Once a Savoyard, always a Savoyard

by Mark Reynolds

Fifty years ago, a gathering of McGill students assembled in Redpath Hall, to enjoy a musical theatre production put on by a group of untested undergraduates. Skepticism was in the air: the annual Red and White Revue was a campus institution whose productions had toured nationally. Who were these interlopers?

“It happened by some sort of alchemy,” recalls Robin Alder, BA ’67, the founder of that original troupe of  “rag-tag upstarts.”

“It was the recklessness of youth, where you don’t even care if it works.”

The troupe’s first show – Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury ­– was a one-off lunch-time performance, with Alder on piano providing the musical accompaniment to a chorus crammed onto a stage so small they could barely move. The Student Union provided funding the following year, and the McGill Savoy Society was officially born. Many student organizations have come and gone in that time – the Red and White Revue has been defunct for decades – but the Savoy Society has gone from strength to strength.

Whereas Alder’s first production started with about 30 amateurs – “Including what we were pleased to call the technical crew – the gentleman operating the lamp” – the president of today’s Savoy Society heads a much larger organization. Art history and education student Erika Davis explains that this year’s production of The Mikado will be drawing on the talents of roughly 75 contributors, including an orchestra of 26. Ticket sales, fundraising and donations need to cover a budget of $20,000 for costumes, sets, publicity and technical support.

Claire Rollans, a neuroscience and linguistics student and the society’s vice-president, is playing Katisha in this year’s production. She’s been a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan since she saw an Edmonton Opera production of The Mikado as a little girl. Rollans is well placed to explain the enduring appeal of a society devoted exclusively to the works of a 19th century duo whose collaborative theatrical output was less than half that of Shakespeare’s.

“Gilbert wrote it in a way that the jokes could be updated for the times,” she says. “And it’s just such fun stuff to work with – the music is amazing, the dialogue is hilarious – it draws people in. The other thing is we have such close relationships, with the cast and crew, that once people get into it, they’ll stay for a long time.”

That network is probably the society’s greatest strength. Davis says that McGill Savoyards have been known to extend their degrees, or come back to help out years after graduating. And care is taken to ensure that everyone who wants their shot at the spotlight gets it – roles are double cast, stage managers get multiple assistants, and it is rare for anyone – no matter their talent – to get lead roles in back-to-back years.

“We always welcome back anyone who has been part of the society – it’s very much like a family in that way,” says Davis, “We have a saying – once a Savoyard, always a Savoyard.”

Davis is sincere about that “always.” For its 50th anniversary, the Savoy Society is hosting a Patron’s Night and Alumni Gala on opening night, for which 20 veterans of the original society will be returning. In a nice bit of symmetry, Robin Alder will fly in from his home in Luxembourg to guest conduct the overture on the second night of this year’s run. The Mikado had been the Savoy’s first “main stage” production, and also Alder’s final Savoy production at McGill.

Alder is looking forward to mounting the podium once more, but the honour is almost beside the point. He recalls dropping by a Savoy rehearsal on an earlier visit to Montreal.

“A girl from the chorus approached me afterwards and said, ‘I want you to know, that this is the best thing that’s happened to me at my whole time at McGill.’ I thought, well, it was all worth doing for that!”

The McGill Savoy Society's production of The Mikado will be performed at Moyse Hall on February 14, 15, 20, 21 and 22. Ticket information is available here.