Scott Benson admits that he’s a Gilbert & Sullivan nerd — although aficionado would be the kinder term. Benson, the former Minneapolis City Council member and now trial litigator, got hooked on the English duo when he was in law school at Georgetown. He has performed in nearly a dozen G&S shows, including three times in “The Mikado.” This weekend, he takes the stage as the titular character in “The Grand Duke,” a role he sang in 1991.
Yet for all his devotion, Benson is something of a piker when compared with the leaders of the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, a community group that is producing “The Grand Duke” at Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Minneapolis.
“I haven’t done a show with them since 1996,” Benson said. “So I’ve lost my grandfather status with them.”
“There’s a grandfathering clause so that if you’ve been in X number of shows, you are guaranteed a spot in the chorus,” said Joe Andrews, who is directing Benson in this production.
Loyalty has its benefits, and since 1979, a dedicated group of G&S fans has fashioned one fully staged production each year, and a concert performance at Lake Harriet Bandshell of one of the big three — “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Mikado” or “Pirates of Penzance.”
“The Grand Duke” was the final collaboration between librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. It failed, and because their relationship had hit the skids, neither man wanted to revisit the scene of the crime.
“Oddly, it’s one of my favorites, not for how it was originally written but the way this company has rewritten it,” Benson said.
Andrews was in the 1991 production along with Benson (an Opera News review said “Andrews gave a performance with which he seemed exceedingly pleased,” he recalls with a laugh).
The story involves a troupe of actors who try to overthrow a duke. Add some romance and archaic laws that throw wrenches into certain plans and you’ve got the bare bones of the plot. Andrews describes the music as “very waltzy,” which led to his decision to set the show in 1910 Ruritania — that mythical central European locale that allows for ethnic flavor without strong national identification.
“Gilbert was going after Sullivan in this one,” said Waldyn Benbenek, a board member of the G&S company. “The gambling, the chain of women lampoons Sullivan.”
Devotees for 35 years
Benbenek has not missed performing in a Gilbert & Sullivan show since this little company was formed in Richard Fishel’s Kenwood basement in 1979. Fishel, an advertising copywriter, came from New York, Benbenek said, and he felt that there were two things lacking in this town: good pizza and a Gilbert & Sullivan company.
“I started listening to Gilbert & Sullivan when I was 13 and got hooked on it,” said Benbenek, a computer programmer for Unisys. “It’s a gateway drug into opera — highly accessible, and for me this company has been just fun.”
Benbenek said the company spends roughly $45,000 to produce a show. “Pirates,” in 2011, cost $47,000 and brought in $54,000 in ticket sales. Attendance routinely tops 95 percent in the 210-seat Howard Conn. Directors, designers, some crew and the musicians (typically 30 to 40 in the orchestra) get stipends. The performers, though, are doing it for the love.
Benbenek admits he likes his Gilbert & Sullivan largely unvarnished. His children took him to the Guthrie’s “Pinafore” in 2011, “to see if steam really would come out of my ears.” He considered the production a “Broadway musical based on Gilbert & Sullivan.”
“When they started tap dancing, I thought, ‘What does this have to do with the show?’ ” he said.
Benbenek offered a detailed explanation of the grandfather clause, but suffice it to say, “You have to have been involved with us for a number of years,” he said.
“It has a family feel that is in some respects beautiful and lovely,” Andrews said. “Eighty percent of the people in the show know each other and go back 20 years, and grandfathering guarantees a strong backbone.”
Benson, who sang in “The Mikado” at Theatre in the Round in 2003, found that “The Grand Duke” did not return easily to his brain after more than 20 years. The big shows are heard so often that the music sticks with you, he said. Not so with “Duke.”
“We’re working out the kinks,” he said, “and it’s fun to revisit.”