Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The Pirates of Penzance

April 22, 26, 28
(7:30 p.m.), 29 and 30 (2:00 p.m.), 2017

Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert

Estimated run time of 2 hours and 15 minutes including one 20 minute intermission. Sung in English with English subtitles.

High Jinks on the High Seas

Gilbert and Sullivan’s cheeky and charming operetta abounds with pirates, maidens and a Major General with the true gift of gab. Featuring hyperkinetic lyrics, madly colorful sets and a bevy of bungling bobbies, this production promises to be an evening of pure fun. Young Frederic, instantly smitten by the lovely Mabel but beholden to a Pirate King, and beleaguered by the Major General, must fulfill his sense of duty while staying true to his love. Sound complicated? That’s because only in The Pirates of Penzance will you hear the words ‘’lot o’ news’’ rhymed with “hypotenuse.’’

Hal France, Conductor | James Alexander, Director

More About Our Production

Cast and Artistic Staff

Brief Synopsis

More About The Pirates of Penzance

An Introduction to Pirates

The Victorian Era in England (1837-1901) was simultaneously an age of great progress and great stability. The Reform Act of 1832, enacted five years before Queen Victoria’s coronation, had greatly reduced the power of the hereditary aristocracy and paved the way for a greater democratization of British society by expanding voting rights. The industrial revolution led to urbanization, the growth of labor unions, and the rise of a middle class, helping to create a demand for theater.  It was an optimistic society, one that believed in progress, a belief that was reinforced by the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).  It was also a society that valued respectability and propriety, a tendency which was fueled by the rise of Evangelical Christianity’s rebellion against the corruption of the established Church of England. It was a society that took itself very seriously – perhaps too seriously.

In short, it was a world which was ready for Gilbert and Sullivan, the creative team which repeatedly held a satiric mirror up to Victorian society. Much of the satire, as we will see, was actually directed at the old order, the aristocracy still struggling to hold onto its power. H.M.S. Pinafore, for example, the work which immediately preceded The Pirates of Penzance, pokes fun at a military hierarchy which values inherited rank over experience and expertise. The leader of the Navy (based on his real-life counterpart) has never even seen a ship, and when it is discovered that the captain and one of the sailors were accidentally switched in infancy, the sailor immediately assumes command of the ship.

While The Pirates of Penzance, as we will observe, contains similar satire, its principal target, as suggested by its subtitle “The Slave of Duty,” is Victorian respectability taken to an extreme, as a young man feels honor-bound to obey the terms of an absurd contract which binds him to serve a band of pirates virtually for life.

While poking fun at the extremes of their society, Gilbert and Sullivan nevertheless profited from the patriotism of their audiences, who were tired of seeing the operatic world dominated by works from the Continent and desired a native British operatic tradition. Nowadays we refer to their plays as “operettas,” but the writers themselves made no such distinction, seeing their works as following the comic operatic tradition of Mozart and Donizetti.

Remarkably, despite the fact that we can no longer relate to the topical concerns that prompted these writers, Gilbert and Sullivan continue to be among the most popular song-writing teams that ever wrote for the stage. Genuine wit and catchy melodies, it seems, never go out of style.

– Written by Stu Lewis

Detailed Pirates Plot Outline

ACT I: A rocky seashore on the coast of Cornwall, England: the 1870’s

Gilbert and Sullivan typically began their musical plays with a stand-alone overture. The pattern is one that fans of the Broadway musical will find familiar, as it is a compilation of several melodies from the play. One in particular – ”Come friends who plow the seas” – may be recognized by those audience members who are not familiar with The Pirates of Penzance, as the melody was later used for the American song “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.”

