Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera
|Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera|
Screwy (Jon Beedell) vs Soliquisto (Andy Black)
Original Bristol performance
|Lyrics||Vivian Stanshall & Ki Longfellow-Stanshall|
|Book||Ki Longfellow-Stanshall & Vivian Stanshall|
|Basis||Ki Longfellow children's book Stinkfoot, the Cat|
|Productions||1985 Old Profanity Showboat Bristol, England|
1988 Bloomsbury Theatre revival
Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera is an English musical with book, music, and lyrics by Vivian Stanshall and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall written for the Crackpot Theatre Company aboard the Old Profanity Showboat in Bristol, England. The show is based on a series of tales written by Longfellow about Stinkfoot, a New York City alley cat, a bit of a rogue and more than a bit of a rake. It had been intended for children, but when told by a New York City literary agent that "No mother in America would want her child identifying with Stinkfoot the alley cat, never mind its name," the story went into a drawer for many years. It came out with the meeting in 1977 of Vivian and Ki, at which point the story became bedtime reading for Vivian's son Rupert Stanshall (born 1968), and later for his daughter with Ki, Silky Longfellow-Stanshall (born 1979). In 1985 it “grew up” when Vivian and Ki decided to base a musical on its lead character, Stinkfoot. At that point, it became a melding of two very different visions and two very different musical traditions: Vivian's days as frontman for the Bonzo Dog Band and his childhood in Leigh-on-Sea with Ki's love of America’s Broadway.
The mournful Soliquisto, a once great music hall artiste, believes he has come to the end of his career. He used to headline halls like the Hackney Empire, but now he is lucky to play small rooms at the end of piers. His act has always consisted of trained animals: a singing parakeet (Parakeet to Meet You), and two all-dancing, all-singing cats—one male, Stinkfoot, and one female, Persian Moll. Each of these were creations of true brilliance, but all he has left now is Moll, his ventriloquist's dummy Screwy, and his eager nephew and assistant Buster. He and his company ("Soliquisto & His Not So Dumb Friends") have returned for a week's engagement at the very end-of-the-pier venue where nine years before he had mysteriously lost his famous songbird and his most precious creation, the even more famous Stinkfoot. Buster works with him, acting in all capacities: props, costumes, manager, and even as a ludicrous stand-in for the lost Stinkfoot. Buster is ambitious, and knows his uncle was once the best. He is convinced there's a secret to being a true artist and if only Solisquisto would tell him that secret, Buster too could be a great artist. Soliquisto has told Buster in every way he can what the secret is, most pointedly in the song Follow Your Nose, but Buster cannot “hear” him.
Aside from his animal act—the Diva Persian Moll, who, without Stinkfoot, is basically the whole show, and knows it (Ow! Ow! Wasn't I Good Tonight!)—Soliquisto is also a ventriloquist. His dummy, Screwy, never lies. Screwy voices all that Soliquisto cannot or will not say, including terrible truths about himself. (Song of the Saw)
Under the pier is another world of English shale beach and cold sea. Here lives Mrs. Bag Bag, seemingly a bag lady whose life has been spent collecting "little things." In actuality, Mrs. Bag Bag is the very essence of magic and art, a Muse. (There are nine muses. Stinkfoot has nine cast members. Stinkfoot himself disappeared nine years earlier. Nine is used symbolically throughout the show. Vivian used the number 9 in all he did after marrying Ki whose favorite number was 9. If not 9 itself, then a number that could be reduced to 9, i.e.: 27 garden gnomes in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.) Nine years before one of the things she collected was an egg which had hatched into a parakeet she'd named Polly. Isaiah the Flounder, a doleful beach-dweller, is enamored of Polly and pleads with her in a show stopping duet (No Time Like the Future), but Polly senses she was meant for more...but what? (Imagination) Mrs. Bag Bag knows, but will not say. Just as Screwy always tells the truth, so too does Mrs. Bag Bag, but Mrs. Bag Bag's truths are oblique, couched in riddles and rhymes. (Sphinx & Minx) The bane of Mrs. Bag Bag's existence, Elma the Electrifying Elver, lives here too. A gorgeous creature of absolute certainty and complete self-absorption, she lives in or out of the sea.
