At 6-foot-3, Garry Webberly is a towering figure with a head of white hair and a matching mustache. The 76-year-old Webberly's musical tastes run from classical to classic rock. But for the past 48 years, he’s taken to the stage to perform in volunteer productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
“It’s good music, great dialogue. I love it all,” Webberly said about the operettas that are known for their wit, their absurdly complicated plots and technically-challenging songs.
“I wouldn’t call it a hobby. It’s an enjoyment. Singing is something you just can’t explain; it just raises you. As my wife say, it just lifts you off the ground when you do it. The whole energy flows through you and there’s no other feeling like it that I’ve ever found," he said.
So every spring, you can find Webberly and dozens of others volunteer singers rehearsing in a former public school building in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. It’s here where a retired nuclear engineer, a teacher and even a 13-year-old file in to the headquarters of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society.
Attention To Details: 'We Try And Make It Look As Real As Possible'
Founded in 1954, the society is one of the longest running arts groups in Seattle, and dedicated to producing every one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. There are Gilbert and Sullivan societies throughout the world. The mission of the Seattle group is to provide high-quality, high-production family entertainment. Each production features 30 to 40 cast members, a live orchestra, new costumes and new sets.
For the shows, no detail goes unnoticed. For example, fans used as props are each spray-painted to match the costumes, and hand-detailed with tiny flowers.
“We have a 20-foot rule,” said Mike Storrie, who has been with the organization for 49 years. “If someone can see it, then we try and make it look at real as possible.”
The society has an annual budget of $300,000, which means its annual run of performances at the Bagley Wright Theatre requires the dedication of many volunteer performers.
And that can sometimes mean sacrifices on behalf of the singers. Because they rehearse most weekday evenings in the spring, Webberly has had to miss even anniversary dinners with his wife.
“She’s very gracious about it,” he said. The long evening hours may explain why wife Marilyn Webberly also began volunteering with the society, helping design the show’s posters and painting those aforementioned fans.
'The Mikado': A Show With A Head-Scratcher Of A Plot
This year, the society is producing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” which is set in the made-up town of Titipu in Japan and has a head-scratcher of a plot that involves people falling in love and someone always being threatened with execution (it all ends happily ever after, as G&S operettas tend to do).
Webberly, who will perform in the men’s chorus, will be the oldest person on stage. The youngest will be 13-year-old Lydia Salo, who’ll be performing with the society for the first time.
Among Salo's challenges is learning the fan choreography: singing while dancing and making sure the fan snaps open at the correct times. There’s also working on her English diction of "daughter" (DOT-ter versus dawd-ur).
“Everything that’s in it, all the props, the costumes, all the cast members — I’m a little jealous I don’t get to see it, but I’m super happy I get to be in it,” Salo said.
Salo will play one of the school girls on stage; she’ll be the only one in braces, holding a hand-painted fan.
The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society will present "The Mikado" from July 11 through July 26 at the Bagley Wright Theater in Seattle.
Gilbert And Sullivan In Popular Culture
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas date back to 1880s England. But their comedy and satirical wit have made them popular subjects for spoofs and lampoons. They’ve permeated popular culture to the point that you can probably recognize them even if you don’t know who Gilbert and Sullivan were.
TV shows often reference all things G&S. Here are some of our favorites:
1. We start with a scene from "The West Wing." White House staffers sing "For He Is An Englishman" from "H.M.S. Pinafore" to White House counsel Ainsley Hayes (who’s had a really bad day and is a huge fan of G&S):
2. Comedian Gilda Radner impresses Kermit the Frog with her attempted rendition of "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General" (from "The Pirates of Penzance") in "The Muppet Show." Radner, it should be noted, is serenading a giant carrot (at the 6:11 mark):
3. Lisa Simpson pops in a cassette tape and the entire family sings "Three Little Maids From School Are We" from "The Mikado" in The Simpsons:
4. And here’s the Animaniacs' own unique take (thank you, KPLU's Ed Ronco):