Gilbert & Sullivan's long-lost, original "operatic abomination," in its wacky world premiere!
New Line Theatre, “the bad boy of musical theatre,” has shocked the music world by discovering a long-lost first draft by the legendary British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, who together wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896.
One of the team's best known works, The Pirates of Penzance, originally debuted in New York in 1879, and was revived to great success in the early 1980s with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. What we now know is that there was an earlier, stranger draft of the show, which nobody knew about until now, with most of the same characters but a somewhat different plot.
In Gilbert & Sullivan's never-before seen original draft, dated December 1878 and titled The Zombies of Penzance (with the unwieldy subtitle, At Night Come the Flesh Eaters), Major-General Stanley is a retired zombie hunter, who doesn't want his daughters marrying the dreaded Zombies of Penzance (for obvious reasons). According to documents found with the manuscripts, Gilbert and Sullivan finished work on The Zombies of Penzance in early 1879, but their producer Richard D’Oyly-Carte refused to produce it, calling it vulgar, impolitic, and unchristian, and in one letter, "an operatic abomination, an obscene foray into the darkest of the occult arts." In a letter to his cousin, Gilbert expressed his deep disappointment, writing "I fear the walking dead shall be the end of me yet."
Until now, music scholars had been baffled by that reference.
After a battle that almost ended the partnership, the team reluctantly agreed to rewrite their show, and in December 1879, D'Oyly-Carte debuted the much more conventional, revised version, The Pirates of Penzance, for which Gilbert added the characters of Ruth and the policemen, and incorporated plot devices from his 1870 work Our Island Home and from Offenbach’s The Bandits. As he had agreed, Gilbert eliminated all references to zombism in the show.
Gilbert would do a full rewrite of their next show Patience as well, completely reimagining the plot and main characters, though this time not at D’Oyly-Carte’s insistence.
In 2013, New Line artistic director Scott Miller discovered the original manuscripts for The Zombies of Penzance in the second sub-basement of the Judson Memorial Church in New York, hidden beneath some moldy band parts from Rockabye Hamlet and Shogun the Musical, and Miller set about reconstructing the bizarre original show as G&S intended. Gilbert's walking dead and their Zombie King now make their long-delayed world premiere. Miller has painstakingly reassembled these rediscovered materials into their original form, and St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes is reconstructing Sullivan's music.
Now, for the first time, audiences will be able to see and hear the comic, flesh-eating insanity Gilbert & Sullivan originally wrought. New Line will host a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January 2018, and then produce the show fully in October 2018, to open New Line's 28th season.
The New Line cast will include Sean Michael as Frederic, Melissa Felps as Mabel, Zachay Allen Farmer as Major General Stanley, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as the Zombie King, with Mara Bollini, Kent Coffel, Kevin Corpuz, Robert Doyle, Evan Fornachon, Joel Hackbarth, Matt Hill, Lindsey Jones, Melanie Kozak, Sarah Porter, Christina Rios, and Kimi Short, with music direction by Sarah Nelson.