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Gilbert, Sullivan and Me: A Brief Sojourn into British Silliness

Charles Martin as the Pirate King (double cast with Ben Brady) Photo: David Allen

Tripping hither, tripping thither,
Nobody knows why or wither!
We must dance and we must sing,
Roundabout our fairy ring.

— from Iolanthe by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

Repeated at breakneck speed, as fast as the pianist could accompany it, this delightful fairy roundelay was recently sung (at the top of her considerable and experienced lungs) by a tall, not exactly slender 66-year-old woman — me! Yes, it was I, in that chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan maidens, in the apse of the Notre Dame des Victoires church in mid-town, at a certain mid-May concert.

Once again, San Francisco came up with a way to delight me!

One day toward the end of March, our friend Rachel (a cracker-jack marketing person, but also a fine soprano) e-mailed me with a notice from San Francisco’s venerable Lamplighters Music Theatre announcing their inaugural community chorus that would sing excerpts from the Gilbert and Sullivan canon. Knowing Peter and I had given up our singing careers when we moved from the East Coast, Rachel thought the idea would appeal to us.

Would either or both of us care to join her in such fun? I said I’d love to.

We saw a Lamplighters’ production last year and enjoyed it, impressed by the level of talent and production values, so I enthusiastically agreed to the six weeks it would take to be part of their first community chorus. After years of being paid to perform, this was quite a step for me, because I’d be paying them to let me join in, but getting my voice working again, and being part of an enterprise involving like-minded folks really interested me. Also, because I do not intend to restart my career, this seemed a fun way to dip my toe into a pool with no obligation to dive in fully. So I signed up and paid my $95, my way of supporting an arts nonprofit with the prospect of fun as well.

I adore the clever lyrics of W.S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and the well-crafted music of Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) that resulted in some of the most popular theatrical entertainments of the late 19th/early 20th century. I love the stories they invented, and the idiosyncratic characters they came up with to fill them.

But above all, I love them for their utter silliness. They really make me laugh! And have laughed since my parents first played their music when I was growing up.

From Trial by Jury, to H.M.S. Pinafore, and Patience, Ruddigore , Iolanthe, The Mikado, all the way through Pirates of Penzance, The Gondoliers and The Grand Duke, Gilbert and Sullivan kept British and American audiences in stitches through the decades of their partnership, and are still doing it today thanks to the efforts of San Francisco’s own Lamplighters.

Starting in early April, for a couple of hours a week, some 20 of us gathered at the Bryant Street Lamplighters’ home base and learned such ditties as the above from Iolanthe: “Stay, We must Not Lose Our Senses” and “Hail Poetry” (The Pirates of Penzance) and “From the Distant Panorama” with “We are Warriors Three” (Princess Ida). We had a blast. Lawyers, psychotherapists, marketing directors, mathematicians, computer scientists, church sopranos, would-be tenors , plus one brave high school student — people who generally sing more in their showers than in public — enjoyed the rigors of learning intricate choral parts and mastering complex language to be presentable for that mid-May performance date.

And it was an absolute inspiration to me.

The experience introduced me in more depth to this good theatrical company, and I got to know a cross section of people in my new home city I otherwise would not have. I also learned that on game days, the Bryant Street parking meters near AT&T Park go up to $7 an hour — egad! (as the British say). But despite that, and led by a gifted musical director, I was challenged to sing again, with no commitment to anything further than one concert — perfect for my current writing life.

Once again, San Francisco opened a surprise package for me, and it’s one I’ll enjoy opening again next year. If you’ve any such inclination, why don’t you do it as well? Come join the Lamplighters Community Chorus next year, and allow Gilbert and Sullivan to make you laugh outloud! Visit, e-mail [email protected], or call 415-227-4797 and see what they’re up to.

In August, they are opening their 62nd season with The Pirates of Penzance, so if you want a good British giggle, maybe I’ll see you there!

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