As the curtain opens, the pirates are singing “Pour, oh pour, the pirate sherry” while enjoying a relaxing day on shore, drinking glasses of sherry, which in itself could be ironic, as sherry is normally considered a “genteel” drink. Samuel, the ship’s lieutenant, reminds them that they are celebrating the end of Frederic’s “apprenticeship.” The Pirate King (an ironic title for the ship’s captain) enters and congratulates Frederic on becoming a full-fledged pirate, but Frederic announces his intention to leave the pirates now that his apprenticeship has ended. He never wanted to be a pirate, he explains, but he was honor bound to fulfill the terms of the contract of his apprenticeship. (Turning the concept of honor upside down was typical of the “topsy-turveyism” of which Gilbert was so fond. Gilbert’s implication here is that in Victorian society, propriety trumped morality).

Ruth enters, and in the song “When Fred’ric was a little lad” she explains how the apprenticeship came to be. Ruth was Frederic’s caregiver when he was a child, and when his father told her that he wanted his son to learn a career as a ship’s pilot, she misunderstood him and instead committed Frederic to become a pirate. Too embarrassed to return to her master and admit her error, she had decided to follow him and become a maid to the pirates. This song provides us with a wonderful example of Gilbert’s delight at word play, with a series of atrocious forced rhymes, all of which Sullivan skillfully accentuates for exaggerated effect. “Pilot,” for example, rhymes with “shy lot” and “high lot,” and “pirate” (pronounced here with a long a) rhymes with “gyrate.”

Frederic then reminds the pirates that while he likes them, he finds piracy morally repellant, and when he is no longer part of their band (in another half-hour), he will be obligated to hunt them down. Since he is still one of them, however, he tries to give them some advice, telling them that they are too soft-hearted, as their policy of never attacking orphans has given any potential victim an “out,” since they invariably claim to be orphans. We learn that now that Frederic is an adult, Ruth has her eye on him, and since he has never seen another woman, he has no one else to compare her to. (The older woman lusting after a younger man is a stock character in Gilbert’s writing, a fact which makes some modern audiences uncomfortable. Sullivan was said to be uncomfortable with this stereotype as well).

While recognizing Frederic’s desire to leave the group, The Pirate King then sings a song in which he declares that the life of a pirate is actually more honest than many more respectable professions: “I sink a few more ships, it’s true/Than a well-bred monarch ought to do/But many a king on a first-class throne/If he wants to call his crown his own,/Must manage somehow to get through/More dirty work than ever I do.” This number provides an example of a typical feature of the Gilbert and Sullivan song – one frequently parodied – in which the chorus echoes the sentiments of the lead singer.

Frederic and Ruth now sing a duet in which he rejects her because of her age and homeliness. Whereas Gilbert and Sullivan are usually associated with pop-style songs, the dialogue here, including a brief orchestral interlude, may remind us more of the style of more serious opera composers. In fact, with the use of recitative and dramatic musical dialogue to advance the story, Gilbert and Sullivan came much closer to traditional opera than did their German and French counterparts in the world of what we now refer to as operetta.

Ruth leaves in despair. Immediately, a chorus consisting of Major General Stanley’s daughters enters, singing “Climbing over rocky mountain.” Though attracted to them, Frederic is embarrassed to be seen in pirate garb, and he hides. The young women decide to wade in the ocean. (We later learn that Frederic’s birthday is in February, hardly a time to be wading in the ocean in England, but such inconsistencies never seemed to bother audiences of the time). Ever the proper Victorian gentleman, Frederic, concerned that he might witness some immodest behavior, emerges from hiding to introduce himself. They are startled by his appearance, but he assures them he has given up piracy and he would like to win the love of any one of them (“Oh, is there not one maiden breast?”). Most of the women reject him, but Mabel urges pity. Her sisters cynically comment that Frederic’s good looks, rather than true compassion, may be her real motivation (“The question is, had he not been/A thing of beauty/Would she be swayed by quite as keen/A sense of duty“– a rhyme which will be repeated later at a key point in the story). Mabel rebukes them and turns to Frederic to offer him redemption through her love in the aria “Poor wand’ring one,” which most critics consider to be a parody of the bel canto style of singing with its exaggerated vocal flourishes. According to musicologist Gervase Hughes, Sullivan did not see music as a vehicle for showing off singers’ voices: “His main concern was not the singer but the song.”

