Sensational! Volume III: An Interview with Director Michael Blum and Musical Director Erica Rome

Something sensational is cooking up over at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. Gilbert before Sullivan! Unheard of, right? This fascinating work marks the American premier of A Sensation Novel: A Musical Play in Three Acts, that was previously lost to time. In Volume III of the TheatreBloom exclusive interview series, we sit down with Director Michael Blum and Musical Director Erica Rome, conceptual artists who have worked to reconstruct the missing pieces of Gilbert’s work and get it up on its feet as the opening show of the Spotlighters 2015/2016 season.

If you could start with a brief introduction to give us an idea of who you are, we’ll get going.

Michael Blum, Director of A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre
Michael Blum, Director of A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre

Michael Blum: I’m Michael Blum and I’m Directing A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre. I was on stage at Spotlighters, last season, in Jekyll & Hyde. And I’ve done some other things in and around the area, going back to the 1970s.

Erica Rome, Musical Director of A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre
Erica Rome, Musical Director of A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre

Erica Rome: I’ve been off the scene for too long. I’m here now, and I’m Erica Rome as the Musical Director of A Sensation Novel.

Tell us why you wanted to bring this sort of undiscovered work to Spotlighters

Michael: Very few people have heard of this work. People have heard of Gilbert and Sullivan and either love it or hate it—

Erica: But most people don’t even know that.

Michael: A lot of pop cultural exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan is from The Simpsons, or from several episodes of The West Wing. I’m not talking about the diehard fans, but people in general just aren’t aware of the genre.

Erica: It just isn’t done often enough professionally. And people find it very difficult to enjoy as it is.

Michael: Chicago Lyric Opera did Mikado last season. I know you mentioned Toby’s around here did Pirates of Penzance last season.

And let’s not forget The Salem Players over in Catonsville who back in April of this year did a production of The Sorcerer.

Michael: Which is how we got Jim (actor Jim Knost, playing The Author and Sir Ruthven) for our show. I went and saw that show because I knew the director of the show (Lisa Yerkey.) I had actually directed her the first time she had ever been in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta in her life, way back when she was a little 20-something. I was her music director and that was — good heavens! Almost 39 years ago! She was very good. Now, thanks to the miracle of Facebook, you can get back into touch with people that you haven’t seen in  years; you can find anyone. So I found out that Lisa was directing The Sorcerer and I went and saw it. I had no idea what the production was going to be like. That stage was the size of a restaurant table. You think Spots (Spotlighters Theatre) has a small stage? Ha! But that production, all things considered, was well done and Lisa kept it moving. Now, I’m watching this show and there is this guy playing Doctor Daly, the Vicar (formerly a fair young curate), and he was really good. He had a nice voice, he had good stage presence, and at that point I had already received permission for Erica and me to do A Sensation Novel. Now, with every show, you have to do some prospecting for your cast. You’ve got to go around to people that you know and say “hey, I’d like to have you audition.” And Jim was a perfect find. That’s what we did. We had huge casting challenges with this, I mean we were out there beating the bushes—

The Cast of A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre
The Cast of A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre CMAldridge Photography

Erica: You know— we actually had to have callbacks. I didn’t think we were going to have to have callbacks because I didn’t think we were going to be able to get enough people to audition. And it wasn’t even that we actually had that many people who did end up auditioning, it’s just the people that we did have were really strong people. And we had some difficult decisions to make.

Michael: The callbacks were very helpful.

What is it about this specific piece that drew you to it, though?

Michael: Gilbert’s plays are just really fascinating. Several of them are still being performed, especially Sweethearts and Engaged. There are productions of them in America and England to this day. They are both comedies. Occasionally you’ll find a Pygmalion and Galatea (that Gilbert wrote) being done; it’s actually a very interesting play –a My Fair Lady before My Fair Lady; in it a real sculpture comes to life – only the sculptor’s already got a girlfriend! But my point is, most of Gilbert’s plays don’t get done any more, which is what makes doing this one so fascinating. Gilbert wrote everything. He started with operatic parodies; he wrote burlesques; he wrote extravaganzas; he wrote dramas and tragedies. He considered his work with Sullivan not to be his major thing.