The story begins when Stinkfoot suddenly appears with enormous bravado after going missing for these nine long years. When he does, Soliquisto rejoices. With Stinkfoot, he believes he will rise to his heights once more. Buster is jealous since he believes he will be pushed aside and never recognized for his talent. (Quickchange Artiste) Persian Moll, a true Diva and sure of her stardom without Stinkfoot, still worries that he will reveal that one night she ate Soliquisto's parakeet (Polly's mother) and tried to do something dreadful to Stinkfoot himself. (Bad Bad Ways) But Stinkfoot had escaped her and run away to become a star of the Broadway stage. By returning, he has not come back to perform with Soliquisto...he's merely passing through to show off his success. (Landing on my Feet Feet)
A complementary story is taking place under the pier. Polly, the daughter of the Solisquito's murdered songbird, wants to fly, to find her true home. The smitten Isaiah explains life is all doom and gloom, best to accept where she is and who she is. (You Can't Confound a Flounder) But Polly, who has no idea who she is, is desperate to find out. (A Foundling's Song)
Each character, whether animal or human, above or below the pier, is an aspect of the one central character voiced by the aging music hall artiste, Soliquisto. Soliquisto may be lost in memories but he's still canny. (What My Public Wants) The plot is fairly simple and endearingly odd, but the underlying ideas are more complex. Basically, Stinkfoot is a portrait of the artist's creative heart and mind. Soliquisto believes what he has made must remain in his control or his art is lost. By the end of Stinkfoot he realizes nothing is ever lost, that he can let his creations go, that once he (or she) has created something it takes on a life of its own, and that the artist can always make more. (Only Being Myself) With this lesson learned, Soliquisto, who has made nothing new since Stinkfoot disappeared, sees Elma the Electrifying Elver dancing on the beach. (Drowned Sailor's Dream) Ah! Here is his new creation, his latest work of art. He will make her a star! The act of creation is forever...it goes on and on.
In 1985, the show was intended to close the hatches of the Old Profanity Showboat on a high note and to provide all those who had worked so hard for the ship's success a chance on its stage. The ship had opened its doors in early 1983 and in came young singers and actors eager to do anything to be part of it. Most became barmaids or members of the lighting and maintenance crew watching other talent come and go on the stage. Ki and Vivian wanted them all to achieve that dream before the Old Pro (as it was eventually called) voluntarily folded.
At first it was thought that staging an established musical would do, but this idea was quickly discarded as unworthy of the ship or its crew. In three and a half months (from September to December 1985), the show was conceived, written, scored, and rehearsed (both actors and musicians) for a Christmas run. Ki, who ran the ship, booked it straight through the Old Pro's most lucrative season even though she had no expectations of it being a success. At the same time, the Old Pro continued to operate as a daily venue for the usual acts coming and going. Working throughout the night, each part was tailored by Longfellow and Stanshall to accommodate the talents (or lack thereof) of the performers. The show was a huge success, drawing sell-out audiences for its entire Bristol run, with people arriving from all over Britain and as far away as Sweden and the United States. The ship could only provide limited seating, but people brought pillows, even sleeping bags, and found space wherever they could to see the show.
Vivian's story can be found in his own wiki article as can Ki Longfellow's. (See above links.) Together they created Stinkfoot to celebrate the Old Profanity Showboat.
Stinkfoot was staged twice. Once in 1985 for the ship where it was produced by Longfellow and directed by Stanshall. Stanshall also designed the set, the costumes, the make-up, and even the hair. Greatly assisted by his longtime friend, Pete Moss and personal MD, Stanshall was also the musical director. Pete Moss assumed the musical task completely for the second staging in 1988 at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The first production was a sell-out for its entire run and garnered wonderful national reviews. The second show (partly financed by friend Stephen Fry) also sold out, but without the participation of either Longfellow or Stanshall, as well as miscast, was a muddle of misdirection.
In late 2008, interest in restaging the show, never flagging, became a reality. The comic opera, trimmed by Ki from three hours to two, is now in pre-production for a British revival, hopefully in 2011. A "Stinkfoot Showcase" played the Thekla in Bristol, England (where it was written and first staged), on 20, 21, 22nd and 24 July 2010. This was a showcase of Stinkfoot's songs backed by a full band and selected cast members (including Nikki Lamborn and Vivian and Ki's daughter Silky Longfellow-Stanshall) plus Tony Slattery as narrator and singer. It attracted the attention of major press (The Word magazine, Mojo magazine, BBC London & BBC Bristol), and theatres like the Bristol Old Vic. Work goes on to fund it for restaging in its entirety.
The entire script of the original Stinkfoot: An English Comic Opera with an introduction by Ki Longfellow-Stanshall and illustrations by Vivian Stanshall was published in 2003 by Sea Urchin Editions based in Rotterdam.