The sisters realize that the couple would like some time together, but of course that would violate the Victorian sense of propriety, so they decide to remain but to talk about the weather among themselves in order to allow the couple an opportunity for private conversation. Sullivan skillfully juxtaposes their rapid conversation about the weather in 2/4 time with the slower romantic dialogue of the two lovers in 3/4 time. This is just one example of the relative complexity of Sullivan’s compositional technique.

The pirates suddenly enter, and seeing the young women, decide to take them for their own, but, since this is Victorian England, their talk is not of rape but rather of marriage and “unbounded domesticity,” as the young women will “quickly be parsonified, conjugally matrimonified” (a couple of words Gilbert invented for the occasion) “by a doctor of divinity who resides in the vicinity.” Gilbert’s audiences would have realized that real-life pirates would not have been quite so proper and they would not have missed Gilbert‘s satiric point. Mabel warns the pirates that the women are all daughters of Major General Stanley, and the pirates realize that it could be dangerous to take these women against their will.

Echoing The Pirate King’s song, Major General Stanley enters. He introduces himself in the song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” This is one of the greatest “patter songs” in all of opera, a number in which much of the fun is based on the audience’s marvel at the sheer skill of a singer’s ability to rattle off the lyrics at break-neck speed, a genre which was somewhat a specialty for the pair. Such arias were often found in the operas of the bel canto school of Rossini and Donizetti. Examples from twentieth-century musical plays include “Trouble” from The Music Man and “Not Getting Married” from Company. Here, Gilbert adds an original humorous touch by having the singer pause as if he is improvising a suitable rhyme to end each verse, arriving at such gems as rhyming “a lot of news” with “hypotenuse” and  “sat a gee” – an archaic term for riding a horse – with “strategy.“ There is even a self-referential line about “that infernal nonsense Pinafore,” poking fun at the pair’s earlier work, reminiscent of the banquet scene in Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, with its musical references to The Marriage of Figaro and Una Cosa Rara. The biggest joke, however, is that, as the general himself admits, despite his vast array of knowledge, none of his education has prepared him for modern warfare.

The pirates tell Major General Stanley that they intend to wed his daughters against their will, but, having heard of the band’s weakness, he tells them that he is an orphan, and, true to their code, they have to relent. “What, we ask is life,/Without a touch of Poetry in it?” The Pirate King asks, and the pirates and women join in a chorus in praise of poetry, the style of which reminds us that Sullivan was also a prolific composer of church music. Ruth enters, and Frederic, who has now found true love, rejects her once more. The pirates, echoed by the young women, sing a rousing reprise of their earlier chorus, this time renouncing their previous designs on the women, as the curtain falls.

ACT II: A ruined chapel by moonlight

Major General Stanley is on stage, surrounded by his daughters, who are trying to cheer him up. Frederic enters, and Stanley tells him that he is depressed about having lied to the pirates about his orphaned status, and he has come to the tombs of his ancestors to ask for forgiveness. Frederic reminds him that these are not his real ancestors, as he had actually bought his way into the nobility, but Stanley replies that he purchased the ancestors along with the estate. Frederic tells him that now that he is no longer a pirate, he has joined with the police to attack his former colleagues.

The police enter. They are a comic lot, no doubt the inspiration for the incompetent Keystone Cops of the silent-film era. In the song “When the foeman bares his steel,” the Sergeant, backed by the chorus of police, explains that the men are somewhat fearful, and they need to chant the mantra “tarantara” to boost their spirits. Mabel, to a mock-heroic military-style melody, does little to calm their nerves as she exhorts them to go forward to death and slaughter so they can “live in song and story.” Mabel’s sisters join her exhortation while the police sing of their distress at the dangers they face.  This provides once again an example of Sullivan’s skill at blending two contrasting melodies into a single choral number. The police then sing of their resolve to march “forward on the foe,” but Stanley observes, “Yes, but you don’t go.” Audience members who are familiar with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville may remember a similar scene in that opera, parodying the operatic convention of characters taking a long time to say that they need to hurry away.

