Your Regional Guide To The Performing Arts

James Harms Thrives in Patter Song Matters

James Harms Thrives in Patter Song Matters
Photo Credit: James Harms as Major-General in the 2009 Light Opera Works' production of "Pirates of Penzance." Photo by Chris Ocken.

Longtime fans of Music Theater Works, formally known as Light Opera Works, and Chicago theater in general, know the name James Harms. He has been a mainstay in the theatrical community for more than three decades.

Now Harms is taking on a challenge he faced head-on nearly 10 years ago – the role of Major-General in Pirates of Penzance. The famously wordy gentleman who has a lot of things to say about a lot of things, particularly in a song whose lyrics allude even the most dedicated musical theater aficionado. 

Despite the clear difficulties of overcoming the rapid patter songs for which Gilbert and Sullivan are widely known, Harms is excited to embark on another journey.

“We’re having a great time and it’s a treat to work on these old war horses,” he said. “It’s so delightful and invigorating. It’s just exciting.”

You have quite a background in musical theater, is the work of G&S something you’ve done often?

I first encountered Gilbert and Sullivan in the 80s sometime. We did a production of Pirates at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in that I played the Sergeant of Police. We had a ball.

I had never done any G&S until then. And then didn’t do more until I did Iolanthe, very funny and silly, about 12 years ago at Light Opera Works (now Music Theater Works.)

After that I did H.M.S. Pinafore and now we’re doing Pirates again.

So this is my fourth Gilbert and Sullivan.

I came into them (G&S) kind of late. There are great patter roles for older gentlemen. I was finally able to approach them. They’re very challenging, but really fun. It’s like a roller coaster ride - you hang on for dear life. It takes tremendous energy and concentration and it’s exciting.

You clearly enjoy doing the patter songs, but were they intimidating at first?

The first time you’re with them it’s scary. You keep working on it and they just don’t stick for a long time.

Then I realized that the patter songs are like learning a trick.

You just have to repeat the trick over and over until it’s second nature. They go so fast. You almost can’t think about it or think about the words the way you would normally with dialogue. 

You have to get the mechanics of your mouth going for one thing. It’s not just memory work it’s physical work. It’s like a physical trick. A very different kind of memorization and performance.

…Coming back to it is easier because you learn (patter songs) in a different way. They seem to end up in a different part of your brain. You almost cannot forget them later on.

It’s been 10 years or more since "The Nightmare Song" (or "Love, Unrequited, Robs me of my Rest" from Lolanthe) and I can still repeat most of it at the drop of a hat.

 It’s just there. It’s fear ingrained into your brain somehow. 

The Major-General is arguably one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous characters. What’s it like to play him now after playing him previously?

It’s certainly one of the most famous characters in their whole series. It’s a privilege to play these parts.

And it’s a great deal of fun to be able to do it with a big company and with a full orchestra, which you rarely get to work with nowadays. When you have 26 musicians in the pit with all this excitement underneath the song it’s thrilling.

It’s why we’re all attracted to musical theatre with all the mixture of elements.

It’s great to come back to. I think it opened 1879 on New Year’s Eve. It’s 138 years old and yet it’s still so entertaining. And it’s so goofy and satirical.

I also spent a lot of time doing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with the Osmond Company in the 90s. It (Pirates) reminds me of that. It’s the same crazy kind of humor and a mixture of musical styles.

When I hear Pirates of Penzance, I immediately get the Major-General’s song stuck in my head, are there any ear worms in this musical for you?

When you’re working on the show there are about 30 melodies in the show. It’s a prolific amount of tunes. So there are a lot of them. Day to day different things follow you around. Sometimes it’s the Policeman’s number of Poor Wandering One, they tend to stick with you. Especially when you’re working.

It’s all very catchy tunes.

How does this nearly 140-year-old comic opera hold up for modern audiences?

I think it just holds up beautifully.

One thing about the G&S shows is that they take tremendous energy to deliver. And that energy from stage and the music is irresistible and contagious. I think it’s that as well as them being funny and lighthearted.

It’s a tremendous burst of energy that comes from the stage. It’s very appealing to an audience. I think that’s why they’ve lasted.

…There’s something you can’t define about their popularity they are unique and just special.

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