There are times when someone asks you something, and you wonder whether it’s only because the person can’t think of anything better to say at that moment. At least five times during the pandemic, I was asked if I was ‘doing any plays.’ Umm, we’re all in lockdown; you can count the number of current theatrical productions on the fingernail of one finger – and that’s on a good day. We can’t even sit down for a cup of coffee and you’re talking about filling a theater. So no.
Once we got past reminding my interlocutor of the state of the COVID world, and to head off any further questions on the topic, I usually went through the motions of reminding one and all that, after being in the chorus of about a dozen productions with Encore!, I had announced my retirement once and for all before I wore out my welcome with the company. I tried in different ways to explain what I meant by that remark, but what I can say now is that I don’t want to be like Albert Pujols.
That statement will need some explanation for those out there who do not know what or whom I’m talking about. (For those of you who don’t need this introduction, feel free to skip ahead.) Albert Pujols played for eleven years with the St. Louis Cardinals, a Major League baseball team. During that time, he was the best player at his position and perhaps the best player in baseball. Then he signed a ten-year contract for mega-mega bucks with a different team, the Los Angeles Angels, and let’s just say they didn’t get their money’s worth. At first, he wasn’t quite as good as he had been before; then he was somewhat better than average; then, despite all the hype, he was no better than average; then…… A week or so ago, the Angels released him in the final year of his contract. That means they are paying him his full salary NOT to play and paying someone else to play in his stead. Talk about wearing out your welcome. (Latest: he just signed on with another team to sit on their bench for the rest of the season.)
That’s what I didn’t want to happen to me, whereby the Management, Robert Binder and Paul Salter, would be doing a favor by keeping me on. For a fair number of productions, I had joined what I describe as ‘The Walking Wounded,” older folks who, when everyone else was dancing around the stage, were conspicuously absent. In The Mikado, for example, during the entire performance I played a scribe, sitting off to one side, ostensibly taking notes of what was going on. Where I was sitting happened to be right under one of the hanging microphones. Our friends The Levines caught one of the performances; they said they could hear me loud and clear any time the chorus was singing, and that I sounded great. That’s it; go out in full voice – which is what I did. That was the last production I was in.
But I couldn’t just walk away. For several more years, I helped out with the box office squad, selling tickets to anyone who didn’t want to hassle dealing with the internet. And that kept me in touch until COVID, when suddenly nobody was in touch. Time to turn my attention elsewhere, spend more time banging on the keys of my iMac, have more time for Nachum’s gemara shiur, more time to perfect my coffee brewing technique – you know, important stuff.That’s the way I am; never look back. Don’t return to where you used to work to chat with former colleagues who may or may not be still there. Reminisce to your heart’s content about the Old Neighborhood, but never go there.
Encore! recently made several of their Gilbert and Sullivan productions available on the internet. Did I watch them? No. Did I have any interest in watching them? No. Been there, done that. I could watch an old film noir instead. But then last week, I realized that the 2012 winter production of The Gondoliers would be available at 7:30 on Thurs. eve., May 13. Just click on the link. YES!!!!!!
Why the change of heart? I guess because it’s The Gondoliers, and respect must be paid. You never hear a word about this work in The States. It could have been Iolanthe or Ruddigore for all I knew. (Performed in both; lots to like, but no magic) It could have been about the canals of Venice or tugboats in New York harbor. And then, once we began rehearsing, it dawned on me that, in a life in which I had diligently sought out the best of what’s available in the world, there was something magical that had escaped my attention. WHO KNEW? And now, coming to my iMac, there it was. Just click on the link and be brought back eight years in time to the Hirsch Theater in Jerusalem.
The video began with the audience still chatting in their seats; then the dulcet tones of Lucy Roth, the voice of Encore!, advising everyone to ‘turn off your mobile devices and refrain from flash photography.’ She then introduced the Maestro, Paul Salter, conducting the New Savoy Orchestra, who began playing the overture. The curtain went up, the ladies in the first scene entered, and the performance began.
There they are! No, not the performers; the two candy-striped poles that were part of the set in Act I. I had spent weeks and weeks painting first the red and then the white, back when Natania was still living home and could lend a hand with Shabbat cooking, and I had time to head out to Talpiot on Fri. mornings to help with set painting.
It wasn’t that long in act 1 before the men in the chorus made their appearance. Which one was me? That one? No. That one? No. Wait, there I am, all the way over on the right in my assigned spot. And yes, whenever the ensemble was expected to move effortlessly across the stage, there I was in the back, pretending to play the guitar.
Was this production really as good as I remembered it to be? That was my question. Of course, I never SAW the production – at least, not in one piece. Some of it I was in; some of it we watched from the wings; for some of the scenes, we were either backstage or in the dressing room yakking and chilling. In other words, none of us would ever see a performance from beginning to end with the soloists facing front, the way anyone in the audience would. And even they – unless they had brought their opera glasses – wouldn’t see close-ups of the principals.
But I was right all along; it’s a Gondoliers for the ages. As far as I can tell, there has never been an Encore! production so perfectly cast. There were none of the principals who didn’t look the part, or who had the wrong accent, whose acting was underwhelming, or whose voice wasn’t glorious. And there are nine principal roles, and that’s a lot to get right. It goes without saying that the staging was inspired and the orchestra playing first-rate – but that’s Binder and Salter.
Yes, my memory has served me well. That’s what I was up to eight years ago. What an opportunity, and I’m glad I was able to take part, singing my little heart out, painting sets (way out of my skill set!), even creating a quiz for the programme. (Question #2: How many of these works of fiction take place, at least in part, in Venice? a) Wings of the Dove by Henry James; b) Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens; c) Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway; d) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Answer: all of them) But that was then. All that remains are my memories. I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on them, but respect must and will be paid to things that have been done so well in which I had a part. And for everyone else, there’s nothing stopping you from watching the performance. (It’s still, I believe, available on YouTube. The link is here.) At the very least, take a moment for a quick cachuca to brighten your day. You’ll feel better, I promise.