and a fan of G&S, wrote that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (The Decay of Lying). When it comes to The Mikado and the world we are living in today, it seems Wilde’s proclamation is proven true. Imbedded in the controversy is a quintessential Gilbertian irony: presenting The Mikado provides a stage for exploring the broader issues of race, equity, diversity and inclusion in our world. We are all too aware that our politics are too often dominated by polarized identities and ideologies that tempt us to hunker down in social media-fueled trenches filled with like-minded acquaintances who only reinforce our thinking.
Instead of succumbing to this temptation, NYGASP has reached out to new colleagues from diverse backgrounds to devise a solution worthy of the challenge before us. Our costumes, choreography and direction are completely original — unrestricted by the traditions of past performance practice. Most importantly, the representation of life on stage is no-longer a depiction of Japanese people, but rather a fantastical portrait of Victorians in a dream world that is inspired by the Japanese culture that had captivated England at the time of The Mikado’s creation.
While we can’t speak for others, those involved in our efforts have agreed that the written libretto required very little revision. There are moments that clearly show Gilbert was a man of the 19th century, phrases, for example, that make comments about “Japanese attitudes.” Consequently, revisions to those references are part of the new performance practice we are instituting.
Our company has also, for its entire history, firmly held the belief that modern topical references are appropriate to make the audience’s experience as immediate as it was for the audiences of the 19th century. Londoners would have understood many of Gilbert’s references to popular figures and places of the time. We believe that theatre is a living medium and that judicious revisions are appropriate, whether they be for reasons of entertainment, understanding, or changing cultural sensibilities.
However, it is the universal truth of The Mikado that has endured and delighted us through the decades. There is nothing more universal than death, and in The Mikado, Gilbert’s dark humor makes us laugh at this most common of all aspects of the human condition. Vanity, acting before thinking of the consequences, the artifices of social behavior, the corrupting influence of power, and many other easily identifiable foibles are all the objects of Gilbert’s wit. Are these not deliciously topical in today’s socio-political environment?
Add to this heady mixture an element of genuine pathos for the piece’s villainess and one quickly recognizes why this story still intrigues and fascinates us 131 years after its creation.
We hope you enjoy our new production of The Mikado. Please pass your love of Gilbert & Sullivan to our youth, so that they may sing its beauty “with joyous shout and ringing cheer” for the ages to come.