They finally leave, and Frederic is left alone on stage. The Pirate King and Ruth enter, and after a brief scene in traditional recitative (sung speech), the three join in an ensemble (the “paradox” trio), followed by a recitative passage in which The Pirate King informs Frederic that he is not free to leave the pirate band because the contract bound him to serve until his twenty-first birthday, and since he was born on February 29, he has observed only five birthdays. Ruth and the King remind him that his sense of duty obligates him to rejoin the pirates, and despite his desire to do otherwise, he agrees with their logic. Furthermore, now that he has rejoined the group, he is honor-bound to tell them of the Major General’s deception. The Pirate King declares that he and his men will seek revenge on Stanley at once.

Ruth and The Pirate King leave to plan their attack, and Mabel re-enters. Frederic tells her of his agonizing decision to follow his sense of duty and rejoin the pirates. Despite the absurdity of their situation, the music of their duet is in a serious operatic style, including the beautiful melody “Ah, leave me not to pine,” which any operatic composer would be proud to have written. Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Frederic asks Mabel to wait for him until 1940, and while objecting, “It seems so long,” she ultimately agrees. He leaves.

The police re-enter, singing their “tarantara” chant. Mabel tells them that Frederic will no longer assist them, and they plan to capture the pirates, though they express their reluctance, because they realize that felons, except for their crimes, are just like other people (“When a felon’s not engaged in his employment”). Referring to crime as “employment” reiterates the ironic theme expressed earlier by The Pirate King about the moral equivalence between piracy and other forms of earning a living.

This leads to an extended finale with no spoken dialogue. Hearing a pirate song in the distance, the police hide themselves. The pirates enter, singing “With cat-like tread,/Upon our prey we steal,/In silence dread/Our cautious way we steal.” In case a director were to miss the point, the libretto indicates that the song must be “very loud.” Again, we may be reminded of the opening of The Barber of Seville, with the hired singers loudly exclaiming “piano” (quiet). The police quietly chant “tarantara” as the pirates launch into the now familiar “Come, Friends, who plow the sea.” Unaware of the danger, Major General Stanley enters, expressing his continuing sense of remorse at having lied to the pirates. He sings “Sighing softly to the river,” designated in the score as a “ballad.”

The general’s daughters now enter, in their nightgowns, concerned about his sleeplessness. (Some excuse had to be designed to get all of the characters onstage for the finale.) Frederic enters with The Pirate King, and the latter announces that Major General Stanley must die. Frederic is still honor-bound to assist the pirates in killing the father of the woman he loves. The police emerge from hiding but are quickly overcome by the pirates. The police have one more trump card, even though the pirates will no longer accept the “orphan” plea. The Sergeant tells the pirates, “We charge you yield in Queen Victoria’s name.” With wonderful comic absurdity, this demand on their patriotism convinces the pirates to surrender. Just when it appears that they are to be arrested, Gilbert introduces one final ironic twist. Ruth announces that these men “are all noblemen who have gone wrong.” The general declares, “No Englishman unmoved that statement hears,/Because, with all our faults, we love our House of Peers.” Actually, most of the middle-class audience would not have held such sentiments, and they must have loved this equation of the nobility with a band of pirates.  Stanley exhorts them to resume their “legislative duties,” and now that he has learned that they are men of high rank, the status-hungry general, using the now-familiar “duties/beauties” rhyme, offers them his daughters’ hands in marriage. All join in a reprise of “Poor wandering ones” in a sparkling finale.

