King Oedipus is already having a bad day, and here comes some REALLY bad news...!
All Oedipus wants is to lift the curse that's made his city sick, broke, and pissed off, but all these prophecies keep getting in the way. Could it be true that Oedipus killed the last king without realizing it? Is it possible he's married to his own mother? Does his name really mean "swollen foot"? Maybe Tiresias the Blind Seer knows the answers. But does Oedipus really want to know...?
After shocking the music and theatre worlds by rediscovering Gilbert & Sullivan’s lost masterpiece The Zombies of Penzance
in 2013, and then staging and publishing the controversial original opera, in 2018, now New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller has done it once again. This time, Miller has unearthed Gilbert & Sullivan’s even darker and funnier BLOODY KING OEDIPUS! (or PARDON ME, MUM!), an adult horror-comedy that no one even knew existed until now, based on Sophocles’ iconic Greek tragedy of murder, incest, disfigurement, and suicide, which first debuted in 429 BC.
The legendary British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan together wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896. Or is it sixteen? After rewriting their original Zombies of Penzance at the insistence of producer Richard D’Oyly Carte, the team premiered The Pirates of Penzance in 1879. Until now, scholars believed that their next project was the pastoral satire Patience in 1881. But we now know that isn’t true. After the huge success of HMS Pinafore and Pirates, the team decided to tackle something a bit weightier. According to personal papers found with the manuscript, it was Gilbert who suggested three unlikely possibilities, Dante’s Inferno, the Book of Revelation, and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. The partners both agreed that Inferno and Armageddon would both pose substantial logistical challenges in staging, so they agreed to tackle Oedipus the King, set in Thebes, a Greek city-state in the 13th century BC.
In his Oedipus libretto, Gilbert stayed curiously faithful to the plot and characters of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy – until the end of the show, when Gilbert evidently couldn’t restrain himself from adding a cheeky, Gilbertian twist, upending as usual everything that’s come before. It’s safe to say Sophocles would not have sanctioned Gilbert’s much more comic ending. The finished Oedipus score included song titles like, “We’ve Been Very, Very Sick,” “I Can See Now I Was Blind,” “Now This is Quite Awkward,” “So Our King Just Might Have Murdered Our Last King,” and “He Hasn’t Taken It Too Well.” It wasn’t until the final draft that Gilbert renamed the piece Bloody King Oedipus!, complete with exclamation point.
As he had done when encountering The Zombies of Penzance, Richard D’Oyly Carte refused to produce the gory Bloody King Oedipus!, convinced that Gilbert & Sullivan had both lost their minds and, more to the point, that their audience would not want to see the hero of their latest comic opera gouge both his eyes out after his wife hangs herself, notwithstanding the beautiful music and clever interior rhymes. Gilbert was enraged all over again, but eventually gave in (all over again) and wrote an entirely new libretto to Sullivan’s finished score, now as the gentle pastoral satire Patience, leaving virtually nothing of the original Oedipus! text, except the single phrase, “Ah, misery!”
One song in particular illustrates vividly this tumultuous period in the partnership. Originally titled “They Leave Me Alone” in The Zombies of Penzance, the song was then cut when Gilbert revised Zombies into the less controversial Pirates of Penzance. The song was then pulled back out of the trunk for their next show, Bloody King Oedipus!, now as the King’s song, “I’m So Far Ahead of You.” When Oedipus! was rewritten as Patience, the song was retained but retitled again, this time, “I Cannot Tell What This Love May Be.” Later on, in the late 1890s, the popular opera singer Elizabeth Poole made a hit out of one last, unauthorized iteration of the song with a new lyric by the Rev. Edwin Ufford, improbably titled, “The Jammiest Bits of Jam We Are.”
In 2018, Miller was contacted by an American college student studying in London, who had come across the original manuscript of Bloody King Oedipus!, while cataloguing some newly discovered private papers of Richard D’Oyly Carte’s cousin Maud Birtwistle. There among the correspondence was a letter written by the outraged producer, though evidently never mailed, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, insisting on the excommunication of Gilbert from the Church of England due to this “second un-Christian opera in a row, the ungodly Bloody King Oedipus!”
The discovery of this second lost Gilbert & Sullivan horror opera now forces a reexamination of the team’s entire output, and what we thought we knew about their taste in source material. Scholars have always agreed that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote fourteen operas. Today, we know it’s really sixteen. It has also been widely documented that Gilbert urged Sullivan in 1885 to work on a Frankenstein adaptation, though Sullivan declined. What other experiments did they try that we have yet to unearth?
Whether or not we’ll ever find others, Bloody King Oedipus! finally makes its debut, and King Oedipus, Queen Jocasta, General Creon, Milo the Herald, and all of Thebes sing at last. Miller has painstakingly reassembled these rediscovered materials into their original form; and St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes has reconstructed Sullivan’s music, after doing the same with The Zombies of Penzance.
New Line Theatre will present a public reading of the rediscovered show on January 6, 2020. The company has not yet announced a full production.
For the reading, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor will play King Oedipus; with Kimi Short as Queen Jocasta; Kent Coffel as Gen. Creon; and Zachary Allen Farmer as Tiresias the Blind Seer, and Milo the Herald, and also Phorbus the Shepherd, with Mara Bollini, Robert Doyle, Melissa Felps, Evan Fornachon, Stephen Henley, Brittany Hester, Ann Hier, Matt Hill, Melanie Kozak, Ian McCreary, Chris Moore, and Sarah Porter. The reading will be directed by Scott Miller and music directed by Nicolas Valdez.
Praise for The Zombies of Penzance
"Another triumph for New Line. . . a hilariously inspired joke."
-- Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatcch
"Both a nightmare and a delight — let's call it a delightmare."
-- Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times
"Uproarious." -- Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast
"It's amazing. . . so much fun." -- Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL
"A wonderful whirlwind of apocalyptic delight."
-- Tanya Seale, BroadwayWorld
"Reverently irreverent and witty. . . a delightfully fun, pointedly funny musical."
-- Tina Farmer KDHX