With Tarantara! Tarantara!, two staples of Madison theater join forces to tell the story of one of the stage's best-known partnerships. The musical, opening Friday at the Bartell Theatre, covers the lives and work of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. It is being staged by Madison Theatre Guild and Madison Savoyards.
For those not well versed in the Victorian duo's oeuvre, the approximately two-hour show should serve as a solid primer. And seasoned fans of comic operas like The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado will not only hear classic tunes but get a deeper look at the often stormy relationship between librettist Gilbert and composer Sullivan.
"The play is kind of a hybrid," director Joan Brooks says. "It's a biographical story, but in the context of telling it, we do parts of eight of their operettas, so there's singing and dancing, too."
The Madison Savoyards take their name from London's Savoy Theatre, built in 1881 to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan's works. The group has staged one of the pair's shows every summer in Madison since 1963. Tarantara! Tarantara! marks the first time the semiprofessional troupe has worked in conjunction with a community theater company.
The Savoyards' production coordinator, Scott Hurlbert, had been hoping to get the group to do a winter show for some time. When Madison Theatre Guild, for whom he's also a producer, discovered it had a January slot open, Tarantara! seemed like a natural fit.
"We were trying to look at it from the perspective of audiences who might not want to sit through an entire operetta, but who might like a play with music," Hurlbert says. Madison Theatre Guild's October production of Souvenir, a play about the life of notoriously awful singer Florence Foster Jenkins that wove live music into the narrative, had a sold-out run, and this latest piece is in a similar vein.
It also benefits from the fact that the Savoyards already have many of the necessary props available. The set itself comes from their 2007 production of Sullivan's Cox and Box.
Though the troupes and the show are a good match, the composer and librettist weren't always. "Gilbert and Sullivan didn't like each other very much," Brooks says. "They had different goals. The show starts during a rehearsal where they're not getting along, and the company tells us their story in flashbacks. It's very fast-moving, and there's a lot of humor, but also a lot of poignancy."