Stephen Quint has a very specific set of skills — skills that very few people in this country possess, especially on a professional level. He sings Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, like those in “Ruddigore,” “Patience” and, the grandaddy of all patter songs, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” from “The Pirates of Penzance,” for a living.
He’s a Pittsfield native, now living in New York, who still has strong ties to his native state. Five of Quint’s six brothers and sisters still live in the Pittsfield area, as does his mother. His youngest brother, Doug, also lives in New York, where he runs the growing ice cream shop empire Big Gay Ice Cream.
Quint will be bringing his skills back to Maine soon, when he performs the role of Maj. Gen. Stanley in the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players production of “Pirates” scheduled for Thursday, Oct 20, at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. The BDN spoke with the performer, who is also an accomplished French horn player, about how one ends up attaining those very specific Gilbert and Sullivan skills.
Did you grow up in a musical family? Where did your love of music come from?
We always had a wide variety of music playing in the house when we were kids. My mom always put on some classical, and my dad liked jazz. We were eclectic people, all around. My mother was a substitute music teacher, and she played in the town band in Pittsfield. We were all pretty interested in music. I was pretty hardcore into music in high school. Practiced the French horn constantly. When I had to start thinking about college, I never considered going anywhere but a music school. I loved it. It’s strange, you spend your entire time practicing, and you come out of the conservatory a little backward socially. But you have to have the courage to stand in front of people and perform.
You played in pit orchestras on Broadway for years. When did it occur to you you’d rather be onstage than in the pit?
Well, it wasn’t like I kept looking up at the stage saying, “Someday that’ll be me!” It was always something I could. I’d seen so many stage performances, and I was always a bit of a showoff as a kid. It wasn’t out of the blue. I always sang and was in plays in high school. Plus, I had the wind from playing French horn. I had the composure. So I tried Gilbert and Sullivan, and every one of those shows has a role for the little old guy that gets everyone into trouble.
This is such a specific skill, singing patter songs. How does one develop that?
I was very lucky, in that the only professional Gilbert and Sullivan group in the U.S. is based in New York, and I got drafted. They needed a patter person. At first, it was like work. It’s memorization. They don’t tell a story, really. They’re often just lists of words, and you have to remember all these very specific phrases. You develop mnemonic tricks to remember. Oftentimes, when I would drive a lot, I’d just sing them over and over until I got them right. That was back in the ’80s, and miraculously I’m retaining it all later. It’s muscle memory. I have less memory for other things, but for this, I’ll have it forever.
Which is your favorite role to play?
Well, I do love them all, but my favorite still has to be the Major General. He’s a Major General, yes, but the song that he sings doesn’t really have to do with him being a military man. He just knows all this stuff — how to convert inches to decimals, all that stuff. He’s reading off his resume! There are so many characters like that, that strut out and identify themselves with their curriculum vitae, but he’s particularly silly. He lands in the middle of nowhere among the pirates. It’s like he beams down from another planet. He’s like a Catskills comedian.
You’re retiring this year. What’s your next plan? Do you think you’ll be able to stay away from music?
You’re probably correct, that I probably won’t stay away from music. I’ve never given up on the French horn, and I’m still very much a classical music person. I’m going to practice more and get back in shape to do that. There’s no particular reason that I’m quitting, other than I’ve done it for 20 years and that’s a long time. I need to write and compose, and I’ve never had a public service job. I think it would be interesting to help people. Though I’ve been doing that, I suppose, in supplying laughs for 30 years.
The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players will perform “The Pirates of Penzance” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. Tickets are available online at collinscenterforthearts.com or by calling 581-1755.