NEW YORK — Oh joy! Oh rapture! Oh what glorious chaos it was, as the Blue Hill Troupe prepared for its umpteenth performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
Singers rehearsed onstage, scene painters touched up backdrops and performers offstage squeezed into corsets and uniforms for a dress rehearsal of “The Yeomen of the Guard” inside a 200-seat theater under a church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
This Gilbert & Sullivan society first performed in 1924 aboard a millionaire’s yacht in Blue Hill, Maine, and for decades was known as a cultural outlet for the Upper East Side’s blue-blood set.
Once stocked with Ivy League professionals who enjoyed staging operettas on their nights and weekends, the troupe gets fewer applicants these days, and has had trouble finding rehearsal and shop space, not to mention a theater to call home.
But even past its golden age, the troupe has managed to survive even as many smaller theater groups in New York City have closed.
Now in its 94th season, the troupe continues to stage spirited performances that often sell out, and it hopes to make it to its centennial mark.
“I think we’ll make it to 100, but it’s going to take work,” said the troupe’s president, Suzanne R. Taylor, who tended to an endless number of matters backstage before the rehearsal of “Yeoman,” the troupe’s spring production, which runs through March 31 at the Theater at St. Jean’s on East 76th Street.
Taylor pointed out a toddler room from the church’s day care center that was serving as a dressing room for chorus members pulling on their tower guard uniforms.
The orchestra squeezed into its narrow pit and the dress rehearsal began.
By the time Jack Point and Elsie belted out “I have a song to sing, O!” the troupe was in full thrall.
The show’s program includes photos of the troupe performing “Yeoman” dating back to the 1930s. The troupe has produced the Gilbert & Sullivan canon of 13 full operettas numerous times, and over the decades has raised millions of dollars for New York City charities.
About 260 troupe members actively participate throughout the year, either in the spring or fall performances, or at other concerts and functions, Taylor said.
Nearly 400 more members continue to pay dues even though they are inactive or living elsewhere as a way to keep a connection to the group, Taylor said, with many traveling to New York during productions, which can resemble reunions.
Dozens of members have been in the group more than 50 years, and many are in their 80s and 90s, including Ed Gough, 95, who still sings with the troupe.
Like many members, Sandy Dickinson, the executive producer for “Yeoman,” has three generations of his family in the troupe. Dickinson, whose children are members, said he was “born Blue” as the child of troupe members, and then further exposed to operettas while attending the Allen-Stevenson School in Manhattan, whose theater department still offers Gilbert & Sullivan productions.
For decades, the troupe was fed by local private schools with similar theater programs. Though some patrician members remain — including Charles F. Morgan, the great-grandson of J. Pierpont Morgan — the membership has diversified.
“When I was younger, you had mostly Upper East Side blue-blooded types, but that’s all changed,” said Dickinson. “I live in Jersey. I can’t afford to live on Park Avenue.”
The troupe first performed in 1924, enacting “H.M.S. Pinafore” on the yacht deck of its founder, a wealthy Manhattan doctor, Seth M. Milliken. By 1926, they were enacting “Pirates of Penzance” in his Madison Avenue town house, followed by years of performances in the spacious mansions of wealthy members.
The troupe still holds meetings in members’ luxury apartments, but struggles to find the kind of real estate that was regularly donated years ago for rehearsals and set-building. The group recently built sets in a parking lot in Secaucus, New Jersey, and in a barn in upstate New York.
“These backdrops probably got painted in the basement of someone’s building, draped over barrels of heating oil or something,” said Tom Ridgley, the production’s director.
The troupe’s tight-knit camaraderie has remained undiminished, however, and it enhances the onstage performances, Ridgley said.
That intimacy kicks in offstage as well. Post-performance destinations include the Third Avenue Alehouse, where members often close the place with a well-lubricated version of the troupe’s anthem: “Hail Poetry” from “Pirates of Penzance.”
“Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid!
Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade.”
The troupe is liable to break into the song on the subway or during members’ funerals, right in church. At members’ weddings, guests are likely to hear “Bridegroom and Bride,” from “The Gondoliers,” and “Comes the Pretty Young Bride,” from “Yeoman.”
Weddings have certainly been plentiful over the years. The troupe claims credit for no less than 99 marriages of couples who have met in the troupe — known as “met and marrieds.”
“It’s a matchmakers heaven,” she said. “You have all these professionals from all walks of life getting together because they have this common passion.”
Of that, only 12 have ended in divorce, said Suzanne Taylor, an event planner by day and a mezzo-soprano currently playing Dame Carruthers in “Yeoman.”
Taylor and her husband, John Taylor, were married in 2000 and became the troupe’s 84th “met and married” couple.
Of course, there are plenty of additional married couple members who did not meet in the troupe.
For example, Betsy King Militello, met her husband, Sam Militello, in the late 1990s, while both were performing with the Village Light Opera Group. Betsy Militello had been a Blue Hill member since 1983 and got Sam Militello to join Blue Hill. Both are lighting designers for the current show.
“You get to know people pretty quickly” in the troupe, said Betsy Militello. “Everyone has more than full-time lives with no time for anything else, and we’re all doing something we’re passionate about.”
Militello said she grew up on the Upper East Side going to performances at the Light Opera of Manhattan, a full-time Gilbert & Sullivan troupe on the Upper East Side that closed in 1989. She was interviewing to join the Harvard Club and her interviewer was a member who suggested that she apply to Blue Hill.
As for Dickinson, his ex-wife never became a troupe member. He is, however, dating a woman who is a member, but since it is early in their relationship, he recoiled when asked if they might become the troupe’s 100th “met and married” couple.
“What are you?” He said. “A priest?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.