Is that sort of like the way Sir Patrick Stewart considers Star Trek not to be his major thing even though it made him tons of money and it’s the thing everyone knows him for?

Michael: You’re exactly right. Gilbert’s work with Sullivan made him internationally famous and made him a ton of money! He never made that kind of money with any of his other work. That’s not to say he didn’t make money, but his work with Sullivan was incredibly lucrative. But before all that, Gilbert did a little bit of everything— including comic verse, for which he was paid by the line so his poems got longer and longer.

Now, Gilbert wrote A Sensation Novel for Mr. and Mrs. German Reed’s Gallery of Illustration, located at 14 Regent Street in London. This was a tiny theatre that a husband and wife had bought. They put on plays, but they didn’t call them “plays,” because it wasn’t yet proper for the middle class to go to the “theatre” — so they called their theatre a “Gallery of Illustration.” What they gave were called “Illustrations,” not plays. The performers were not called actors, but entertainers. That was how they got around it. The Reeds started in the 1850’s, originally with three people: a husband (German Reed), a wife (Priscilla Horton Reed), and a comedian. Then they added another female and male because the husband and wife were getting old and couldn’t play the romantic leads anymore. So you had the older pair, and a soprano and tenor who were the younger pair, and a comic bass. Instant quintet! The Reeds did show after show after show and Gilbert wrote for them. The five actors or vocal types that he mostly wrote for are the five that you see in our production.

How is it of all these fabulous pre-Sullivan Gilbert plays did A Sensation Novel become the chosen one?

Michael: That’s a very interesting question. I really think this is maybe the best one. It’s the most intellectually interesting. Everybody does Ages Ago, which was one Gilbert wrote before this one. They perform that because the full score of it survives. It was written by Frederick Clay, Sullivan’s best friend.

Erica: It’s actually the music that’s playing as you enter the house.

Michael: Ages Ago is the work where the portraits come to life. Gilbert actually used that again 20 years later in Ruddigore. But Ages Ago is very silly, and I don’t like the music all that much. And except for the portraits coming to life, it’s not all that interesting. A Sensation Novel is very interesting because it’s a takeoff on a literary trope — romance fiction. It’s what we now see in every modern Broadway musical. Wicked (for instance) is a sensation work. You have these incredible characterizations and these over-the-top emotions that all work out…or don’t. The genre includes any kind of summer reading, modern romances, etc. Dickens wrote several sensation novels. In their day, and in our day, they were hugely popular dramatic literary works, frequently featuring women as evil characters.

Evangeline Ridgaway (left) as Rockalda and Connor Moore (right) as Herbert in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre
Evangeline Ridgaway (left) as Rockalda and Connor Moore (right) as Herbert in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre CMAldridge Photography

Arthur Sullivan, for all his genius, was very, very conventional. And partly because of that, Gilbert & Sullivan plots are very conventional, morality-wise, and some people criticize Gilbert because of that. But Gilbert was a very early and consistent proponent of liberated women in a way that we nowadays just don’t realize if we only look at how bland his “Gilbert & Sullivan women” sometimes are. But if you look at the female characters he created before that— fast women, evil women, loose women, fantastical women, like Lady Rockalda in this show — you see much more  in him. What he did was societally important– he fought against the double standard of a man being able to have an affair and be forgiven, but a woman would be ruined forever for the same “crime.” Gilbert was upset by that, because he thought that everyone should be treated equally.

A Sensation Novel sort of goes after that. He makes his characters rebel against the conventions of the period. All of Gilbert’s work from this time is interesting, but I just fell in love with this one when I read it. This one is just wonderful. It’s got just five characters; it’s designed for an intimate little stage with no chorus and a simple setting.

Is that how you decided Spotlighters Theatre was the venue for this show?

