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Ann Arbor Theatrical Society Honors the Origin of Theater's 'Middle Ground'

By Kelly Church

For the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society (UMGASS), performing the work of operetta masterminds Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. Gilbert spent decades in the late 19th century working on parodies of the time's popular operas, including Robert The Devil, a parody of Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert Le Diable, and Dulcamara, which is also called The Little Duck And The Great Quack, a parody of Gaetano Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore.

Gilbert was the playwright; Sullivan the composer. According to Natan Zamansky, the company promoter, when Gilbert and Sullivan came together, they created a new "middle ground of theater" that was more upscale than burlesques, but one step down from the grand opera.

"The analogy is that in early American musical theater, the musicals in the 20s and 30s by Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart were essentially just filler with excuses for star singers to sing potential hit songs," Zamansky says. "Then Hammerstein came along with Show Boat and Oklahoma! and suddenly musicals all had sensible plots with the songs fully integrated. Before [Oscar] Hammerstein did that to musicals, Gilbert did it to operettas."

UMGASS comes in, bringing an appreciation and awareness for the legendary work by Gilbert and Sullivan. The Ann Arbor, MI student-run performing arts society does two performances each season. Every spring, they try to focus on one of the more popular shows. Zamansky says that although every director will take a unique approach to the production, UMGASS shows are relatively traditional, maintaining even some references that are no longer relevant or understood for today's audiences.

"In the century or so since they were written, the big three shows that have floated to the top have been HMS Pinafore [or the Lass That Loved a Sailor], The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado," Zamansky says. "At UMGASS, we've promoted The Gondoliers as well, so we have a four-year rotation in the spring. Of the remaining shows, six of them (The Sorcerer, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, Ruddigore and The Yeomen of the Guard) are in general rotation in the fall."

Zamansky explains that the four missing shows are not part of the usual rotation for a several reasons. The score to Thespis is lost; Trial By Jury is a mere 30 minutes and thus is occasionally shown in a double bill; Utopia and The Grand Duke have proven to be a challenge to perform, due to length, lack of popularity and demand on the company. Zamansky says that periodically one of them will be performed during a season.

Everyone is welcomed to try out for a production. At the start of every semester, UMGASS holds what they call a mass meeting for anyone interested in working on the show, either on stage or behind the scenes. Those who are interested are encouraged to keep an eye on the UMGASS website and Facebook page for updates on when castings are being held.

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About The Author

Kelly Church is a writer and avid reader with a Bachelor's of Science in Journalism...

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