The papers in the U.S. haven't picked it up yet but John Reed died on Saturday at 94. John Reed--no, not the revolutionary buried in the Kremlin wall--was the last man on earth to fill the glorious position of comic baritone--he who sang all the patter songs--in the late lamented D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the original and premier theatre company of the Gilbert & Sullivan Savoy operas.
Think of "I am the very model of the modern major general" or "I have a little list" and it was John Reed who sang those songs in those roles (Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and Ko-Ko in The Mikado). He succeeded Martyn Green, who is still remembered for his memorable renditions of those roles. Even though G&S themselves may not have intended it that way, everyone always remembers those roles and those songs above all.
I saw him perform once--from the balcony of the Colonial Theatre, when I was living in Boston, and he was Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, Lord of the Queen's Navy, in H.M.S. Pinafore. As always, he made the show. The great patter song of that one, of course, is "Never mind the why and wherefore"--and the tradition it carries with it is the way the cast responds to audience applause seeking endless encores. Seeing Reed come up with new tricks on the sixth encore would make anyone burst into hysterics.
John Reed deserves our thought for more than the passing moment for another great service he performed. After the demise of D'Oyly Carte, which never figured out how to keep itself alive without being stuck in exactly the routines set out by Gilbert's prompt books, he travelled the whole world performing all the great comic G&S roles with all kinds of small, upstart Savoyard companies. His presence--since he was known to every G&S fan in the world--assured the little productions of a nice big night at the box office for the night or two or three he graced them with his presence. We have many of these companies with us today because of the infusion of spirit--and cash--that John Reed gave them.
Think of those songs and comic roles--the Duke of Plaza-Toro, Robin Oakapple in Ruddigore, the title role in The Sorcerer--and then try to recall the strains of what remains to me the most memorable tune in all of G&S, the Ko-Ko--Katisha duet in the second act of The Mikado: "There's beauty in the bleating of the blast"--you'd know it if you heard it. It just means that you're in for a delightful time--and John Reed was usually the centre-piece of it all.