The VOS sat down with Hugh Stewart, Music Director for Hats Off!, opening February 13th at Victoria Hall in Cobourg.
VOS: Hugh, you’ve been with the VOS for a long time as a board member, performer, tech team member. What’s your background, musically and with the works of Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan?
Hugh: I remember singing as part of a family quartet when I was five. Our mother taught us singing in harmony using Sol Fa. She put me in piano lessons when I was 9 and I took singing through high school, including doing G&S at end of school year, and studied music through to first year university. I sang with a number of groups including the Scottish National Youth Choir under Dr. George McPhee, and the Savoy Club under Stanley Thomson. We performed G&S in the Kings Theatre in Glasgow and unfortunately I could not get enough of it.
Canada interrupted music study. In ’85 I joined a local choir led by Philip Schaus. Philip called me one Sunday afternoon saying he had given my name and number to a person called Ruth who would be calling me. Within ten minutes Ruth called and I found myself singing with her in Trial By Jury. We followed that with G&S reviews. I traveled around Ontario for years and sang with local choirs. When I landed back in Cobourg I reconnected with old friends now in the VOS. I sang my first show with VOS as a lead in Pinafore.
Ruth had a very humorous side, as we know very well. In that ’86 performance of Trial my character, The Defendant, enters an emotionally packed court house to a jury already sympathetically biased toward the Plaintive. Ruth changed one of my first lines to “Be strong, be strong my resolve”. On the first gathering of the cast, the Read Through, the group fell apart as I said that line while the cast read the actual line, “Be firm, be firm my pecker”. Ruth did not wish any possible offense by the once innocent words.
VOS: So how did this project, Hats Off!, come about?
HUGH: Ruth made a great impact on my life during late ’80s, and after she passed last year a number of us began chattering about honouring her name and life’s work through a yearly scholarship which would be funded by donations and proceeds from a G&S review. We bounced the idea around and I knew I would want to be in a leading role in this project. Liz and I asked that our friend Keith Pickett join in leading the show. The VOS Board has been wonderfully supportive in this endeavour, and I know this would have made Ruth very proud.
VOS: Tell us about Ruth. She made an incredible difference to the arts community in this area. VOS THEATRE wouldn’t be here unless she had decided to do that very first show.
Hugh: Ruth spent her years as a teacher and opera singer in New York and as part of traveling opera shows throughout the States. When she retired she returned to her home town. Not one to take retirement sitting down she decided to put forward a proposal to the Northumberland Players to produce a G&S show as a benefit concert so NP could take over the Old Firehall behind Victoria Hall. Ruth made this show happen as producer, director, music director, casting director, costume mistress, and almost every other production role. After a few short months and 16 performances to packed audiences in the “Old Bailey” Courthouse in Vic Hall Ruth delivered a substantial boost to the realization of an NP dream.
People involved with Ruth during that 1986 production of Trial By Jury and subsequent productions through the late 80s supported her in her drive to perform G&S and other great shows to Northumberland County audiences. While doing all this Ruth supported and ran the Northumberland Music Festival which is a huge reason this area has the tremendous musical talent it enjoys today. That old saying “build it and they will come” could have been said about Ruth’s commitment to nurturing the musical abilities of the youth of Northumberland County.
With the above in mind “Hats Off!” is one way local people, whether touched by Ruth’s boundless enthusiasm, delighted in local musical theatre, or enriched by musical training, can ‘pay forward’ and keep the development of local musical talent alive, that driving force behind everything Ruth did.
Hats Off – A Gilbert & Sullivan Revue opens February 13th and runs through 2 more performances on February 14th.
VOS: You’ve been the resident lights and sound designer for VOS THEATRE for many years but you wear two hats. You were a regular lead in most of our Gilbert and Sullivan productions and now you are revisiting G&S in February’s Hat’s Off! What appeals to you about Gilbert and Sullivan? What would you tell a young person who had never heard of G&S about the music.
Bob Clark: The things that appealed to me about Gilbert and Sullivan were the very clever lyrics and a silly story line. The music is complex and very unusual with references back to an earlier time. If I was speaking to a young person who had no experience with Gilbert and Sullivan I would impress upon them the fact that this music is well crafted and performed by a cast playing very satirical characters. It is unlike anything else that you’re likely to see in musical theatre or for that matter in other forms of entertainment. I would suggest that they come and expect to have an enjoyable time.
VOS: The performance on Feb. 13,14,15 serve a couple of purposes. Profits will go towards the newly formed Ruth Harcort scholarship but it is also the organization’s Valentine to our founder, Ruth Harcort, who passed away in 2014. Tell us about Ruth.
BC: Ruth was a very dynamic lady with a wealth of experience in theatre. She was very willing to share her experience and her joy of making music with anyone who expressed an interest. She was a very outgoing lady who enjoyed a laugh and having fun. I think the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan to her was that sense of fun; the complete lack of seriousness that it presents.
VOS: When the organization began it focused on G&S productions for a few years. Ruth was motivated to bring them to the Cobourg stage. How have productions changed between then and now and do you think that G&S productions would benefit or be hindered by modern theatre technology such as projection.
BC: I’m no expert on modern theatre technology but I certainly have experienced, as part of the VOS, a very dramatic change in the technology that we use in our productions. The initial Gilbert and Sullivan productions where performed without the benefit of individual body mikes and certainly without the benefit of projection. My recollection is that the costuming was done mainly out of Ruth’s attic and the emphasis was on having fun and presenting a piece of theatre that the audience could enjoy. I don’t think that that has changed dramatically (except for the attic part) although the technology has become more sophisticated. I think the essence of our productions are to engage the audience and share with them the fun and excitement that we feel as performers.
