December 1999

Review by John Kenrick

Musical lovers rejoice! The behind-the-scenes wackiness of musical theatre has been captured in Topsy-Turvy, a brilliant film that tells the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan wrote The Mikado. The world of the Victorian theatre is depicted with the sort of exquisite, loving attention to detail one would expect in a Merchant-Ivory film. To get it from Mike Leigh, a director known for harsher, contemporary subjects, is a delightful surprise. Leigh also sticks amazing close to the facts, a refreshing change from the revisionist attitude most filmmakers take towards historic subjects.

The original Victorian appearance of the Savoy Theatre (it went art deco in the 1920's) has been invoked, and the stage sets and costumes used in the film are based on the original 1885 designs. We see Sullivan react to the newly invented fountain pen much as we ourselves do when confronted by the latest digital gadget. The settings are flawless, right down to the correct period light bulbs. It is delightful to see Leigh combine the accuracy of a textbook with the drama of great storytelling.

Topsy-Turvy begins on the opening night of Princess Ida, a charming G&S operetta which suffered from a devastating heat wave and unfavorable comparisons to the hits that came before it. The disgruntled Sullivan threatens to give up comic opera altogether and concentrate on more serious compositions. He firmly rejects Gilbert's latest attempt to build a libretto around a magic potion. Negotiations collapse and the partnership seems lost. Then Gilbert's heavy-footed pacing makes a ceremonial Japanese sword fall off the wall of his study, a lucky accident that inspires him to come up with the plot to The Mikado. (Strange as this may sound, Gilbert claimed this was how the idea was born.)

We watch as the show becomes a reality, through the process of composition, casting, rehearsals and opening. When the chorus confronts Gilbert, insisting that he restore the senselessly cut "My Object All Sublime," we get a vivid reminder of how collaborative an art form musical theatre is. Seeing the authors take their bows after the triumphant premiere is an image that will move any G&S fan. We also see how fears and insecurities can plague creative minds, manifesting as emotional outbursts, chemical addictions, nervous mistakes, clashing egos – the stuff that still colors many a life in the theatre.

Jim Broadbent is magnificent as Gilbert, the infamous grouch and gifted director who elevated lyric writing to an art form. Allan Corduner (who I adored as the chief steward in the Broadway musical Titanic) is thoroughly charming as Sullivan, and adds such vividly realistic touches as handling all his own piano playing.

In fact, the entire ensemble is perfectly cast, and all sing for themselves (no dubbing -- bravi!). Every one of them gets snugly under his or her character's skin, and is totally believable. Scenes from Princess Ida, The Sorcerer and The Mikado are presented in perfecrt period style, reminding us that these works were designed for houses that were far more intimate than the aircraft hangars we call theatres today.

Topsy-Turvy's one major flaw is that it runs a bit too long. At nearly three hours in length (Why do so many contemporary filmmakers refuse to show pity on the human bladder?) it would benef immensely from less self-indulgent editing. In particular, the last fifteen minutes could be lopped off without harming the proceedings one bit. This sequence, which views the aftermath of Mikado's success from the perspective of three female characters, is practically a separate film, wildly unrelated to all that has gone before it. (How does Mrs.Gilbert's Freudian fantasy about strangling a baby with its own umbilical cord have anything to do with the making of The Mikado?) There is also a less than essential scene early on in the film where Sullivan cavorts with some topless Parisian prostitutes – a gratuitous bit of flesh that does nothing except guarantee the film a much-coveted R rating.

But don't let these points stop you from seeing this otherwise delicious film. Topsy-Turvy captures the musical theatre experience as no other feature film ever has, and I for one will be eternally grateful to Mike Leigh and everyone else who made this rare treat a reality.

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