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"Comic" Characters on the Musical Stage Are Nothing to Laugh At

April, 2003

Well, it happened again. Many of you might have caught on PBS television a production of "The Merry Widow" from San Francisco. In it is the ancient subplot of three husbands (it is usually only one) being cuckolded by their pretty wives, all the while bragging how faithful their spouses are compared with those of other men. Not that adultery is supposed to be funny per se—and after all, in the Lehar operetta the women only flirt (as far we can tell). But the husbands are such pompous asses that we are supposed to say "Good for you" and laugh at their expense.

The problem is that the actor/singers are invariably directed to give a cartoon performance that destroys any social point the librettist had in mind. The plots of most "Merry Widow"-type operettas are flimsy enough without taking the humanity out of the cast of characters and leaving us with nothing really to laugh at. And being less than human, there is no social point they can make.

For example, Laurel and Hardy were bumbling fools. But their hearts were pure, their intentions always good. It was their human failings that always got in their way. In a classic short, "Towed in a Hole," they are trying to improve their "fresh fish" business by fixing up an old boat to cut out the middleman. The fact that Stan can do nothing right and that Ollie thinks he himself can do everything right — failings that come from their basic characters — is what leads to a string of disasters ending in the total demolition of the boat.

But the husbands in "The Merry Widow" have nothing but failings. There is nothing funny about that because they are not believable. Consider the following. In the nature film "Microcosmos," there is a sequence in which a dung beetle gets his huge ball of dung stuck on a twig. Not having the intelligence to see why he is making no progress, he simply keeps pushing and pushing until the ball rolls over the twig. The audience cheered! And this for a dung beetle! It won the audience's sympathy because its persistence, although part of its genetic code, was understandable and laudable. The three husbands, then, come out in most productions several sympathetic notches below the little hero of the nature sequence.

In too many versions of "The Mikado," Ko-Ko is played as an idiot, unable even to carry his large ax when he enters (although Gilbert wanted a sword). I do not know how George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko, played the role, but Martyn Green certainly established once and for all the feebleminded Lord High Executioner. However, when one production updated and replaced the action to an English seaside resort hotel lobby during the 1920s and cast Eric Idle of the Monty Python group to play the role, he pranced on with a tennis racket, addressed the people through a loudspeaker, feedback and all, and dismissed Nanki-Poo with what is usually a throwaway line, "Take him away," in a very no-nonsense, dangerous way. Finally, a Ko-Ko to be reckoned with!

Worse still is having Sir Joseph Porter in "HMS Pinafore" played like a clown. (I must admit, I saw it done only once and that was in a rehearsal, after which most of the business was dropped.) Sir Joseph is all dignity, a dignity that does not come natural to him since his greatest accomplishment was to polish up the handle of the big front door and the only ship he had ever seen was a partnership before he was elevated to the rank he now holds and does not in the least deserve. The point Gilbert (who also directed his own works) is making is that Porter LOOKS and ACTS like "the ruler of the Queen's nahvee" despite the hollowness below the glitter, and is therefore treated with respect his rank (if not the man) deserves in the British social scale.

The same must be said for the character of Dr. Bartolo in "The Barber of Seville." If he is played as a total fool, then all the machinations devised by Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva are wasted effort. Now and then, a good actor/singer plays him as an intelligent person and the opera seems to make sense. He fails because of his ego, not because he is stupid. But then again, so many productions of "Barber" are played strictly for laughs that believable characterization is at a premium.

Even the richly comic Papageno in "The Magic Flute" might be played as childish, but always very very human. After all, opera is drama and drama is about human beings. Even farces are based on human failings, but in this area the rules are somewhat relaxed since farce is based on types ("humors" as Ben Jonson put it) and complexity of character is actually detrimental in this case.

This essay is, if anything, a caveat for local groups, both amateur and semi-professional, that might consider some of my comments while planning their next productions. Cheap laughs are easy to achieve, as Gilbert once commented, if all you do is to sit on a pork pie. Real life, however, needs real people up on that stage — even if they do live in a world where an orchestra is always playing.

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