VOS: The Duke of Plaza Toro, Dick Deadeye, Poobah in Mikado – which role did you find the most challenging?
BC: With respect to the roles that I played it in the G&S productions they all presented creative challenges for me. The Duke of Plaza Toro, as with most comedic roles, had to be played completely straight in order to be funny and I hope it was. I have very little experience taking on the role of a villain in a production but I thoroughly enjoyed Deadeye Dick. I don’t know how villanous it actually was onstage but it was great fun trying. The Grand Poohbah in Mikado was the most challenging make-up we had done to date. I know we’ve had more dramatic nightmares since then with the latex in Shrek and quick transitions in Wizard of Oz but at the time it was a real challenge. I remember leaving the theatre as Poobah without taking my make-up off and stopping for milk at a local convenience store. The clerk was in shock and I had actually forgotten that I was still in full make-up. I’m certain he thought he was about to be robbed.
VOS: Best G&S costume?
BC: With regard to the best G&S costume I think that would probably go to the Duchess of Plaza Toro because as I remember, her [Liz Clark’s] costume had a replica of a ship in her rather large and heavy wig. As for my own costumes the Poohbah costume was probably the most elaborate one.
VOS: Toughest lyrics?
BC: Once you got into the flow of things the lyrics didn’t seem to be that difficult. I do remember in Iolanthe the Sentry lyrics were probably the most challenging that I have attempted.
VOS: People will attend Hats Off! to show their appreciation for Ruth’s contribution to the arts community and to support the scholarship that will be awarded young people in her name. That’s a given. But tell us about the show. If you were coming strictly for entertainment why buy a ticket?
BC: I hope that people attend both to support the scholarship and also because G&S is just a fine satirical type of musical theatre that really doesn’t take itself too seriously and affords those of us who are singing an opportunity to enjoy some great music and some challenging lyrics. The cast that has been assembled for this production is an extraordinary one, with individuals who both have experience presenting G&S and those who are just now experiencing the fun for the first time. You really shouldn’t miss it. Come to honour Ruth’s memory, come to hear popular songs from Pinafore, Mikado and Pirates……….just come. All profits from the show go towards the VOS new scholarship so you’ll get a great evening of entertainment and know that you helped a young person obtain higher education. Ruth would have liked that.
VOS THEATRE will present Hats Off! February 13 and 14 at Victoria Hall in Cobourg. The Gilbert and Sullivan revue is meant to honour our founder Ruth Harcort, who passed last year. The profits from the show will go directly to the newly created Ruth Harcort Memorial Scholarship fund.
We recently met up with Keith Pickett, artistic director.
VOS: Tell us about the roles you played in VOS THEATRE G&S productions. You’re the VOS’s patter song performer! Are they fun or just a nightmare to remember?
Keith Pickett: They are fun, I don’t seem to have much difficulty with the memory work (fingers crossed) and, in any case, the audience is always very forgiving. I generally make up a verse lampooning a local event or politics and both audience and cast look forward to that.
VOS: As we remember it, you directed one and were in it. How was that?
KP: I directed the second production of “Pinafore” in 2000 and played The First Lord of the Admiralty, which I had also played under Ruth Harcort’s direction in 1991. The role was comfortable and I felt confident in tackling both.
This was not the case when I directed The Mikado, I would have loved to play KOKO but cast Wes Walton in that role. Still haven’t had the opportunity and it is probably too late now.
VOS: Ruth Harcort made an amazing contribution to the local arts community and founded the VOS. This show is essentially a tribute to her and a means of funding the new scholarship in her name. Tell us a story, your favourite memory of Ruth.
KP: In 1986 I found myself with some time on my hands and, as luck would have it, I saw an audition notice for Trial by Jury to be directed by Ruth Harcort. I thought, why not, having always had an interest in G&S. Well I showed up for the audition and, as I thought, Ruth and I hit it off, remember, I had never been on stage to this point. She told me she would let me know in a couple of days. Well two weeks went by and I hadn’t heard and was very disappointed, I thought I was good enough for the chorus until I had a call from Ruth at about 11:00pm, (I was in bed,) Inviting me to play the Judge. Ruth was the perfect introduction to theatre and I was privileged to work with her many times after that first experience.
VOS: So Hats Off! You have assembled a fantastic cast and you and Hugh Stewart have been working tirelessly to put together something worthy of a tribute to our founder. Tell us about the show.
KP: You are right we have some great voices and to accompany those voices we have one of the finest pianists in the area, Susan Tanner has a history in the entertainment business and has worked with local choirs and with VOS Theatre in the past. Also Hugh (Stewart – Music Director) has been doing some wonderful work with the cast learning music.
Essentially we have put together a selection of highlight songs from six of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Comic Operas, the original idea was to use only shows which VOS had staged. However since Ruth had assembled a number of later VOS stalwarts in her Trial by Jury, Hugh and I made an executive decision to put a number from that show in. It makes a good opening to our show.
This will be a fast paced musical show with little or no dialogue. We are not attempting to tell a story just to have some fun singing fun songs and we anticipate some audience participation. I expect many of the audience to be familiar with most of the content.
VOS: The organization hasn’t performed G&S in years. What’s the appeal of their work?
KP: First of all I think the glorious tuneful music of Sullivan. Listen to a recording of Gondoliers and you have to be uplifted by the lilting cheerfulness of the music, much of it based on Italian folk tunes.
No less, the use of language by Gilbert and his topsy turvy plots, who else might think of an executioner being required to cut off his own head. They are truly “Comic Operas.”
VOS: In closing, have you identified a favourite moment in this show at this point in the rehearsals?
KP: When Liz asked me to be involved!
You can book tickets to Hats Off! by calling the Box Office at Victoria Hall at 905-372-2210 or online here.