In the early 1870s, the London theatre entrepreneur Richard D’Oyly Carte introduced a lazy social climber and a failed lawyer – Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert – to one another. The fortuitous connection of these three men has had a profound impact on Western theatre ever since.
In 1881, a decade after this first introduction, D’Oyle Carte built a magnificent theatre to house the pair’s sprightly musicals. By naming it after the nearby Savoy Hotel, he unknowingly determined the names of many amateur and professional groups that continue to devote themselves to the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s great works, known as the Savoy Operas. Many of these groups formed in the 1960s, as copyright laws only freed the Savoy Operas from exorbitant royalties in 1961, 50 years after Gilbert’s death.
The McGill Savoy Society was founded in 1964 and has been providing the McGill campus and the greater Montreal community with quality operettas since its first production in January of 1965: the one-act Trial By Jury paired with excerpts from The Pirates of Penzance. The directors of this inaugural production, Robin Alder (the Society’s founder) and Nicholas Zekulin, were members of McGill’s now-defunct Martlet Choir.
Operating as a club affiliated with the SSMU (Students’ Society of McGill University), the modern-day McGill Savoy Society continues its mission as a non-profit, high-profile student theatre group, supported by a large and active patron base, the SSMU, sponsors from the Montreal community, and its audience. We are the cast, creative team, production team, stage crew, and orchestra of the year’s productions, as well as an elected executive team to provide direction and manage finances. Elections are held annually, and all positions are strictly volunteer. While the executive team consists exclusively of current McGill undergraduates, the creative team and cast are recruited from both the university and the broader Montreal community.
Pat Donnelly of the Montreal Gazette has praised the McGill Savoy Society as “a laboratory for an ongoing social experiment, a connecting point between academia and the city at large, [and] a social club with a fun-filled annual project that showcases worthy, rising talent within a beautifully restored Montreal landmark, Moyse Hall.” We are a vibrant social group, and our friendships are formed through the activity of producing one or two spectacular high-profile shows per year. The main stage production is a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, held before the winter Reading Week. The sideshow is any one of a variety of music-based shows, recitals, revues, or even concert versions of musicals.
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I entered McGill in 1963 from an English boarding school where my housemaster, a former naval officer, lived in complete thrall to HMS Pinafore in particular and the entire Gilbert & Sullivan canon in general – his geography lessons were unexpectedly punctuated by “songs & snatches”. A school friend and I initially shared an absorbing interest in the works of Jelly Roll Morton, but when the friend’s brother, up at the University reading music, was cast as the Judge in Trial By Jury, we cunningly applied to our housemaster for leave to go. We were consequently let off nets or rifle practice or something with the greatest alacrity. Instantly converted, we spent months fruitlessly plotting how we could get up something of the kind of our own at school.
So the budding impresario turned up at McGill expecting an instant entrée into musical theatre. The sole opportunity then lay with the Red & White Revue, an original “Broadway musical“ type of show for which I was graciously permitted to join the roster of rehearsal pianists. I also accompanied the McGill Choral Society, which occasionally featured G & S choruses in their varied programmes – these went down equally well with the singers. By degrees I got to know quite a few of them and the idea came up of meeting regularly and getting up a repertory of operetta choruses – from there we learnt a series of concerted numbers from the Pirates of Penzance. I was burning to put something on, not least as a result of the then lofty attitude of the Conservatory towards this bunch of ignorant renegades. One of our group was an accomplished baritone whom I decided would do very well as the Judge in Trial By Jury; a programme took shape. Improvisation reigned: we fell upon Redpath Hall as a proxy venue for the courtroom, borrowed several academic gowns, Elisabeth Little “ran up” little white numbers for the bridesmaids and Norma-Jean as the Bride/Plaintiff exhumed her debutante dress and threw a veil over it. I accompanied and directed (if that is what it was) from the piano. If I remember accurately, this affair was presented to an astonished campus as a lunchtime concert on a snowy day in February 1965…and the Savoy Society was born.
There remained a terrific groundswell of enthusiasm, and the ringleaders duly trooped along the following September to ask for student funding – which we got. We then audaciously announced a full-scale production of The Mikado for February 1966 in Moyse Hall no less, the Valhalla of the Red & White Revue. The rest, I think, is just about…history; the Red & White Revue certainly is. I cannot say how intensely glad I am that a third generation of McGill students is now benefiting from the exhilarating and stretching experience of putting on a show with the Society [for the 50th anniversary], and that this is again The Mikado. I do wish I could be there with you. My mind’s eye and ear will have to make do with images of the brisk, witty and engaging show you’ve prepared. Helen Lockwood Davidson (second Musical Director of the Society) and her husband Benedict Lockwood (an original and valued renegade) join me in saluting the entire cast, orchestra and crew.
-Robin Alder, Founder and First Musical Director