Gilbert and Sullivan-Inspired Purim Shpiel to Premiere at Congregation Agudas Achim

Gilbert and Sullivan-Inspired Purim Shpiel to Premiere at Congregation Agudas Achim

Playwright Ira Forman wrote a Gilbert and Sullivan inspired Purim shpiel, which will be held at Congregation Agudas Achim.

By Ruth Goldhor Chlebowski

“Esther the Clever Queen,” a Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired Purim shpiel in one act, will premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 17, at Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin. Ira Forman, playwright and longtime member of Gilbert and Sullivan Austin and the Austin Jewish community, talked to Ruth Goldhor Chlebowski about writing the shpiel.

Ruth Goldhor Chlebowski: What inspired you to develop a Purim shpiel using Gilbert and Sullivan songs?

Ira Forman: There are many things that inspired me to do this. The most notable is “Les Miserabbis” written and performed by members of Stanmore and Canon Park Synagogue in North London. Although “Les Miserabbis—The Story of Shabbat Morning” is not a Purim story, it is delightful.

I chose Gilbert and Sullivan because I know and love the songs. When my wife Janet was in the Gilbert and Sullivan Austin 2007 production of Ruddigore, I attended four performances—willingly! I find some of the songs are impossible to get out of my head. That is the kind of music I want for a theatrical production. That is what makes Gilbert and Sullivan, who composed in the late 1800s, popular even today.

RGC: Many contemporary Purim shpiels parody musicals, from “The Sound of Music” to “Hamilton.” What makes the musical such an inviting form for the Purim shpiel?

IF: Purim is a fun holiday, and people appreciate musicals. Everyone enjoys hearing a familiar show tune with different lyrics, especially when the revised lyrics are funny. Their enjoyment is increased when these lyrics are coupled with clever dialogue. I think “Esther” succeeds because the music, lyrics and dialogue all work together to retell the Purim story.

RGC: Your song selections come from Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and Ruddigore. Were these songs easy to adapt to the Purim story?

IF: And Princess Ida, too. At first, it was easy. Some Gilbert and Sullivan songs are natural for any plot with a monarch. Going from “I am the pirate king” to “I am the Persian King” is not much of a leap. Further, some of Gilbert’s lyrics are so perfect, it would be a crime to change them.

As I progressed, matching songs to plot and rewriting lyrics became more difficult. The last song I added is a quartet from Princess Ida, “The world is but a broken toy,” which is a lament about the state of the world. The music was right for the love song I needed but changing a quartet to a duet was a challenge. In other places, I changed a trio to a solo or a duet. After the first draft was finished, I got excellent comments and suggestions from my friend and cast member, Mark Long.

RGC: Tell us about the process of creating the script for “Esther the Clever Queen.”

First, I selected the songs and wrote the lyrics to support a streamlined version of the Megillah. My next job was to develop funny dialog to connect the songs and move the plot forward. The writing began last March and ended in November. All during that time, I worked on refining the lyrics so that they not only rhymed, but also made sense in the context of the story. In August, I showed an almost complete libretto to Rabbi Neil Blumofe, who was very encouraging. Afterward, I finalized the libretto, but writing the last 10 percent took as much effort as writing the first 90 percent.

A wonderful moment occurred when I showed my wife Janet a rewritten scene. “Brilliant,” she said. For 50 years, she has given me love, joy and friendship, but that was my first “brilliant.”

RGC: What do you expect the audience will enjoy and remember most from the upcoming performance of “Esther the Clever Queen”?

IF: I am confident the audience will enjoy and remember everything about the performance because we have a great cast, including professional singers, performing under the expert guidance of Stage Director Stacey Glazer, Music Director Steven Long and Costume Designer Rosalie Oliveri.

But I am hoping for more than a great show. I want the audience to leave the sanctuary singing the finale, which sums up the Megillah’s prescription for Purim with “Celebrate this Adar dictum with a joyous Purim feast.” If this happens, I will have William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan to thank.

The world premiere of “Esther the Clever” will be held at Congregation Agudas Achim Sunday, March 17, at 7 p.m. Visit theaustinsynagogue.org/queenesther to purchase tickets to “Esther” for $36 and a pre-show wine fest for $25. ■

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