They are the very models of two modern major influencers.
Gilbert and Sullivan are still very much part of the scene, nearly 150 years after their first production. Their 14 Victorian-era comic operas, wildly popular in their time, paved the way for the development of British and American musicals. And today their works remain among the most beloved, staged, and referenced pieces of musical theater in pop culture — from “Hamilton” to “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” to “The West Wing” to Lizzo.
This Friday, that high-voltage, fanciful, satiric tradition continues at Harvard as the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players set sail on a nine-show run of “H.M.S. Pinafore” at the Agassiz Theatre.
The love-conquers-all comic opera about a captain’s daughter and a lowly sailor was the fourth collaboration of dramatist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan and arguably their most famous work, running for a near-record 571 performances after its premiere in London in 1878.
“You just can’t listen to Gilbert and Sullivan without being entirely entranced,” said Ross Simmons ’21, the troupe’s historian. “The music just lifts your soul out of your chest” and the dialogue “contains great poetry.”
Performing Gilbert and Sullivan on campus since 1956, Harvard’s resident company has become one of the leading troupes in New England dedicated to the work of the duo, consistently staging among the most well-attended and lavishly produced shows on campus.
As with all the group’s performances, members are responsible for all aspects of production, from the creative to the technical. They select the show, set the budget, cast the actors, do the lighting, sets, and costumes, direct, and choreograph. The effort is massive and takes months of logistical work and weeks of rehearsal.
On campus, the company is known for its welcoming community and camaraderie. Anyone can audition for roles, and students who wish to join need only reach out, even if they’re not undergraduates, or even Harvard students. As a result, the members of the company often include Harvard graduate students, undergraduates from other universities, and Cambridge and Boston residents. This year, for instance, the music director, the male lead, and a number of orchestra members are from Tufts University.
“I’ve done a lot of theater, and I’ve never seen a group of people come together in a way that [the Harvard-Radcliffe players] do,” said Mary Reynolds, the music director and a junior at Tufts.
The company also sets no requirement for previous theater experience and encourages members to seek out roles that will push them out of their comfort zones.
That’s the really beautiful thing about the Harvard G&S players, said Sabrina Richert ’20, the troupe’s president. “Everyone has a chance to try something new and learn together and from each other.” There’s a system “built in of people that can support and help you,” added Jamie Ostmann ’21, the group’s costume designer, who is taking the stage for the first time as part of the female ensemble. She noted the mentoring and encouragement she’s received from stage veterans running up to the premiere.
The community extends beyond the rehearsals and performances. Members past and present become familiar through a number of informal and formal social events the troupe’s leadership organizes, including a Victorian Ball in the spring.
With this type of structure in place, “you get a community where people keep coming back,” stage manager Ava Hampton ’21 said.
Made up of about 60 members, the company ranges from Gilbert and Sullivan diehards to those getting their first taste.
Janiah Lockett ’20 was one of the uninitiated. Until a few years she didn’t know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan. Now, she is well-versed in their history and cultural impact, and this show marks her fourth production with the troupe — her first in the director’s chair.
“After my first production, I just fell in love with it,” she said. The wordplay. The wit. The music. She loved all of it. “I just thought, ‘How are not more people doing this? This is so fun it’s incredible.’”
With opening night days away, she feels the cast is in good shape after watching them bring the whimsy to life at a recent rehearsal. Yet while she is excited about the premiere, she admits it will be bittersweet, especially for the group’s seniors, like her, because it marks the last time they’ll work on a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as undergraduates.
Next semester, the group plans to take a break from the work of their namesake comic opera legends, staging Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.”
The company is doing so in an effort to expand its audience, said Richert. In particular, it wants to reach first-years who may consider the operettas dated. They hope new students will get involved and stay involved by attending or helping produce future G&S-focused shows, as Lockett and others have.
“We think that this will be a good opportunity for recruiting and getting more people involved in the community on campus,” said Richert, who noted the break with canon will happen every two to four years. “We feel that expanding our repertoire a little bit will help bring new people into our organization and generate some more enthusiasm.”
Ostmann agrees. The group is “like this little hidden secret of the Harvard community,” she said — and it’s OK to let everyone else in on it, too.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players will perform “H.M.S. Pinafore” at the Agassiz Theatre on Nov. 8‒10, and 14‒17. Tickets are available.