It’s the time of year when singers and musicians from all over Bucks County and the surrounding areas converge to rehearse and perform the unique musical confections that are Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. These musicals are unique in that their utter silliness combines so incomprehensibly well with some of the most lyrical arias and orchestra arrangements anywhere to be found. This season the Bucks County Gilbert & Sullivan Society has chosen to produce what is roundly considered to be their namesakes’ masterpiece, The Mikado. Set in an imaginary imperial Japan, it’s a whimsical, satirical, romantic and thoroughly British story – not to be taken for a tale of Japanese culture, because William Gilbert wrote it to perfectly skewer Victorian society, not the Japanese. And his plot is as improbable as it is enchanting.
I’m happy to have created the poster illustration for this beautiful show. I have always admired Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which have influenced Western art for centuries, and I based some of my palette and effects on that school of art, combined with colorful costumes that Bucks G&S already owns for the show.
Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are largely ensemble pieces; there are certainly main characters but part of the joy of the music comes from the chorus singing and reacting to the action in the plot. So I wanted to show many of the play’s characters in my Mikado art. I knew our stage set would include a small red arched bridge, so I researched ukiyo-e prints such as this one below of Shinkyo Bridge by Tsuchiya Koitsu, done in 1937. I thought a parade of people crossing such a bridge would be a fun way to show a lot of character types and costumes. I picked up some coloring and pattern from the traditional prints, also below, but still used my own cartoon style of drawing to project the comedy in the show.
My first pencil sketch was just shapes and gestures, but it roughed out the design. It occurred to me to put the young lovers in the story in a skiff under the bridge, even though this scene does not actually happen in the plot. But they do often hide their romance on the run, and depicting it this way makes a nice little wink against the chase scene of people on the bridge above.
I made rough sketches of many characters –
. . . and somewhere along the line I had the thought of putting our orchestra conductor in the chase scene too. Our orchestra is truly an fundamental part of the full G&S experience because the orchestrations accompanying the songs are incredibly beautiful. We attract about 40 excellent local instrumentalists for our shows, and they are so appreciated by our cast and audiences. So with our conductor in the chase scene I decided to put in a few instrumentalists as well! I think it accentuates the playfulness that’s a hallmark of G&S, and let’s everyone know our goal is to take nothing seriously in this play.
I tightened up the drawing of chosen characters, inked them by hand and scanned them to add digital color to the line drawing, like this
While I vaguely matched costume colors to existing costumes, I simplified my palette as did the ukiyo-e artists and applied colors flat, with no shading. I did the same with the background, working in pieces and then setting them up like my stage:
. . . and finally I put it all together into the finished poster.
Tickets have just gone on sale for Mikado and it should be a beautiful and funny production of this classic, which has been called “the most performed operetta in history.” See here for tickets and here for info on the show and Bucks Gilbert & Sullivan. I highly recommend this Mikado and our cast and orchestra of wonderfully talented characters!