Find out just how the “lost” score for Thespis came to be recreated by Bruce Montgomery. Many people are unaware that Gilbert & Sullivan actually wrote 14 operettas – not thirteen! Thespis was their first collaboration and premiered at the London Gaiety in 1871. Sadly, Arthur Sullivan’s score for Thespis was lost, except for two of the show’s songs. We are delighted to welcome Bob Binkley, Director of the Bucks County Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Pennsylvania, and Liz (Montgomery) Thomas, founder of the Bruce Montgomery Foundation to share their thoughts on an upcoming workshop on Thespis at the G&S Festival in August. Bob, along with conductor Florrie Marks, will be leading the workshop on August 15 in the Harrogate Theatre. This is one event in Harrogate you just cannot miss. Read their fascinating interview here.
You are presenting a fascinating matinee in the Harrogate Theatre on Wednesday, August 15 which you call The Thespis Conundrum! How did your company get involved in this project?
First of all, for readers who don’t know anything about Thespis, can you give a brief explanation?
People who aren’t rabid G & S aficionados are often unaware that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote fourteen operettas – not thirteen! The duo’s first collaboration was Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, commissioned in 1871 for John Hollingshead and the resident company at the Gaiety Theatre in London. It premiered on December 26, 1871. Like many productions at the Gaiety, it was created as a burlesque. I highly recommend reading the Program Notes written by Edwin Nealley in Wingert Jones’ vocal score of Thespis. However, the main point of today’s discussion is that Arthur Sullivan’s score for Thespis was lost, except for two of the show’s songs. The first, “Little Maid of Arcadee,” became a popular Victorian English drawing room ballad. The second, “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain,” later achieved immortality in The Pirates of Penzance.
In 1952, a well-known American tenor named James Montgomery, founder and director of Philadelphia’s celebrated Gilbert & Sullivan Players, made it known that he wanted to be able to claim that he was “the only tenor in England or America” who had sung the starring tenor role in all fourteen of the G & S operas. To achieve that goal, he commissioned his talented 25-year-old composer son, Bruce Montgomery, to write a new score for Thespis “in the style of Sullivan.” The score was completed in 1953 (including Sullivan’s two original songs) and received the delighted imprimatur of James Montgomery. Plans were in progress to introduce it to Philadelphia audiences as part of the company’s regular repertoire. James Montgomery’s unexpected passing at the age of 57 in 1955 put those plans on hold. His son Bruce took over the direction of the G & S Players, but decided to wait until 1971 – the 100th anniversary of the opening of Thespis – to premiere his work. That year the opera was received with great enthusiasm by Philadelphia audiences, who were delighted not only with Montgomery’s brilliant “Sullivanesque” score, but also with the opportunity to experience the work of this “topsy-turvy” duo from the earliest stages of what became the most successful musical theatre collaboration in history.
I first met Bruce Montgomery when the festival visited Philadelphia in 1996. He gave a workshop on his Thespis and I must confess I found the music very Sullivan. Tell us a little about this extraordinary musician.
My brother, Bruce Montgomery, was often described as “Philadelphia’s Renaissance man” in the local press, and “a whirlwind of musical and artistic involvements” by the Associated Press. As a composer, his choral and orchestral works were premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Concerto Soloists (now the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia). He wrote full-length musicals, light operas, melodic ballads, organ processionals, and a prolific body of choral arrangements. He was an accomplished conductor, actor, poet, stage director and set designer, and was Director of Undergraduate Musical Activities at the University of Pennsylvania for 50 years. For 44 of those years he was the iconic director of the Penn Glee Club. In his “spare time” in 1963, he also was the acclaimed composer/lyricist of an off-Broadway hit, The Amorous Flea. Afterwards, he made a conscious decision to forego the promise of a lucrative Broadway career, returning to the University of Pennsylvania to fulfil his first love as educator and mentor to thousands of talented students, many of whom have gone onto brilliant careers in film, TV, and theatre.
I did 27 productions of G & S directed by Bruce Montgomery, including Thespis at two of the International Festivals. I can tell you that he lived his entire life as a student and teacher of what you might call “Savoy style.” His father sang with and directed Philadelphia’s Savoy Company for several years before founding his own company. Bruce grew up knowing the operas and was comfortable performing, directing and conducting. His favourite roles were Jack Point in Yeomen, Ko-Ko in The Mikado, and Dr. Daly in The Sorcerer, among others. He was professional in all aspects, very demanding of himself and others. His productions were lively, artistic, and authentic, and even featured the use of some of Gilbert’s own directorial notes which his father had obtained from the last stage manager to have worked with Gilbert at D’Oyly Carte.
