ST. LOUIS, MO . . . New Line Theatre, “the bad boy of musical theatre,” has shocked the music world by discovering a long-lost first draft by the legendary British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, who together wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896.
One of the team’s best known works, The Pirates of Penzance, originally debuted in New York in 1879, and was revived to great success in the early 1980s with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. What we now know is that there was an earlier, stranger draft of the show, which nobody knew about until now, with most of the same characters but a somewhat different plot.
In Gilbert & Sullivan’s never-before seen original draft, titled The Zombies of Penzance (with the unwieldy subtitle, At Night Come the Flesh Eaters), Major-General Stanley is a retired zombie hunter, who doesn’t want his daughters marrying the dreaded Zombies of Penzance (for obvious reasons). According to documents found with the manuscripts, Gilbert and Sullivan finished work on The Zombies of Penzance in mid-1878, but their producer Richard D’Oyly-Carte refused to produce it, calling it vulgar, impolitic, and unchristian, and in one letter, “an operatic abomination, an obscene foray into the darkest of the occult arts.” In a letter to his cousin, Gilbert expressed his deep disappointment, writing “I fear the walking dead shall be the end of me yet.”
Until now, music scholars had been baffled by that reference.
After a battle that almost ended the partnership, the team reluctantly agreed to rewrite their show, and in 1879, D’Oyly-Carte debuted the much more conventional, revised version, The Pirates of Penzance, which added the characters of Ruth and the policemen, and eliminated all references to zombism.
In 2013, New Line artistic director Scott Miller discovered the original manuscripts for The Zombies of Penzance in the second sub-basement of the Judson Memorial Church in New York, hidden beneath some moldy band parts from Rockabye Hamlet and Shogun the Musical, and Miller set about reconstructing the bizarre original show as G&S intended.
Gilbert’s walking dead and their Zombie King now make their long-delayed world premiere. Miller has painstakingly reassembled these rediscovered materials into their original form, filling in the gaps with educated guesses based on other G&S shows and drafts. St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes is reconstructing Sullivan’s music.
Now, for the first time, audiences will be able to see and hear the comic, flesh-eating insanity Gilbert & Sullivan originally wrought. New Line will host a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January 2018, and then produce the show fully in October 2018, to open New Line’s 28th season.
ABOUT NEW LINE THEATRE
New Line Theatre is a professional company dedicated to involving the people of the St. Louis region in the exploration and creation of daring, provocative, socially and politically relevant works of musical theatre. New Line was created back in 1991 at the vanguard of a new wave of nonprofit musical theatre just starting to take hold across the country. New Line has given birth to several world premiere musicals over the years and has brought back to life several shows that were not well served by their original New York productions. Altogether, New Line has produced 79 musicals since 1991, and the company has been given its own entry in the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and the annual Theater World. New Line receives funding from the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.
For other information, visit New Line Theatre’s full-service website at www.newlinetheatre.com. All programs are subject to change. No zombies will be admitted to performances without a parent or guardian.
New Line’s season also includes Zorba, March 2-25; The Sweet Smell of Success, June 1-24; and Out on Broadway: The Third Coming, Aug. 3-19.
Check out this terrific RFT feature story about New Line.
Also, check out this American Theatre article about New Line from 2014…
And here are links to all New Line’s 25th anniversary press.
For more about New Line, go to www.newlinetheatre.com/