I’m looking forward with great excitement (and nail chewing) to the release of my very first novel, Revenge of the Parson’s Daughter, Or The Lass that Loved a Pirate. One of the best things about writing it was that I got to borrow from some of my favorite literature, including Georgette Heyer and Robert Louis Stevenson. Much as I love Treasure Island, though, my pirates definitely owe less to R.L.S. and more to G. and S. That would be [William] Gilbert (words) and [Arthur] Sullivan (music), the team that created over a dozen wonderful shows that combine social satire, general silliness, and beautiful music.
I’ve been sold on Gilbert and Sullivan since I saw HMS Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor (yes, that’s where I cribbed my subtitle from) on TV when I was 12. I’m a huge musical theater fan anyway, but Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are my favorites because they’re so much fun.
So, some of you are probably wondering, “What’s an operetta?” Well, it’s sort of a cross between a junior opera and a musical.
- An operetta isn’t really an opera.
- Operas tend to be longer, have little spoken dialogue, and nowadays at least are considered serious music (they used to cause riots).
- Many operas are tragic, with the doomed soprano singing beautifully right to the end despite dying of tuberculosis or being buried alive with the tenor she loves (duet!). Operettas are never tragic, although once in a rare while the romantic leads don’t end up together.
- Operettas aren’t exactly musicals, either.
- Operettas are never serious. Although many musicals are light-hearted (Oklahoma, Xanadu), they sometimes tackle intense subjects (racism, gangs, homophobia).
- Older musicals get revived all the time, but aside from an occasional Die Fledermaus or Merry Widow, operettas are rarely performed anymore.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are still alive and well. If you’ve never seen one, you’re definitely missing out.
For one thing, they’re hilarious (although some of the more obscure Victorian references slide by a modern audience). Most of the humor is timeless, poking fun at pompous, self-important people—unqualified top execs, phony-baloney artistes—and the kind of folly we all engage in from time to time (pretending to be someone you’re not, going to extremes to attract romantic attention). There’s always lots of general silliness—ship captains who don’t want to offend their sailors by swearing, a place where flirting carries a death sentence, and so on. Plots get resolved by such realistic devices as (spoiler) a revelation that the tenor and baritone were switched at birth (even though the tenor is in love with, and is always played by an actor the same age as, the baritone’s daughter).
Along the way, Gilbert and Sullivan point out the flaws and foibles of the navy, the army, the art world, public education, parliament, the legal system, class divisions, arbitrary moral standards, and the lady novelist (who, if you believe the song, “never would be missed”).
Well, it seems that this particular lady novelist gleaned rather a lot from The Pirates of Penzance, although I swear it wasn’t deliberate (mostly). The Penzance pirates are basically good guys, and so are mine; both crews have about as much in common with actual sea robbers as the “Very Model of a Modern Major General” has with real soldiers.
My guys would fit right in onstage, chiming in with “Hurrah for a Pirate King” and singing happily about a “first rate opportunity to get married with impunity,” although they wouldn’t be much interested in the Major General’s daughters. The chorus of policemen, on the other hand, would be right up their alley.
My favorite version of Pirates of Penzance was put on by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington about ten years ago. Of course all the roles were played by men, and they sang the women’s parts an octave down, except for Mabel, the lead. Mabel is an extremely challenging role—it’s really a coloratura part—but somehow they found a man who could sing Mabel in the original key. Sadly, I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that he was fabulous. [I must confess, though, that the most memorable thing was intermission. The line for the men’s room ran for miles, but there was NO line for the women’s restroom. It was almost surreal, being able to walk right in.]
So—why not give Gilbert and Sullivan a try? I’ve got some video suggestions, but if you can, see a show live. Nothing beats live theater.
The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan is a classic biopic with songs from many of their shows—sort of a “greatest hits.”
Topsy-Turvy is about the original production of The Mikado, their most successful work.
The Pirates of Penzance (based on Joseph Papp’s Broadway production) has a great cast, including Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, Rex Smith, and Linda Rondstat.
Ruddigore, a parody of Gothic melodrama, is my favorite, but it’s not well known because it followed The Mikado and suffered by comparison—as anything would have. I especially love this version because it features Vincent Price, who chews the scenery with great verve. Plus he’s a good 20 years older than the actor playing his supposedly older brother. With Gilbert and Sullivan, that just adds to the fun.