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Students put on new version of Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Thespis'

The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players will present a new version of the rarely staged Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "Thespis: Or the Gods Grown Old."

Stage director David C. Jedlinsky (S.M. 1989) began working on producing "Thespis" about two and a half years ago. Undeterred by the fact that all but but two songs of the original score were lost more than a century ago, Jedlinsky sought a contemporary composer to replace the missing music. He found British composer Colin Johnson on Savoynet, an e-mail list for Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados.

The show has been produced before, but with different approaches. "There are many ways to do the music for 'Thespis,'" Jedlinsky said. Some musicians take music from other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and simply substitute the words. This doesn't work well because "the audience spends the whole time playing 'name that tune,'" said Jedlinsky.

Johnson's music is in the style of Sullivan, but "it still has [Johnson's] signature on it," Jedlinsky said, adding that Johnson's goal was to create a score which, "if you didn't know any better, you might think this was the show in 1871."

In "Thespis," the gods of Mount Olympus have become weary and old and decide to take a vacation on Earth. While they rest, a troupe of actors take their places on Mount Olympus.

Surprisingly, Johnson had begun writing the music nearly 50 years ago, according to Ruth Jedlinsky, David's wife and co-producer of "Thespis."

While serving in the military in Beirut, Johnson "found the libretti. They had a curfew and no television, so he started writing music in the style of Sullivan," Ruth Jedlinsky said. Johnson didn't finish the score until he retired many decades later.

Todd Neal, orchestra director for "Thespis," began collaborating with Johnson on adapting the music for an orchestra. This is more difficult than it sounds; Johnson lives in England, so the entire process had to be conducted via the Internet.

Now that the music is squared away, the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players has to tackle their next big challenge: building the set. "Thespis" will be performed in the Student Center's La Sala de Puerto Rico, a ballroom with a wooden floor and no stage, noted Ruth Jedlinsky. Within a few days, the set crew has to "put up lights on the ceiling, create the stage and create raked seating for the audience," she said. The cast will have only four rehearsals on the stage, and some aren't even full rehearsals.

But Ruth Jedlinsky isn't worried. "That's the magic of the theater," she said. "Somehow it all comes together at the last minute with a lot of hard work from a lot of people."

"Thespis" will be presented April 9-10 and April 15-18 at 8 p.m., and on April 10 and 18 at 2 p.m. in La Sala de Puerto Rico. Tickets are $10 (general), $8 (MIT community, seniors, other students and children) and $6 for MIT students. There is a $1 discount for prefrosh with ID during Campus Preview Weekend. For reservations, call 253-0190, e-mail or see

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 7, 2004.

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