A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful experience of talking with the famed English actress and singer Patricia Routledge. Routledge, now 87, has dedicated her life to the cause of the arts as she has spent much of her time performing in musicals and in more serious operatic work, before dedicating almost a decade in television portraying the unforgettably supercilious Hyacinth Bouquet in the BBC's transatlantic hit sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, and Hetty Wainthropp in Hetty Wainthropp Investigates.
The only time I could speak with Patricia was during her regularly scheduled tea time at 3 o' clock in the afternoon. Although she was noticeably anxious to return to her activities, she was gracious enough to spend some time with me discussing her thoughts and memories of being in Joseph Papp's adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance, as well as to share her encouragement for my upcoming album The Pirates of Penzance: Revamped and Revisited.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES: Good afternoon, Ms. Routledge, thank you for spending time with me today. To begin, would you kindly share a little bit about how you began in music?
PATRICIA ROUTLEDGE: Well I studied with an inspired singing teacher who came to my school in my last four years of school. She eventually gave me private lessons, and she was a wonderful teacher. I went to university, studied English language, and read English literature. During my time at university, I spent the end of every term either with the music society or with the dramatic society.
Music means a great deal to me. I couldn’t live without it. I love attending concerts and discovering new young performers who I sponsor from time to time. It seems that whenever there were musical productions either in repertory companies or on the West End, I would audition and appear in them.
ADRIAN: So how exactly did you get your foot in the door with the entertainment industry?
PATRICIA: BBC Radio recorded a whole lot of the operas, and I took part in those broadcasts. Before that, in the early- to middle-1950s—1955 to be exact—I was invited to audition for the D'Oyly Carte company, and was offered a job, which always pleases me to say that. I didn’t undertake to join the company, however, due to the fact that there were other adventures to be had.
You see, I believe that if you joined a company of that nature, your loyalty is due to them for at least 10 or 15 years. You first have to understudy, and then be given small roles. Once you’ve proven yourself, you will then be given bigger roles. I knew I had more adventures lying ahead, so I did not accept the offer.
ADRIAN: How did you come to be involved with The Pirates of Penzance?
PATRICIA: I came to New York in 1966 with a very English play called “How’s The World Treating You.” The press was very kind to me, very generous indeed. I came back again in 1967 to star in a musical called “Darling of the Day,” with a wonderful score by Jule Styne. I won a Tony Award for that, so people were aware of my existence.
After Joseph Papp did Shakespeare, either in 1980 or 1981, he decided to do a production of The Pirates of Penzance, and I was approached to see if I wanted to do it. I said yes.
ADRIAN: What compelled you to say yes?
PATRICIA: What do you think? I wanted to be part of it. I knew it was going to be exciting and that it was going to be challenging. Also, the wit of the libretto and lyrics. I admire Gilbert and Sullivan, of course. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wasted my time with the production.
ADRIAN: Had you ever been in another production of the show?
PATRICIA: No, I hadn’t ever done it before.
ADRIAN: What were your impressions of the other cast members with whom you acted alongside?
PATRICIA: We had Linda Rondstadt, who was an absolutely perfect Mabel. She was the perfect Sullivanesque Gilbertine heroine. Brilliant performance by Kevin Kline. Unforgettable! We had a charming Rex Smith, wonderful ensemble, interesting orchestration.
ADRIAN: What was your favorite song from the entire show?
PATRICIA: The entire score was wonderful. I enjoyed all of them. I enjoyed the score as it was written. Those pieces are timeless, and they’re witty, and quite often they have comments to say about present society.
ADRIAN: Do you have any outstanding memories from the show, perhaps challenges you faced or bloopers?
PATRICIA: It was a challenge every night. What I do remember is that we did perform summer nights in a temperature of 92 or 94 degrees, and I remember I had to make an entrance, jump in the boat, and have a few words with Fred, which I was afraid I wouldn’t manage. You had to be very, very careful of how the stage was built.
Also, because we were outside under the bright stage lights, we had to be very mindful that we didn’t keep our mouths open for too long when we sang, because a midge* might fly in and we would swallow it by accident.
*Author's Note: At the time of the interview, I was not aware of what the word “midge” meant. Turns out in the British English dialect, a “midge” most nearly means the American word “gnat,” and anatomically describes a “small fly.”
ADRIAN: Any final thoughts on the production?
PATRICIA: We received sensational applause from the audience. The reception was wonderful. After my time with the production in Central Park, I didn’t transfer to Broadway; but I still had a very enjoyable time, a most enjoyable experience indeed.
ADRIAN: Thank you, Ms. Routledge, for taking the time to share with us your memories. I have enjoyed this opportunity, and wish you the very best with all your future endeavors.
Adrian D. Holmes is an American musician and composer based in Palm Bay, Florida. This December, he will be releasing his debut electronic classical album titled The Pirates of Penzance: Revamped and Revisited, which features a completely re-imagined score of the famous Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance created in 1879.
Patricia Routledge is an award-winning British stage and television actress who is most frequently recognized for her portrayal of Hyacinth Bucket in the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.
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