Michael: Well, I’ve worked at Spotlighters before. I was in Jekyll & Hyde as the evil Bishop. I got murdered every night. And that is actually how I got to know Autumn (actress Autumn Boyle, playing Alice in A Sensation Novel), She did such a magnificent job covering in Jekyll & Hyde when Patricia (actress Patricia Hengen, Emma in Jekyll & Hyde) came down with laryngitis. Brian (actor Brian S. Kraszewski, Gripper in Sensation Novel) was in Jekyll & Hyde too. Of course, I’ve seen Brian in many other things — who hasn’t seen Brian in many other things? He’s very prolific as an actor, for sure! So it’s sort of interesting that Spotlighters became the place to do the show, not only because it had the perfect intimate stage, but also because a lot of the cast ended up coming from a show I’d done there or seen there.

Evangeline Ridgaway and Connor Moore came from Spotlighters as well.

Autumn Boyle (left) as Alice and Evangeline Ridgaway (right) as Rockalda in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre
Autumn Boyle (left) as Alice and Evangeline Ridgaway (right) as Rockalda in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre CMAldridge Photography

Michael: I’d never worked with Vangie [Ridgaway] before. She just appeared at the auditions, but yes, her last show on stage was a few seasons ago at Spotlighters — she played the Witch in Into the Woods, and she was amazing. And Connor was recently in the Spots production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, and before that he was in Pirates of Penzance at Park School, where he is a student.

Erica: Which I played pit for.

Michael: And because I’m loyal to Erica, I went and saw that show and that’s how we stumbled upon Connor. There was this kid playing the Major General — they made him up to look like Winston Churchill — and he did a wonderful job.  He was clearly a tenor. And then I went to Jacques Brel and hey — there’s the same kid again! Beautiful voice; good stage presence; great actor. So I knew we had to get him for this. I knew that the tenor part in this show was pitched low, comparatively, so I knew he’d be perfect for this, even though he was young. So there we have the three guys, and the two women. They all sing beautifully. They look good. They all fit on the stage very well. They’ve all been so good to work with. They’re eager and talented and it’s wonderful.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of having to fill in the gaps as you went with this production? I understand that the script itself was lost for quite some time and that virtually none of the original score remains today.

Michael: Ah here we go. This is the best part that nobody ever gets. No one will ever understand this process. What we had was unperformable. It was a script with no music.

That’s called a play.

Michael: Yes. That’s usually a play.

Erica: Except in the script throughout it says “SONG” indicating which words are lyrics – verses – as opposed to what is spoken. And we had no music for the songs.

Michael: Plus, in addition to the songs, Gilbert indicated music underneath the dialogue with markings for “melodrame” and all of that. But we had no music. Four numbers from the original production, written by German Reed himself, who created the part of Sir Ruthven and who owned the theatre, survived — because they were published separately as sheet music. People do not realize most of what was written, especially the music, from that era,, is lost. Some of the scripts are gone, too, but all of the music and scores are gone from work after work because they simply weren’t saved. And what was saved — well then the Blitz came and it all burned up in warehouse fires and the like. More was lost than has survived. The reason we have the libretti of many works  is only because they all had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office in advance of performance,, and those government archives have mostly survived.

You have four songs from the original. But obviously this production has more than four songs. So what did you do?

Michael: The million dollar question. What do you do? As it turned out there was a version of this show that had been written 25 years later. Another publisher had bought the rights, and had rescored them all by a composer around the turn of the century. It’s the Joseph Williams Company version. But the problem is, it sounds like Debussy — it doesn’t suit the show, I didn’t like it and nobody else likes it either. So now what do you do?  Now, this was before Spotlighters had given me the green light of approval that I’d be doing this show in their 2015/2015 season. Anyway, I did two things.

One – I used the internet. I went out to the Gilbert and Sullivan list-serve called Savoynet and I asked if anyone knew anything about performing A Sensation Novel. I asked if anyone could give me any advice!. I explained I was trying to put a production of it together in hopes that someone might have something that could help. Second — I tried to find a composer to commission an original score. In both cases I succeeded. I actually found a composer locally. He’s a brilliant man named Mark Williams, I found him through friends. I met with him and explained what I was doing and he was interested. But he needed a year a year to write something of this complexity. He said “I’m your man if I can have a year.” At that point I didn’t know when we were going up, so I said “sure, you can have a year.”