– Written by Stu Lewis

Gilbert and Sullivan

No two names in the history of opera or musical theater have been as inexorably linked together as those of William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Together they produced fourteen operas (as they called them), more than any other well-known team. By way of comparison, consider some other famous duos such as Mozart and Da Ponte (3), Richard Strauss and Hugo VonHoffmanstahl (7), Rodgers and Hammerstein (10), and Verdi and Piave (13) (though none but the most die-hard opera fans could identify the librettos of Piave).

William Schwenck Gilbert was born in London November 18, 1836. Some biographies report that he was kidnapped and ransomed at age 2, but this appears to be simply a romantic legend. His early life actually was uneventful. He studied for the law and practiced for a short time, but his first love was writing. His first such endeavors were a group of satiric poems, the “Bab Ballads,” for a publication appropriately titled “Fun.” Soon, he began writing for the theater, generally in a satiric vein. His first success, in 1866, was a parody of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. During this time he married Lucy Turner, after a failed romance with a woman whose family objected to his uncertain financial future.

Arthur Sullivan was born in the Lambeth section of London May 13, 1842, the son of a musician/band-leader. Like most composers, he showed promise early in life, composing an original work at age 8 and setting a psalm to music at age 13. The following year he earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Subsequently, he studied music on the Continent, where he met notables such as Rossini. Unlike Gilbert, he never married, but in the early 1870’s he became involved with a woman named Mary Frances Ronalds, who became the love of his life despite the fact that she never divorced the husband from whom she had become estranged. In Victorian times, it appears, divorce would cause more of a scandal than a discrete affair. Though he never had children of his own, he provided for the children of his brother after the latter’s death, and for all intents and purposes he adopted his oldest nephew.

In the late 1870’s he began to experience the kidney problems which were to plague him for the remainder of his life. He frequently had to postpone projects due to ill health, and he also embarked on several travels in search of a cure.

Before beginning his collaboration with Gilbert, Sullivan had already begun to establish himself as one of England’s leading conductors and composers, writing for a variety of venues, including church music. His “Onward Christian Soldiers” is certainly one of the most immediately recognizable English hymns.

Gilbert and Sullivan first met in 1869, but it was simply a social meeting, with no hint of collaboration to follow. In 1871 producer John Hollingshead got the two men together to write a mythological play called Thespis, but it was not a success. In 1875, however, Richard D’Oyly Carte reunited the pair to work on a one-act opera to accompany a production of Offenbach’s La Perichole, which he felt was too short for a full night of theater. When Gilbert read his libretto of Trial by Jury aloud to Sullivan, the composer laughed out loud and immediately began setting it to music. Thus was born a three-man collaboration which was to dominate British light opera for the last quarter of the century. One critic declared that the words and music appeared to have “proceeded simultaneously from the same brain,” a sentiment which describes the appeal that these works have for audiences down to the present time.

The Sorcerer (1877) was their next collaboration, followed by H.M.S. Pinafore in 1878, their first lasting success. This was the work that first established their popularity in the United States. Unfortunately, there were virtually no international copyright laws, and the pair realized little profit from the American productions of their works. Perhaps this “piracy” was the inspiration for their next work, The Pirates of Penzance. Late in 1879, Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte traveled to the United States along with a troupe of performers, intending to secure the rights to American performances by having the premiere in the United States, while a trimmed-down version premiered in England simultaneously to secure rights there as well. A secondary goal of the trip was to produce an authentic version of H.M.S. Pinafore, as American audiences had only seen corrupted versions patched together by American directors.

The trip could well have ended in disaster. Pirates was still unfinished when they arrived, and when Sullivan looked for his notes, he realized that the sketches for the first act had been left behind in England, and he had to reconstruct the music from memory. Working at break-neck speed, however, the pair managed to prepare the company for the New York premiere on New Year’s Eve. Though not as popular as H.M.S. Pinafore, it was still considered a triumph.

