Harvard alumna Nell Benjamin, who recently finished penning the music and lyrics for Broadway’s Legally Blonde, was initially reluctant to change a word of the original Gilbert and Sullivan operetta she loved as a child. But after a little wining and dining by director Gordon Greenberg she warmed up to the idea. Here in a conversation with Artistic Associate M. Bevin O’Gara, Benjamin talks about her process and why she adores The Pirates of Penzance.
Director Gordon Greenberg said you were an obvious choice for this project because you have such an appreciation and a love for Gilbert and Sullivan. What is it about the original piece and the rest of their work that you admire?
To say I’m a fan isn’t exactly true; I’m more of a groupie. Basically, it’s work that was immediately relevant at the time, it was perfect, spot-on funny, “Saturday Night Live” satire and has lasted through the ages because it’s so incredibly witty. Gilbert’s wit, lyrics, and rhymes are just astonishing to me. Sullivan’s tunes are fantastic and they’re this wonderful mix of classicism, church music, and popular tune. I was exposed to it at a young age and I didn’t understand most of it, but I still laughed. It’s like Bugs Bunny that way. When you’re young and you watch old Bugs Bunny cartoons and he’s doing a Bette Davis imitation and you have no idea who that is, but you’re still laughing because it’s funny, it hits on a very sophisticated level and on a very silly level. Gilbert and Sullivan’s jokes are that way; they can be incredibly silly or dumb and yet oddly sophisticated at the same time. There’s a run in the show, mixing up the words “orphan” and “often,” and some people derisively say, “Did you put the pun run in there?” And I say, “No, that was there.” People have this elevated idea of Gilbert and Sullivan, thinking they must be done in a serious or praiseworthy Victorian way, but they themselves had an enormous appreciation for the plain and silly, which Gordon and I have as well. What became the challenge (and it was a scary one), was changing Gilbert and Sullivan in such a way as to be true to that spirit and allow people who might not be as big fans of Gilbert and Sullivan as I am to appreciate it.
How did you start on this collaboration?
We started with the idea, and then Gordon started with wine and flattery to get me to actually change more than I thought was going to change. The most important moment in terms of the shape that the show eventually took was when Gordon said we needed to think of it as an “out of town musical,” and if we were writing the musical from scratch, what are some things we would do? How would we edit it if it weren’t Gilbert and Sullivan? What I wanted was to make all the songs move the plot along, as that’s not always the case with Gilbert and Sullivan songs. There was this wonderful musical tradition where you just stood there and sang a silly song. Once we realized we had to tell more of the story in song, that led us to thinking about which songs were important to the story and streamlined it. In the original story the pirates are fixated on the prospect of marrying these daughters. You don’t usually think of pirates as the marrying kind, so it’s odd them harping on this all the time. I thought since they’re going to say this constantly, let’s have a good reason why they’re obsessed with marrying these girls. That became my idea for the curse that we incorporated into the plot. Why did they want to marry them? Well, because they have to. The idea of cursed pirates is certainly not a new one, and we thought here we could have more of the piracy and less of the Penzance, and everybody can enjoy that. Once we tightened the plot arc it became easier to see our way forward to a musical that has everything hopefully that you like in Gilbert and Sullivan but moves forward with the pace and timing that people expect from a modern musical.
You’ve done the production twice now. Are you going to continue to tweak as you go into rehearsals here?
We’re going to continue to tweak like crazy. It’s odd when you think that we got great reviews and everyone seemed to love it, but I still think we need to keep meddling. What did someone say? “Musicals never finish. They just open.” What we want to do is take what we’ve discovered so far, both from the actors and the audiences and go even further and find all those lovely moments of piracy and idiocy we haven’t perhaps capitalized on to the best of our abilities.
This production includes songs from other Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. Why did you pull other material of theirs instead of writing a new song?
Writing entirely new music and lyrics didn’t seem to be in the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan. They have a fantastic repertoire of stuff and we wanted it ultimately to be based on their work. Writing some new lyrics became necessary to advance the plot through song and keeping it on message. When we decided we were going to introduce the idea of the curse, I remembered there was another curse entirely in Ruddigore. I said, here we’ve got this great pirate curse tradition and this great Gilbert and Sullivan curse tradition, let’s smush them together. The song is the same scansion, same rhyme scheme, and the same tune, preserving the original brilliance and intent with new lyrics, new ideas; a Gilbert and Sullivan tradition modified.
What do you think that Gilbert and Sullivan would think of your adaptation?
Gilbert, as he was a complete control freak, would be horrified and appalled that we dared to mess with this stuff. If we had done this to someone else’s material, he would be delighted and definitely laugh at it. That’s flattering myself, but I really do believe Gilbert would get that this is in the spirit of his topsy-turvy comedy. It’s just that we messed with his stuff — that would probably annoy him, but he’s dead, and as they say dead men tell no tales.
When you mentioned The Pirates of Penzance the first thing that comes to mind is “Modern Major General.” Were you intimidated at starting to alter those lyrics?
ABSOLUTELY. I wasn’t going to do it at all. I didn’t want to touch it. But as we worked we discovered some interesting things. First, our character of the Major General is a different type of character than the original. The original character and the original point of “Modern Major General” was based on an existing general who everybody would have known — it was tensioned political commentary. This particular general had allowed several stunning defeats due to poor tactical planning. So the original idea was a song about a “perfect” military man who understands all the theory but knew nothing about actual soldiering and had no concept of combat. This was hysterically funny and very relevant at the time. Today that’s not a joke we get, it’s not the politics of our day. We talked about a Major General who is very gung-ho about spreading his personal brand of democracy and civilization to people he doesn’t understand. That became our social commentary, and our Major General is this wonderful guy who thinks the sun never sets on the British Empire and he’s going to extend that empire by force if necessary.
You recently worked on Legally Blonde: The Musical. Can you talk about the differences between adapting an existing theatrical work and adapting a movie?
There’s only so much we could manage to mess up on Legally Blonde without having people come out of the woodwork and say that’s not what Elle Woods would do. There were a lot of hectic people, as opposed to working on Gilbert and Sullivan, where we had a little more free reign. Legally Blonde had no songs but had a very clear plot, so we had something to follow. In some cases like “Bend and Snap,” we wrestled really hard with figuring out how to work it in because the original material mandated so much. When you’re working with material that people care about, or like because they liked the movie, they feel very strongly one way or the other about whether or not there should or should not be a “Bend and Snap.” The two pieces are similar in that sense. People feel very strongly about what should be in a Gilbert and Sullivan show, people feel very strongly about what should be in a Legally Blonde show. Hopefully you hit all the points that made people love the movie or the original musical, but it’s not just a rehash where you sit there thinking, “Why didn’t I just see the movie or why didn’t I just listen to my old recording of Gilbert and Sullivan?” You want to bring something new and still respect the original.
Your work spans a lot of different styles. What would you say is the unifying element of your work?
I’d prefer to write a comedy any day because I personally would rather be laughing while I’m learning something. And one of the fun things about comedy — and we certainly have this in Pirates! — is the idea that many of the disasters of the world are started by very satisfied, stupid people who cheerfully believe themselves to be right without thinking too hard about whether they actually are. In comedy you have those people and they can be funny; you can point at them and laugh at them, and hopefully when someone like that tries to convince you to join their cause or give them money or vote for them you will be a little more wary. Hopefully all of our characters are great fun to watch but also make you think a little bit about what kind of people they are.