Meanwhile, I had put the word out on the internet looking for help, and I received this e-mail from Michael Nash. He said “I wrote a whole set of songs for this show.” They were pre-packed and ready to roll and he said we could have them and do whatever we liked with them as long as we gave him credit. And I asked him to send them to me. And BAM! They were in my inbox just like that (PDFs of the score). I realized that he had incorporated one of the original songs that had survived because he’d liked it. There was about 40 seconds of an overture and a fragment of the incantation scene. So I started communicating with him.

(L to R) Connor Moore as Herbert, Evangeline Ridgaway as Rockalda, Autumn Boyle as Alice, and Jim Knost as Tom Sittybank in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre
(L to R) Connor Moore as Herbert, Evangeline Ridgaway as Rockalda, Autumn Boyle as Alice, and Jim Knost as Tom Sittybank in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre CMAldridge Photography

So all of this is going on, I’m also working on my real job, and then all of the sudden Spotlighters has their deadline to apply to direct a show for this season. What do you think I did? I talked to Erica, and I took the songs that Michael Nash had sent me, took the script as it was and I submitted it. I guess I must have said something they liked, because here we are. Now Spotlighters never seems to go dark — they’re running straight through next summer. I had no idea when they were going to have us mount the show. Had it been the last show of the season, I would have gone back to Mark Williams and had him work on the project, because that would have given him a year. But then we found out that Sensation Novel was going to be opening the season, which meant it had to be ready to go for actors and a cast with a score by June 1st, and at this point in time it’s the middle of April, so we knew there was no way it was going to happen if we didn’t use what Michael Nash had already composed.

So you’ve got Gilbert’s play and lyrics, Michael Nash’s music and your direction and actors, is that right?

Michael: We’ve created a new show, essentially. No one has ever heard this version before. Mike Nash’s songs have been performed in England, but never in a full production – Mike Nash did a concert-style presentation of it in Buxton. So this creation, what we put together, is not only the first full production of this work in the USA, ever, in any form, but is also totally new. From the Nash new songs and the Reed existing pieces, Erica and I crafted all the melodrames that  underscore the dialogue; Mike Nash wrote us, at our request, a longer incantation scene and a much more full Overture. So, we basically have this brand new thing. And Erica has been rock solid through all of this. She is a terrific, sensitive accompanist pianist. She knows the Sullivan repertoire perfectly stylistically. 

Erica, why are you so passionate about Gilbert and Sullivan?

Erica: The same reason everybody else is. It’s fantastic. It moves me. I was in Ruddigore and Gandoliers when I was kid during the summers. Their productions had so many girls that wanted to be in it, 150 girls in the chorus and about 15 guys because you couldn’t get 14-year-old guys to sign up for opera. The music just did something to me when I was 15 and it’s just stayed with me. I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten to work with NYGASP when I was up in New York, so yeah, that.

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a Musical Director on this show?

Erica: I don’t know—

Michael: I’m going to answer that for her.

Erica: Yeah, let him answer that for me.

Michael: One thing that Erica is absolutely fantastic at— and she and I have worked together before— is her understanding of the innate dramatic musical needs of a show. She’s actually saved shows (shows that I’ve worked on with her before). I won’t get into them because we don’t want to offend anyone or upset anyone, but she’s that good –  she’s been able to save a show from ruin because of the way she understands music. Also, she can fix problems she hears in a score – bad voicing, or misprints, or awkward musical settings. You either have that ability, or you don’t – and Erica has it. There are a lot of people who can play the piano perfectly well, or who can be a good accompanist, but that’s all they are. Erica is a good Musical Director. She directs the music.

I’ll give you the example. Michael Nash, the composer, is a brilliant melodist, but he is not a pianist. He wrote his songs using software — therefore some of them were very difficult to play on a real keyboard, because a machine can play them but a human hand can’t, and Mike had no way to know that, because he’s not a pianist – and he is the first to say so; he told us to look at his songs in that way. So Erica went through and fixed things like that. She knows where to cut, where to move measures. She cut measures that we didn’t need, added them where we did, and she’s made such a brilliant work of it, as a whole.

Okay, how about the biggest challenge in taking on the project as a whole?