He brought his Thespis and performed it at the festival in Buxton to an audience that came I guess mainly out of curiosity. Where else has it been performed and what interest has it created?
Bruce was thrilled to be invited to introduce Thespis at the Basingstoke (the International G & S Festival held in Philadelphia in 1996), and again at Buxton in the year 2000 (the summer he retired from the University of Pennsylvania). Thespis was also performed by the Penn Singers, his light opera group at Penn, and by the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 2016 another fine production was staged by the Rose Valley Chorus and Orchestra in suburban Philadelphia. Audiences have consistently responded enthusiastically to Gilbert, Montgomery & Sullivan’s clever and melodic score.
I know a foundation has been established in Bruce’s memory. What are you doing to preserve his legacy?
When Bruce died of sudden cardiac arrest on his 81st birthday in 2008, he left a staggering amount of intellectual property, both published and unpublished, that had to be dealt with. He was receiving royalties and licensing fees from his published work, but there were many unpublished things that many people felt deserved a wider audience. Our family finally decided to donate all of Bruce’s intellectual property to establish the Bruce Montgomery Foundation for the Arts as a not-for-profit organization. We felt the best way to honor his memory and carry out his legacy was to find a way to support talented young people pursuing excellence in music and the performing arts. Now, all royalties, licensing fees and funds raised help to build BMFA’s endowment. The Foundation currently gives four $2500 Springboard Grants to students of high school through college age. We provide financial assistance for the extra things not covered by scholarships but which serious artists need to achieve their goals. At a time when budgets for arts education are being slashed daily in America, BMFA is filling an urgent need in a small but meaningful way, and we look forward to expanding our impact as we grow. More information can be obtained by visiting our website at www.brucemontgomery.org. The Foundation is a 501 (C) (3) public charity, and all donations are 100% deductible in accordance with U.S. law.
We know how difficult it is to present a relatively unknown work. This year we are presenting Haddon Hall. The major problem is that only one or two of the cast have ever been in the show before. Do you find that this is a problem in persuading amateur groups to have a closer look at Thespis?
It occurs to me that one of the main reasons performers and audiences stick to the 13 shows of Gilbert & Sullivan is familiarity, and, with limited budgets, they see some risk in investigating something a little different. A published edition of the score of Thespis has brought a level of legitimacy to this clever piece of work. It is, after all, Gilbert’s libretto, and Bruce Montgomery has given it life again. It’s definitely worth a serious look.
We are looking forward to the workshop in Harrogate. It will be particularly interesting for the audience to hear some of the Montgomery Thespis music. I believe you have members of the Savoy Company from Philadelphia who will sing some of the numbers?
It was a lucky coincidence that the Savoy Company was bringing their production of Iolanthe to Harrogate on the week the Thespis workshop was scheduled. They will be providing at least six singers willing to learn selections of the opera. Another point I need to make is that Florrie Marks is every bit as qualified as I to present this work to the festival audience, and she should be given equal attention in the promotion of the workshop. With Bruce gone, she knows this score better than anyone and will be able to throw much light on the show. I will be relying heavily on her judgement and commentary on the subject. Though not a stage performer, she is a charming and engaging personality and a musician of the highest order.
What do you hope to achieve from your workshop in England?
My hope is that many of the G & S companies at the Festival will want to consider producing Gilbert, Montgomery & Sullivan’s Thespis. We are very fortunate that Wingert Jones wanted to publish this version of Thespis, with available orchestrations and a beautiful vocal score, so that Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiasts worldwide can become familiar with the entire G & S canon. Thespis is a delightful show to perform in, with a large cast and an entertaining plot. As an authentically composed forerunner of “things to come,” it is a little gem that will delight audiences worldwide.
Have you considered recording the show as a promotional tool?
There is a DVD of the 2000 production at the Festival. In that performance, Brendan O’Brien won a Best Actor prize for his portrayal of Mercury. Nothing would please the Foundation more than to have a professional company record Thespis! All Thespis royalties from Wingert-Jones help to support the BMFA’s Springboard Grants program.
Best wishes to the Montgomery family and good luck with all your efforts. We will be happy to stock your scores for any British group interested in taking a closer look.
For tickets to the “Thespis Conundrum” (August 15th at 14:30) please click here