What's it like to produce an Edwardian Musical Comedy?

I was most fortunate, after joining my present society, to find a musical director who shared my enthusiasm for this genre. Since 1998, we have produced three Edwardian Musical Comedies ('The Arcadians', 'The Geisha' and 'The Quaker Girl'). It is no coincidence that these shows are the easiest ones to hire band parts for (from Samuel French)!

With this unusual degree of experience, I can confidently say that these shows are loved by both performers and audiences. The process starts with my getting hold of the libretto and carefully editing it (those for the above shows are available to download from my website).
My aims are severalfold:

  • To reduce the number of minor principal characters by merging them into fewer, more substantial parts.
  • To trim the dialogue, cutting scenes and speeches that don't advance the plot, while retaining as much humour possible (especially puns - audiences love puns!).
  • To simplify entrances and exits, by keeping the chorus on more often and by re-arranging scenes.
  • To remove, if possible, words and jokes that contemporary audiences may find unsuitable. There is dialogue in some of these shows that would certainly be regarded as racist by today's standards. However, these things must be taken in context: these shows simply reflect the attitudes of their day, and should not be judged by contemporary beliefs. In fact, they were often ahead of their time, particularly in the degree of attention to detail in the presentation. British audiences are quite intelligent enough able to take this into account in performance, as we found when we produced 'The Gesha'.
  • To decide which verses to use for songs - often very many are available, including numerous encores, that need to be whittled down to a managable number.
  • Occasionally, a little extra dialogue is needed, either to introduce songs or cover up deleted scenes. Also, these shows often end very suddenly, leaving a lot of loose ends, and it's nice to round things off nicely!

In collaboration with the musical director, it is then decided whether to incorporate alternative songs and whether to edit existing songs (for example, whether or not to keep the often lenghty dances at the end of songs). Casting these shows is comparatively straightforward - there is generally one flashy soprano par, but the others generally sit comfortably in the mezzo/baritone range. Amazingly, you can often get away without a principal tenor!

As a director of these shows, I have learnt a number of things. The style is much more 'fast and loose' than the rather epigrammatic Gilbert and Sullivan, and precision in reproduction of the dialogue is not absolutely necessary. One nice change is that the love scenes can be played 'straight', with some romance untouched by cynicism. On the other hand, the comedy is a little broader, and can really be 'played to the gallery'! These shows were full of ad-lib humour, and good jokes that come up in rehearsal and performance should not be discouraged, providing that they are in the spirit of the show. Dance is important, and can incorporate more modern, flashier and jazzier steps than are found in your typical operetta. I finally got to perform myself in 'The Quaker Girl', when I played the 'low comedy' part of Jeremiah and I can add that it is a delight and a liberation to have a bit of innuendo in my dialogue for a change!

You can find photographs, posters and programmes of the shows that I have directed at the Gosforth Trinity Musical Site.

How can I perform an Edwardian Musical Comedy?

As regards performing, a good place to start is a concert, with excerpts from 3-4 shows. This is enough to give a good flavour of the range of music in a show, and a feel for the overall quality. To get you started, you can download from my website (see above for address) the script of the narration of the concert we gave in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne featuring 'The Geisha', 'The Arcadians' and 'The Quaker Girl'. I'll also post there the narration for the concert I'll be narrating later this year featuring 'A Country Girl', 'The Maid of the Mountains' and 'The Merry Widow'. After this taster, you can then move on to the full show without it seeming quite so daunting. I'm happy to give advice about either concerts or full scale productions - please e-mail me at fraser.charlton@ncl.ac.uk

If you haven't heard anything from an Edwardian Musical Comedy, you're in for a treat. If you can see a fully-staged show, you're in for an even bigger one. These shows provide a wonderful change of pace for a Gilbert and Sullivan Society who fancies trying something familiar-yet-different, or for any adventurous group who fancies unearthing a lost masterpiece!