By Peter Filichia
So what can we all do on March 14th to mark the 129th anniversary of the opening of The Mikado?
Well, for one thing, we can listen to a 1960 recording of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular work that Masterworks Broadway has again made available. What a nice way to celebrate the 1885 masterpiece.
The recording stems, in fact, from a medium that the composer and lyricist couldn’t have imagined in their lifetime: television. For on April 29, 1960, The Bell Telephone Hour, then one of NBC’s most prestigious shows, broadcast a one-hour version of the comic opera with a most famous comic in the lead.
At first glance, having Groucho Marx play Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner of Titipu, would seem to be an eyebrow-raising choice. Didn’t most of the dozen-plus films he made stress low comedy?
Well, yes and no. Those movies also contained plenty of wordplay — “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.” – and wordplay was something that tickled the fancy of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert. The librettist-lyricist might well have enthusiastically approved Marx had he lived to experience him.
Gilbert and Sullivan were famously contentious, but they certainly would have agreed on Marx’s estimation of their work. He was a lifelong fan who’d spent many an evening in front of his phonograph listening to one G&S piece after another. So while Marx joked that he did the show for The Bell Telephone Hour as “revenge for the lousy phone service they’ve given me over the years,” he was thrilled to be asked.
That Marx was a G&S junkie may not have been the only reason that the Bell powers-that-be thought of him. Groucho’s years-long interaction in films with the ample Margaret Dumont — playing Captain Spaulding, Rufus T. Firefly and Otis B. Driftwood to her Mrs. Rittenhouse, Mrs. Teasdale and Mrs. Claypool — may well have made executives see them as Ko-Ko and Katisha, the plus-sized, not-getting-any-younger woman.
If Dumont could have sung and had been a little younger (she was 77 at the time), she would have been ideal for Katisha. Instead, director Robert Dwan and Martyn Green chose sixty-year-old Helen Traubel, whom we know as Fauna, the madam of “The Happiest House on the Block” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream. Traubel had the right type of figure for Katisha – the one that was all too common on the operatic stage until Lily Pons came along. (One critic wrote of Pons, “At last! A Carmen who weighs less than the bull!”)
Katisha expects to marry the Mikado’s son, which is enough to make that lad leave town and assume a new identity and name: Nanki-Poo. Give her credit for admitting “My face is unattractive” and enjoy Traubel’s reading of “but my left elbow has a fascination few can resist.” Marx’s semi-surprised response “Yet he fled” could have been a trademark Groucho cigar-wiggling punchline, but he says it with a sense of wonder that proves he wanted to stay in Ko-Ko-‘s character.
We have other stars on hand whom we know from cast albums. Robert Rounseville, who plays Nanki-Poo, will always be remembered as the original Candide. In The Mikado, he is in greater danger than Candide ever was during his misadventures. Because Nanki-Poo can’t have Yum-Yum, the lass he loves, he plans to commit suicide – until Ko-Ko says that he can have her for a month if he agrees to be executed later.
Yum-Yum is one of “Three Little Maids” – Sharon Randall and Marx’s own daughter Melinda are the others – who feel that “everything is a source of fun,” “we care for none” and “life’s a joke.” Interesting that a century later, these values would be found in three other little maids: the notorious Heathers, in the now-famous film of that name that’s been made into a 2014 off-Broadway musical.
The role of Nanki-Poo does give Rounseville the opportunities to solo “A Wand’ring Minstrel, I” and duet with Barbara Mesiter’s Yum-Yum in “Were You Not to Ko-Ko Plighted.” Then he shares “Here’s a How-De-Do?” with Meister and Marx and “The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring” with all of the above and Stanley Holloway, too.
Yes, Holloway, who won a Tony for playing Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, portrays Pooh-Bah, a/k/a “The Lord High Everything Else.” Well, maybe not so “everything else,” for there is that Mikado, The Emperor of Japan, who’s sung by Dennis King. You may also hear him on another soundtrack album: the one from Cole Porter’s Aladdin, on which he plays The Astrologer.
Those who know their Mikado well will note the absence of such Nanki-Poo titles as “Young man, despair” and “Brightly dawns our wedding day.” Yes, in any hour adaptation – especially one that had to make room for commercials – a good deal of G&S had to be sacrificed. So to completists, this recording is, to quote Nanki-Poo, “Modified rapture!”
At least Bell’s execs knew enough to sign as editor Martyn Green, a poobah himself where Gilbert and Sullivan were concerned. Green was an important component of The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the premier purveyor of the team’s work, and was a famed Ko-Ko.
And speaking of Ko-Ko, how does Marx do in the role? Let’s say that he certainly sounds better as Ko-Ko than Katharine Hepburn did as Coco. Hearing his distinctive Lower East Side accent is part of the fun: “It is absolutely certain” becomes “It is absolutely soitan” and “gurgled” sounds more like “goigled.” His “Tra-las” in “The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring” result in true falsetto; you can almost see him doing one of his crazy-legged routines to punctuate the action. In short, there’s no question that Marx executed well the part of The Lord High Executioner.