An Extra Saucy Beauty of a Ship: Ginning up HMS Pinafore for the Jazz Age

Our upcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore puts a delightful 1920s twist on the classic operetta, not just in its setting, but also in its sound. We invited New York-based composer and arranger Ed Windels to re-orchestrate HMS Pinafore to produce a jazz-flavoured score unlike anything audiences have heard before! In this guest post, Windels reflects on his Pinafore journey and offers exciting insights into the process of creating a jazzy, toe-tapping new take on this beloved score. If you haven't already, get your tickets to board the HMS Pinafore February 3, 6 & 9 at the Jubilee Auditorium!


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“Things are seldom as they seem,” intimates Mrs. Cripps (a.k.a. Little Buttercup), an ethos arguably at the heart of much of the work of Gilbert & Sullivan with its concealed identities and ironically bewildering plot twists. This includes their 1876 operetta HMS Pinafore. Taking its cue from this, Edmonton Opera seeks to intrigue fans of this much beloved classic by recasting it in a 1920’s jazz idiom. The setting is now a glamorous cruise ship of the period, with the storyline and music tailored accordingly. Early in 2017, they asked if I would be willing to undertake giving Sullivan's score a new, swinging, jazz-oriented orchestration.

We decided to make the score a hybrid: keep one half as-is, rewrite the other half jazzed. This allows the music to highlight the piece’s commentary on class and elitism: the older, aristocratic characters retaining their Victorian music, and the music of the younger, “lower” characters recolored in jazz, with the whole cast embracing the new idiom for a rousing finale.

My aim in the updated numbers was to retain enough sense of the original that fans wouldn’t feel completely, um, at sea, while adding flavor through reharmonization and almost complete rethinking of rhythmic structures, including the vocal lines, in addition to an entire revamping of the orchestral dressing. The keys, vocal notes and melodies are largely unaltered. To avoid the new sections all sounding similar, I took advantage of the broad palette of styles and genres from the era. Thus Ralph’s music nods at the swoony sentimentality of Rudy Vallee, Buttercup pays earthy homage to Bessie Smith, a sultry tango here, a little Original Dixieland Band swing there. And of course a Charleston or two!

The most fascinating aspect of this project for me was its Carrollian work flow. When creating a new musical -- effectively what’s happening with this show -- the typical process would have the lyricist and composer and book writer come up with the base material, which is then routined and expanded in terms of staging, often to the extent of readings, workshops or out of town tryouts. While the orchestrator may be kept abreast of the ongoing process, he or she rarely begins proper work until relatively late in the game, at a point when the music and general staging have largely been finalized. This allows the orchestrator to base their coloristic and gestural choices off of these elements and appropriately reflect them.

With this Pinafore the process was completely reversed. Needing sufficient time to extract orchestral material and create new vocal scores so the performers could learn them, I was requested to fully orchestrate and do vocal arrangements for the designated portions of the score as the very first step, before any staging ideas had begun, using my own judgement and imagination to make any additions, expansions, condensings, coloristic and gestural choices. The actual direction and revised libretto would then be inspired by my finished work. This situation was both empowering and intimidating, but ultimately proved to be great fun as I began to share the completed portions of the score, allowing director Rob Herriot and myself to let our imaginations run wild.

This project has been as much of an adventure for the creative team as it has been for these beloved characters, and I'm confident audiences will have as much fun experiencing it as we did creating it. So raise your glasses and the gang plank, and bon voyage!

To learn more about New York-based composer Ed Windels visit www.ed-windels.com