Michael: The challenge isn’t something that the audience will ever know, because we have a wonderful cast. They are really very well suited for this show. But it turned out to be very difficult to rehearse this show over the summer. Schedules were a nightmare. It made it difficult to cast because of conflicts, vacations, holidays, and other summertime shows. It would have been nice if the entire cast had had the same schedule, but they did not. We had overlapping and non-overlapping vacations— it was a scheduling catastrophe. It wasn’t until pretty darn late in the rehearsal process that we had the full cast together. But on the other hand, I knew that if we had good people we could overcome that. We have a good core of actors and people.

What has been the most fun thing about this project for you now that we’ve tackled all the challenges?

Erica: I think it’s been great that it’s come all the way together in no time. You start from zero. There are no recordings. There is no movie to watch. You can’t pull a clip from the internet somewhere.

Michael: Erica is right. There is no original cast recording (we may issue one). That has been the most wonderful thing. Seeing it come together, be real, and be an actual show. Everything that we had worked on, everything that we had hoped it was going to be— it finally was.

Do you feel this particular show speaks well to modern audiences?

Michael: Gilbert’s stuff is very topical. He’s referring a lot to his previous works. And I mentioned this, I think, but he was a pioneer for women’s equality— like that double standard. And isn’t all of that still happening now?

What is it that you are hoping people will take away from seeing this production?

Michael: Oh wow! I hope that they have a really good time and that they will appreciate Gilbert’s cleverness. People go to Gilbert & Sullivan all the time and sometimes they see bad productions of it. So unfortunately they conclude that Gilbert & Sullivan is bad. Gilbert & Sullivan is not bad. It’s terrific. It’s funny. The music is brilliant. Now, you can do a good or a bad production of it, just like you can do a good or a bad production of any show. What we want people to take away from our little production of A Sensation Novel is “Wow! This stuff can be really cool! This stuff can be fun!” It’s funny, and witty and offers a pleasant evening. It’s the right cast with the right show at the right venue. We’re hoping this will get people to re-examine their preconceptions of this sort of musical if they had any, especially when it comes to Gilbert.

Michael, if your life was a sensation novel, what would its title be?

Michael:  My kingdom for a high note!

Why should people come and see A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre?

Michael: We cast this show and we were very happy with the cast. Every single cast member has showed depth and breadth that I didn’t know they had. I am so grateful to have them in the production.

Erica: We’ve had to say very little to them. Which is amazing when you get into a show like this.

Michael: They all have trained voices, they all understand stage presence and they all have it.

Erica: They know what they’re doing.

Brian S. Kraszewski as Gripper in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre
Brian S. Kraszewski as Gripper in A Sensation Novel at Spotlighters Theatre CMAldridge Photography

Michael: The little things these guys do on stage— the little touches that they add on their own? From a Director’s eyes— it’s brilliant. And that’s one of the biggest reasons you should come see the show. The other thing? Our set. I mean— I tell you, Alan Zemla?  A genius. I couldn’t have asked for a better set.

Erica: I’ve never been so excited about a wooden floor before.

Michael: It’s gorgeous. It’s just gorgeous. Alan couldn’t have been more creative and sensitive. The beautiful set, the amazing cast, the show itself – what more reason do you need to want to come and see this show? It’s just such a pleasure to watch. And you’ve never seen anything quite like this before.

Erica: You’ve never seen this before.

Michael: You’re right. This has never been seen. I did research on this and as far as I can tell this is the first production of this EVER on this side of the Atlantic. Our version is not only the first in America, but it’s all original because of how it came together. You’re seeing a forgotten gem. It’s in our cultural history, our dramatic history, our literary history. If you like the theatre, this is something you should see. It has elements that every dramatic situation has used since, and every author has used since. The merging of music and words is very sophisticated. The characters themselves are very sophisticated in a way that you wouldn’t think of when you think of Gilbert & Sullivan. You won’t get another chance to see a show like this.

Erica: You won’t get another chance to see this show.

A Sensation Novel: A Musical Play in Three Acts plays through October 4, 2015 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.

To read the review of A Sensation Novel click here.

To read Volume I of A Sensational Interview, Meet Actor Jim Knost, click here.

To read Volume II of A Sensational Interview, Meet Composer Michael Nash, click here.

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