The Very Model?


I like to keep myself on my toes when performing, preferring not to do the same sort of thing twice if I can avoid it.  Thus, having played several ‘young, silly and in love’ roles in musicals over the last few years, I’ve just spent a week as Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance.  To be fair, the Major General is more than a little silly, but he is definitely not young and the only thing he’s in love with is the idea of staying alive.  I’m always happiest playing character parts, and he is most definitely a character and a half, alternating between stroppy and snivelly for much of his stage time.  The part also shares something in common with many of my roles, in that it has maximum impact for minimum stage time – thanks largely to that wonderful patter song.  I can’t imagine there are many people who’ve never heard ‘I am the very model of a modern major general’ before.

As I was one of the youngest members of the cast, yet played the father or potential father-in-law of more than a dozen people, this involved both a long time sorting out hair and make-up and a lot of concentration.  The grey hair, bushy sideburns and wrinkles did a lot of the work in creating the illusion of being old, but I still had to remember at every moment that I should not be able to move quickly and easily as I can.  In the first act, I had a walking stick to lean on, which helped keep my back bent, but I had no such aid in the second act (only a handkerchief, which saw more use than most props tend to) and often caught myself being more upright than I should have been.  A slow sag was necessary to regain the proper posture without drawing attention to it.

As with many shows, I spent some time singing in the wings, both as an honorary pirate and an honorary policeman, adding to the chorus vocals.  In rehearsals, I also sang along with the numbers for the Major General’s daughters, but refrained from doing so in performance.  Wing-singing gives me something to do when I’m off-stage and in this case meant that I didn’t miss out on some of the best parts of the show, most notably ‘With Cat-Like Tread’, which is a fantastic sing.

Because I am who I am, I was acutely aware of every mistake I made, large or small, particularly in the patter number.  I had a strange problem in rehearsals, getting my animals and vegetables mixed up in the phrase “In short in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, I am the very model of a modern major general”, and this certainly happened in performance as well, though not quite so spectacularly.  “Babylonic cuneiform” also defied pronunciation one night and I managed not to sing one phrase at all on one occasion, a I was so busy acting (a feat which the Pirate King then echoed during our dialogue scene later).  It is very difficult not to let mistakes prey on your mind for the rest of the performance, even if they’re so small that even your fellow performers fail to notice them.

Did I enjoy it?  Yes, I did, particularly the last performance, where I felt I could just let go and stop worrying about it.  I enjoyed the opportunity to add another string to my performing bow – the patter song.  I enjoyed working with a talented, supportive cast (in very cosy conditions backstage!).  I enjoyed everyone’s reactions to seeing the hair and make-up job for the first time.  And I enjoyed my first fully-staged Gilbert and Sullivan production.  Many audience members said they were surprised how much they enjoyed it and how much they laughed.  It just goes to show that the two men’s work is not anywhere near as dated as people often think.  There are rich veins of beauty and humour to be mined, and I look forward to mining them many times more in the future.

  1. As one singing librarian to another well done! I’ve just finished a run of JW Wells in The Sorcerer and know just how hard those patter songs can be. Suprisingly, remembering to breathe helps!

  2. Indeed, breathing is a bonus. I found that the song was actually harder if the band took it slower than usual, and was practically impossible when teaching the chorus bits, as you run out of breath well before the designated pauses if the thing doesn’t rattle along at a decent pace! The JW Wells patter scares me even more than Modern Major General – it’s less well-known, but it’s much trickier to my ears.

  1. January 16th, 2010
  2. February 21st, 2010
  3. January 17th, 2011

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