Three more successes followed: Patience, Iolanthe, and Princess Ida. By this time, Sullivan, despite the pair’s commercial success, feared that he was beginning to repeat himself creatively. When Gilbert heard of this, he took Sullivan’s words as an insult, but Sullivan assured him that he valued Gilbert’s work and was only concerned about his own sense of stagnation.

There were significant personality differences between the two men. Gilbert was in many ways a proper Victorian gentleman, with a puritanical streak. Sullivan, on the other hand, enjoyed travel, partying, and gambling.

Nevertheless, the two teamed up again in 1885 for one of their most popular works, The Mikado, taking advantage of the popularity of a Japanese exposition in London. Except for a few bars of music to establish the atmosphere and, of course, the Japanese costumes, the work had little to do with Japan and was actually a satire of British society. To this day it remains one of their three most popular works, along with Pirates and Pinafore.   The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick’s review provided a concise evaluation of Sullivan’s unique talent: “Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music is not notable for its originality or for any traces of genius, but it has valuable attributes. It complements the words and the situation naturally and easily, is always melodious and lively, and – most important – is stylistically consistent. The more frequently we have occasion, from year to year, to complain of the vulgarization and false enlargement of operetta music – with unnatural borrowings of tragic pathos, Wagnerian instrumentation, heldentenors and prima donnas – the more do we treasure the modest virtues of a musical comedy such as The Mikado.”

The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) represented a departure for the pair. While it has some typical Gilbert and Sullivan touches, it is remarkable in its lack of a traditional happy ending. While its best-known song, “I Have a Song to Sing, O,” tells of a “righted wrong,” the play ends with the disappointment of unrequited love.

Sullivan still longed to write a more “serious” opera in the grand-opera tradition. At first, he hoped that Gilbert would be his librettist, but he realized that in a grand opera, “words are to suggest music, not govern it.” Gilbert’s reply was that “anybody can write a good enough libretto for such a purpose.” He added, “If we are to meet, it must be as master and master – not master and servant.” Sullivan subsequently approached Julian Russell Sturgis for the libretto for Ivanhoe, based on the classic novel by Sir Walter Scott, but the 1891 premiere was only a modest success, and critics today consider it far inferior to the work Sullivan produced with Gilbert. This was a major blow to the composer, who lamented the fact that he was known primarily for works he considered less substantial than more serious opera. (In the twentieth century, another composer, Leonard Bernstein, was to have similar feelings about his own theater pieces, especially the lighter works which preceded West Side Story.)

During this time a more serious rift developed, not over creative differences but over some petty financial issues. The financial arrangement Gilbert and Sullivan had with Carte called for a percentage of the proceeds after the deduction of expenses attributed to the production. When Gilbert saw an accounting that indicated that Carte had deducted the cost of new carpets for the Savoy Theater, he objected that such maintenance costs were not related to the production and should not have been counted. Sullivan, who relied on Carte for his non-Gilbertian works, sided with the producer. The case eventually wound up in court.

Both men then went on to team with other partners, with no lasting success. They buried the hatchet temporarily for 1893’s Utopia Limited, which was a relative success; George Bernard Shaw praised Sullivan’s music as being in a class with Mozart’s. The Grand Duke (1896), however, was less successful, and is generally considered to be an uninspired work. The two men blamed each other for its failure, and they never worked together again.

Sullivan went on to write some additional theater pieces, but he never found a librettist as talented as Gilbert had been in his prime. Having suffered from health problems all his life, he finally died of bronchitis on November 22, 1900. His beloved mistress was summoned to his bedside but arrived too late. Within a year, both Carte and Queen Victoria would also pass away.

Gilbert gradually withdrew from writing for the theater, recognizing, “A Gilbert is of no use without a Sullivan.” On a sunny day in May, 1911 he invited some guests to go for a swim in the lake on his estate. A young woman preceded him into the water but got too far out and began to shout for help. Gilbert dived in to save her, but the sudden shock of the cold water was too much for his already weak heart, and he died instantly. On a memorial plaque are engraved the words of Anthony Hope Hawkins: “His foe was folly, and his weapon wit.”

