Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 13 operettas. Of those 13, there are the three biggies -- HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Of these three, Mikado has always been my favorite. It was Gilbert Russak's KoKo that made me a Lamplighters fan back in the 1960s.
Koko was one of the two roles for which Gilbert was best known, so it has always been kind of sacrosanct for me. When we first saw the show at the old Harding Theater in San Francisco, back in the early 1960s, I just loved it and dragged Walt back time and time again whenever Gilbert was doing the role (they were double cast, so sometimes someone else was playing--we got free ushering tickets). (Ironically it was not until nearly 20 years later that I actually met Gilbert and he ended up being my best friend)
Back in 1884-85, when the show was written, Gilbert & Sullivan had a few hits under their belt and Gilbert wanted to do another, but Sullivan was tired of what he felt was the same formula in each operetta and only agreed to do another one if Gilbert could come up with a new idea.
At that time England was going through a craze of "all things Japanese," as a result of rapidly increasing European trade with Japan. He had already completed the first act of Mikado when an exhibition of all things Japanese opened in Knightsbridge and as they were going into rehearsals, Gilbert invited some of the ladies from the Knightsbridge exposition to come to help the cast of his Mikado to get all the proper gestures and mannerisms right.
For more than 100 years, The Mikado has enjoyed world wide popularity (in 1888 at least 150 companies all over the world were producing it). It has been performed for at least two Japanese emperors visiting England (one of whom requested it) and was performed in Japan many times.
However, times have changed. We live in times of political correctness and the show has come under growing criticism by the Asian-American community for promoting "orientalist" stereotypes. In 2014 a production in Seattle was attacked by a newspaper as "yellowface...in your face." A year later there was such a firestorm about an upcoming production by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan players that they withdrew it altogether. Similar complaints have had similar results all over the country.
When two local Asian-American theater companies threatened to picket every performance of the Lamplighters upcoming production, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Lamplighters San Francisco home for many years, threatened to cancel their lease.
At first the company made an outreach to the Asian American acting community, inviting them to audition for the show, but not enough people showed up to fill a cast of 40 and those who were interested apparently did not want to be in a production that also had Caucasians in "yellowface." (Ironically, I remember a production of Brigadoon that Walt and I saw decades ago which was put on by the Chinese Cultural Center, where every single Scott in the show was Chinese)
The Lamplighters had to do something. They came up with the idea of setting the story in Italy (Milan, since the opening song goes "We are gentlemen of Japan" and "We are gentlemen of Milan" fits perfectly), and making minimal changes to the libretto (as it turns out only about 1-2% of the libretto was changed) and set it in the town of Tirmisu (instead of Titipu) during the period of the Renaissance, which gave the opportunity for opulent non-Japanese costumes.
They changed character names: The Mikado became "Il Ducato, the Emperor of Milan"; his son Nanki-Poo becomes Niccolu (the only name I really didn't like). Koko is now Coco; Pooh Bah, the Lord High Everything is now Pooba; Pish Tush the other nobleman is Piccia Tuccia. Nanki-Poo is in love with Yum Yum, who is now Amiam, The Mikado's two wards, Pitti Sing and Peep Bo are now Pizzi and Pippa and the gorgon who is in love with Nanki-Poo who was once Katisha is now Catiscia. Except for Niccolu all the names sound so similar to the original that you don't miss the old names.
Best of all Coco, played by the incomparable Lawrence Ewing, did not disappoint.
Shown here with Bill Neil as Pooba...loved him, hated the hat!
There are minimal, minimal changes in dialog. Anything obviously Japanese was rewritten, but that involved only the opening song, and a couple of chants supposedly in Japanese. Otherwise it is exactly as W.S. Gilbert wrote it.
The biggest change from the original is in the choreography, which the Lamplighters had been using, pretty much unchanged, for 60+ years. You expect the 3 little maids to have fans and use them in a specific way. You expect Koko to carry a big scimitar and things like that. The new choreography is as faithful to Renaissance Italy as the old was to 19th century Japan. But it really works.
There has been lots and lots of controversy about this production. Purists (I admit to being one) wanted to boycott. The two founders of the company didn't think the Lamplighters should bend to the pressure. Ticket sales fell off.
I originally did not want to see the show, but ultimately decided that I needed to see exactly what they had done to it before condemning it out of hand, and was pleasantly surprised. All the stuff they did works, setting the story outside of Japan doesn't alter the story at all...and, in fact, when you remove the Japanese setting all those barbs which were aimed at 19th century Britain work even better. The replacement lyrics and dialog are inspired (the Lamplighters have the most brilliant writers around, they have reverence for the original text and write things that might have been written by W.S. Gilbert himself.)
The changes were minimal. In the original, for example Koko, in describing a supposed execution, says "I seized him by his little pigtail" which was changed to "I seized him by the scruff of the neck..."
I constantly thought, as I watched the show, that for someone who had never seen the original, this would be a fresh new show and they'd love it. The theater wasn't full, as it should have been for The Mikado and I can only assume it was all those people who don't want anybody messing with their Mikado.
I hope they give it a chance and go with an open mind. I did and I'm glad that I did.
The ultimate squelch was that in looking over the chorus I realized that there are more Asians in the cast than I have ever seen in a Lamplighter show before!