Monday, March 01, 2010

A comic genius has died

John Reed Dies at 94

I won't be surprised if most of you never heard of the guy.

Here's a semi-obscure fact about me: I love Gilbert and Sullivan plays. Love em. I can rattle off the plot lines and characters of ten of their major plays, and have at one time or another memorized at least one song from each of these, and in many cases a significant chunk of the score. (But I'm not gay! Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

A large part of the credit goes to my father, who took my sister and me to see HMS Pinafore when I was eleven. The production was so good that he hired the director to handle a family-only production of The Mikado for my bar mitzvah, in which I played the role of Koko, the comic lead.

Dad was also an early adopter of the brand new audio technology known as Compact Discs, in the early 1980's. Some of the first CD audio recordings he bought for his extensive classical music library were soundtracks from the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and I think every single one of them featured John Reed in a major role.

See, G&S operettas are almost universally comedies, and I love comedy, but the major plot is usually some quasi-serious topic involving a love story with some significant and frequently bizarre obstacles. So there are a lot of famous songs that are essentially love ballads, and I tend to skip past those. The part that I like is where the funny guy shows up, who is either a walking satire of some trope of Victorian England, or makes wry and sarcastic observations about such tropes. This guy's signature song tends to be very rapid paced and difficult to say. Not only does he have to provide spot-on comic timing and delivery, but he has to flawlessly spit out tongue twisters, on pitch and at as fast a tempo as possible. These are called "patter songs."

That was John Reed's gig. If you know any of his material, it will probably be "I am the very model of a modern major general" from The Pirates of Penzance. He also played my role, Koko in The Mikado, and I'm sure that at 13 years old I shamelessly ripped off his performance as much as I was able to. His other roles included a prancing, self-absorbed poet who represented Oscar Wilde, a self-deprecating impoverished nobleman, and a lecherous old judge... among many others.

When I was a teenager I went to a summer camp in Colorado, and each year after the month of camp ended, we always went to the University of Colorado in Boulder where John Reed had taken over the theatrical organization and cranked out a new Gilbert and Sullivan production every year. He was about 70 years old at this point, but he kept on stealing the show when he managed to show up in his traditional parts, or wrung a similarly excellent performance out of whatever younger actor was available to replace him when he couldn't go on. A highlight of these shows was that the funniest songs would get a series of encores, each one more over the top and wackier than the last.

John Reed made to 94, and it seems to me like he had an unusually long, enjoyable, and hilarious career. So as a sign-off for one of my favorite performers of all time, I'll toss off a verse from Jack Point, his character in Yeoman of the Guard, for comedians and Fools of all generations:

I can set a braggart quailing with a quip,
The upstart I can wither with a whim;
He may wear a merry laugh upon his lip,
But his laughter has an echo that is grim!
When they're offered to the world in merry guise,
Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will -
For he who'd make his fellow creatures wise
Should always gild the philosophic pill!

1 comment:

  1. At last - something we have in common, Russell ( apart from being atheist , and not gay - lol!)
    I can't claim your knowledge, based purely on artistic appreciation, but I had occasion to learn and rehearse them as a performer, a time or two.
    Modesty aside,I made quite an impact with the "Modern Major General" in particular.
    Frankly, as a singer, my love affair is with the melodies as much as the lyrics.
    My point being, as I needed to rehearse them, I had trouble finding a good character performance of the songs. Knowing about this late,great gentleman would certainly have helped me pofoundly, at that time.