– Written by Stu Lewis

The Long Shadow of W. S. Gilbert

In his review of the American operetta “The Desert Song,” Richard Watts, Jr. wrote sardonically, “The lyrics gave every indication that W. S. Gilbert lived and died in vain.”  How important were Gilbert and Sullivan in the development of musical theater in the United States? In the opinion of Gerald Bordman, author of American Operetta, “Without Pinafore, there might have been no Victor Herbert, no George M. Cohan, no Jerome Kern, no George Gershwin, no Richard Rodgers.” To document this assertion, Bordman points to the rapid growth of musical theater immediately following Pinafore’s New York run, which at one point included simultaneous productions in three theaters in that city.

Gilbert probably should be considered the patron saint of all Broadway lyricists. He was the first librettist to earn equal billing with the composer since opera’s earliest days, a trend which has continued throughout the history of the American musical theater. He may well have been the first to receive equal pay.  (Many American musicals separate the functions of the writing of the lyrics and the “book,” or story line. Also, most Broadway composers do not write their own orchestrations. But the “book” writers and arrangers do not share top billing.)

Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s most important contribution to the development of musical theater, however, was their ability to craft songs with witty lyrics that were perfectly supported by the melodies. This set the standard by which all future musicals would be judged.

Wit, of course, does not simply mean humor. When Oscar Hammerstein writes, “You start to light her cigarette, and all at once you love her/You’ve scarcely talked, you’ve scarcely met, and all at once you love her,” or when Tom Jones writes, “Deep in December, it’s nice to remember/Although you know the snow will follow/Deep in December it’s nice to remember/Without a hurt the heart is hollow” – they are demonstrating the power of words to carry the meaning of a song.

Nevertheless, we generally associate Gilbert with humor and satire. Listen to the words of some of our great American lyricists and see if you hear echoes of W. S. Gilbert:

Ah, the grass is always greener, where some other tenant pays rent,
Ah, the teeth are always cleaner, in somebody else’s Polident.
                                      —Fred Ebb

It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch,
To the paunch and the pouch and the pension,
It’s a very short road to the ten thousandth lunch
And the belch and the grouch and the sigh–in the meanwhile,
There are mouths to be kissed before mouths to be fed
And a lot in between in the meanwhile,
And a girl ought to celebrate what passes by.
                                    —Stephen Sondheim

Heartbreak and passion may both be in fashion, but I wanna make the world laugh,
Let others do drama of sin and disgrace, while I throw a fish in the heroine’s face.
                                    –Jerry Herman

An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he speaks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
                                   —Alan Jay Lerner

Ella the girl of the cinders, did the wash and the walls and the winders,
Still she landed a prince who was brawny and blue-eyed and blond,
Still I honestly doubt that she could ever have done it without that
Crazy lady with the wand.
                                    —Marshall Barer

The female remaining single, just in the legal sense,
Shows a neurotic tendency–see note–Note:
Chronic organic symptoms, toxic or hypertense,
Affecting the eye, the ear, the nose, the throat.
In other words just from wondering whether the wedding is on or off,
A person can develop a cough.
                                    —Frank Loesser

Methuselah lived nine hundred years, Methuselah lived nine hundred years,
But who calls that living, when no gal will give in, to no man who’s 900 years.
                                    —Ira Gershwin

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis,
Think of it as personality dialysis,
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal a sis-ter and adviser,
There‘s nobody wiser.
                                    —Stephen Schwartz (an admirer of Gilbert)

You don’t have to go to a private school,
not to pick up a penny near a stubborn mule,
You don’t have to have a professor’s dome,
Not to go for the honey when the bee’s at home,
That comes naturally.
                                     —Irving Berlin