Songs and music
Main characters, original cast
- The Great Soliquisto — Andy Black
- Stinkfoot — Steve Howe
- Screwy — Jon Beedell
- Buster — Richard Smith
- Persian Moll — (originally played by Nikki Lamborn of Never the Bride)
- Pollyanna, the Foundling Budgerigar – Cindy Stratton
- Mrs. Bag Bag – Sydney Longfellow (Ki's daughter)
- Isaiah, the Flounder – Pete Coggins
- Elma, the Electrifying Elver – Hirut Araya Bihon
In the original programme the cast list (in alphabetical order) is:
- Nikki B as Persian Moll, A Siren & The Left Half of Screwy's Brain;
- John Beedell as Screwy, The Ocean Liner and Chorus;
- Andy Black as Soliquisto, and The Partly Cooked Shrimp;
- Pete Coggins as Isaiah, the Coastguard & The Public;
- Hirut as Black Pearl and A Woeful Siren;
- Steve Howe as Stinkfoot, Drowned Sailor and the Balanced Nose;
- Tria Linning as Jellyfish, A Woeful Siren and Raggedy Alma;
- Sydney Longfellow as Mrs Bag Bag and A Woeful Siren;
- Richard Smith as Buster and The Giant Squid;
- Cindy Stratton as Big Polly, A Siren, The Right Half of Screwy's Brain;
- Lights: Paul Neville;
- Choreography: Vivian Stanshall and Tria Linning;
- Music director: Pete Watson;
- Costumes: Caroline Poland;
- Hair: Nikki B and James;
- Set and prop painting: Mark Millmore;
- Stage carpenter: Mike Wilson;
- Make-up: Helen and Julie-Anna.
Secondary characters, original cast
- God — Vivian Stanshall
- The Giant Squid – Richard Smith
- The Ocean Liner – Jon Beedell
- The Angry Sea – The Company
- The Public – The Company led by Pete Coggins
- The Right & Left Sides of Screwy's Brain – Nikki Lamborn, left brain, Cindy Stratton, right brain
- The Partly Cooked Shrimp – Andy Black
- The Coastguard – Pete Coggins
- The Drowned Sailor – Steve Howe
- Three Woeful Sirens – Sydney Longfellow, Hirut Araya Bihon, Nikki Lamborn
The play's fictional setting is both on and under an aging pier somewhere in the south of England. On the end of the pier is a rather shabby theater still holding on to its glory days with a succession of magicians, novelty acts, and once famous performers down on their luck. The pier and the theater are based on Stanshall's time as a member of the Bonzo Dog Band and his short stint as a guest member of The Alberts, as well as his love of music hall. The beach is the typical stony fringe with its cold waves and rainy days. Ki's New York Stinkfoot comes home from (and returns to), the New York of the Great White Way, a hundred theaters and a million lights.
The Old Profanity's unusual stage in the hold of a once timber-carrying cargo ship was less than thirty feet wide but at least sixty feet deep. The ocean, a series of continually bobbing plywood waves shaped and painted as a Japanese seascape, though not wide, seemed to go on forever. This allowed for scenes "far out at sea," such as Stinkfoot's triumphant arrival on The Ocean Liner and his rescue of Elma when she is attacked by A Giant Squid. As The Angry Sea, the whole cast, under painted cloth, came rolling out at the audience to great effect. The end-of-pier backstage theatre scenes were played out before the darkened sea. A hole was cut through the ship's structural steel bulkhead to provide a space high above the action for Moll's dreadful deeds and for the right and left sides of Soliquisto's brain to sing to each other. (Murder Living Next Door)
The time is anytime.
The Guardian theatre critic David Foote wrote in his review of the musical's opening night in Bristol, "Backed artistically by Pamela Ki Longfellow, Vivian has given us an offbeat Christmas show that is funny, bluesy, and loony…the marvel is that here is an original, unusual musical, smelling of the salt sea, with Coward, Cagney, and Mae West around to keep us happily buoyant."
The Times’s theatre critic Richard Gilbert wrote of the Bristol opening, "...a watery tale set alternatively at the end of a seaside pier and under the ocean, peopled by an angst-ridden music hall artiste, his Faustian apprentice, a tomcat under the influence of James Cagney (Stinkfoot himself), a Mae Westian glamour-puss (Persian Moll) and an oracular ventriloquist's dummy, Screwy. Under the waves there is more derring-do from a cynical flounder, a giant squid and a partly cooked shrimp. The cast of local singers, fringe actors and musicians seems to have absorbed the complexities of the highly moral plot where regeneration triumphs over evil and all optimists ultimately defeat the pessimists. The story-line is less important than the ambitious and resonant songs and music. The length of the Old Profanity boat is cunningly exploited by the marine set...and deserves to be seen in London on dry land at a larger venue."
The Bristol Evening Post’s theatre critic David Harrison said, "Stinkfoot is a joy – a wondrous collection of bizarre characters, eccentric ideas, and at least one top ten contender among the songs. There is unlikely to be another Christmas show as innovative and challenging as this."
Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera is in pre-production as part of a major part of a film called The Last Showboat.
Notes and references
- Stinkfoot Concert review in WORD Magazine
- Stinkfoot Concert on the Thekla and new 2010 production
- Story, photos, and playbill from the original Bristol production.
- History of the original show on the Gingergeezer site
- A slightly inaccurate but affectionate look at Stinkfoot, the Old Pro, and the Stanshalls