Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jan 29 11:52:39 MST 2000

Best known for his semi-improvised cinematic representations of
dysfunctional families and personal relationships trapped in the oppressive
web of British class society, director and screenwriter Mike Leigh seemed
like an unlikely candidate for a film based on the career of Gilbert and
Sullivan. The surprise is that he not only has produced one of the greatest
entertainment biographies of all time, one that is faithful to the
effervescent quality of Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas, he has also
managed to tell the story of the frustration and suffering that went on
behind the scenes. In doing so, he remains faithful to the humanitarian
spirit that defined his earlier work.

"Topsy-Turvy" proceeds from the time in G&S's career when critics have
begun to detect a loss of creativity. Opening with the debut of "Princess
Ida", we see librettist Sir William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) in a rage over
a review stating that the new work merely repeats well-worn themes that
have already appeared in their work over the past 25 years. However,
composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) agrees completely with the
negative review and announces his refusal to collaborate with Gilbert until
he has had the chance to compose a serious opera based on a lofty theme
rather than another entertainment.

This coincidentally is the aspiration of film-maker John L. Sullivan in
Preston Sturges's screwball comedy "Sullivan's Travels", who is tired of
making comedies. This Sullivan wants to break free of contractual ties to a
Hollywood film studio in order to make a film about the plight of the
common man during the depths of the depression, while the other Sullivan
wants to be more like Verdi or Wagner. (Sullivan did manage to create one
serious opera--Ivanhoe--which remains justly neglected.) D'Oyly Carte  (Ron
Cook), under whom Gilbert and Sullivan are obliged to contractually, has
the same attitude toward Arthur Sullivan that the film moguls have in
"Sullivan's Travels": why rock the boat. Not only does the tried and true
please the people, it also generates revenue. In essence, this is the
primary source of dramatic tension in "Topsy-Turvy", namely the conflict
between art and commerce.

Ever the hard-headed realist, Gilbert is depicted phoning the theater
box-office each morning after a performance in order to record the receipts
into a ledger book in his library. (One of the film's merits is its
attention to period detail. The phone is an unwieldy contraption which
forces people on either end to begin and end each exchange with, "I am
speaking now. Can you hear me." It has been argued, by the way, that the
period of the most rapid technological change in human history is exactly
the period depicted in "Topsy-Turvy", when telephones, telegraphs,
steamships and electrical lights were first being introduced.)

This cash nexus is reflected not only between the clash between Gilbert and
Sullivan, but also in the manner in which the repertory company in the
Savoy Theater struggled for a sense of dignity and accomplishment when
management regarded them merely as wage labor.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, the principal male
actor-singers meet with impresario D'Oyly Carte for a salary review. James
Grossmith (Martin Savage) is told that he is to receive a 7.5 percent
review, which is not only less than he expected, but undermines his sense
of self-worth as an artist. Anybody who has ever been subject to a
performance review in a corporation, upon which salary increases are based,
will appreciate how demeaning this experience can be. Performing for
Grossmith is as daunting a task as it is for modern-day performers and he
resorts to the same crutch favored by many a rock star, the heroin needle.
On the evening of the first performance of "The Mikado," Grossmith is shown
 in his dressing-room plunging a needle into a scarred arm just five
minutes before the opening curtain.

The females also have it tough. Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), the
Savoy's ingénue, is not only an alcoholic, she can't seem to find a
unmarried man who will take an interest in her. As soon as she mentions
that she has a young son from a previous marriage, they shun her. When
co-star Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson) suggests that she sing at recitals
in the home of London's wealthy, so as to meet eligible bachelors, Braham
complains about the class prejudices that she finds there. Meanwhile, Bond
performs on and offstage flirtatiously night after night, despite a
festering leg wound which she gamely has fresh bandages applied to each day.

Despite the pain and frustrations of people from top to bottom of the chain
involved in producing these light-hearted operettas, when they mount the
stage we and the audience are left with sheer pleasure. This is one of the
great accomplishments of Leigh's film. It ranks with Ingmar Bergman's
filming of an onstage performance of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." What gives
Leigh's filming of G&S's classic ensemble pieces even more power is its
unstinting but compassionate portrayal of the cast's vulnerabilities.

Louis Proyect
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