Yes the circle shape is quite renowned, and sad to say in can be found,
In the dirty, low-down run-around my true love gave to me.
                                    –Sheldon Harnick

Sir Philip played the harp, I cussed the thing,
I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing,
And now he plays where harps are just the thing,
To keep my love alive.
                                    —Lorenz Hart

‘Cause I can bake, too, on top of the lot, my oven’s the hottest you’ll find,
Yes I can roast too, my chicken’s just ooze, my gravy will lose you your mind.
I’m a brand new note on a table d’hote, but just try me a la carte,
With a single course you can choke a horse.
Baby, you won’t know where to start.
                                 —Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Well, maybe Gilbert wouldn’t have used those double entendres. Let’s conclude with an excerpt from Cole Porter:

Just declaim a few bars from Othella’ and she’ll think you’re a helluva fella’,
If your blond won’t respond when you flatter ‘er, tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
If she fights when her clothes you are mussing,
What are clothes: Much Ado About Nussing,
Brush up your Shakespeare, and they’ll all kowtow.

As you can see, Cole Porter is one of the most Gilbertian of all American song-writers.

– Written by Stu Lewis

A Gilbert and Sullivan Parody

In 1996 Russell Patterson, Lyric Opera’s founding director, retired and in connection with the festivities celebrating Maestro Patterson’s retirement, Stu Lewis wrote a parody of “When I was a Lad” from Pinafore, some verses of which are repeated below:

When I was a lad I got a horn, and practiced faithfully at break of dawn,
I got so good I joined a band and earned my living playing Dixieland,
I played jazz licks so skillfully, that now I lead the Lyric Opera of K.C.

So off we went as if to war, to go where none had ever gone before,
I know you’ll think it quite absurd, that in Kansas City opera was a dirty word.
We hid the music carefully, and called ourselves the Lyric Theater of K.C. (1)

The Rockhill Theater was so small, there was no room for a backstage at all,
And so our singers oft would choose a nearby tavern to await their cues,
So they were all a bit tipsy when singing for the Lyric Opera of K.C. (2)

To Maryville we took the bus, somehow our scores never caught up with us,
And our production of Samson was so authentic that the roof fell in, (3)
The roof fell so authentically, we had to move the Lyric Opera of K.C.

Don’t come to K.C. if you want to listen to librettos of Da Ponte,
You could attend both Spring and Fall and never hear a lyric of VonHoffmanstahl,
But if Rolf Petrarch’s your cup of tea, you’re sure to love the Lyric Opera of K.C. (4)

Just one more opera I’ll conduct, so tell your friends to come and wish me luck,
And if they ask about Chenier, just tell them it’s the theme from Phil-a-del-phi-a,(5)
The lovers die so happily, they’re sure to love the Lyric Opera of K.C.

(1) True
(2) I don’t know about the tipsy part, but the bar next door was used as a waiting area
(3) Fortunately this was during rehearsals and there were no injuries. The Company temporarily moved to the Music Hall.
(4) During the Patterson era, all operas at the Lyric Opera were performed in English, sometimes with Mr. Patterson’s own translations under the pseudonym Rolf Petrarch.
(5) The Tom Hanks film, in which the hero gets his will to live from listening to the Callas recording of “La mamma morta”)

– Written by Stu Lewis

Reference Materials

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Bailey, Leslie. Gilbert and Sullivan and Their World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.

Bordman, Gerald. American Operetta: From Pinafore to Sweeney Todd. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Bower, John Wilson, and John Lee Brooks. The Victorian Age:  Poetry, Prose, and Drama. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1954.

Groves Music On-Line.

Hughes, Gervase. The Music of Arthur Sullivan. London: MacMillan, 1960.

Jacobs, Arthur. Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Smith, Geoffrey. The Savoy Operas: A New Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan. New York: Universe, 1985.

Stedman, Jane. W. S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theater. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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