Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the
April 18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Gilbert & Sullivan Rule!
Musical theater pieces" — that’s how Albert
Bergeret describes the works of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
"They’re unique," he says; "there’s nothing like
He should know. A musician with broad expertise and involvement, he
has spent virtually his whole life with G and S, including his service
since 1974 as outspoken artistic director-general manager of the New
York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NY-GASP), a company he co-founded.
When they were written, G and S works like "HMS Pinafore,"
"Pirates of Penzance," and "The Mikado" were called
operas. But that’s not accurate, says Bergeret (BEAR-ju-ray). They
were called "operettas" after that, but nowadays that word
connotes "schmaltzy shows" by Franz Lehar. "Comic
won’t do either, he says, because that suggests something like
So how best, and fairly, to describe productions overflowing with
satire, songs, humor, melodies, fantastical and fun stories? If not
by simply saying "G and S," then try "musical theater
pieces" — three of which will come to this area starting
April 18, at McCarter Theater.
Two men whose names, but more important, whose social classes, are
mixed up in babyhood; a group of disaffected noblemen who dress and
act like bandits — until their tender hearts are touched; the
son of a ruler who, to escape one woman and woo another, disguises
himself as a traveling minstrel. Will they find true love and faith
in the system? Will everything and everyone be forgiven? Of course.
This is Gilbert and Sullivan, after all.
But before the inevitable sorting out and happy ending are laughter
and music-filled hours of mistaken identities, misunderstandings,
plots and pratfalls of all sorts — before truth, and true love,
can conquer all, usually either aided or delayed by a commanding sense
of duty. And of course, there are the G & S conventions — elements
that pop up in just about every show. Besides mistaken, changed, or
assumed identities, these include:
the patter song: a character delivers exposition in a glib
and rapid way, with humorous effect (Major General Stanley’s "I
am the very model of a modern Major General" is a fine one);
the tenor hero, invariably a goody-two-shoes;
the older woman in the story, usually overbearing or
and invariably ridiculed (think Katisha in "Mikado");
actions that contradict the libretto (the pirates steal
upon their prey "with cat-like tread," while singing at the
top of their lungs);
the frequent spoofing of grand opera;
a grand finale explanation that puts all wrongs to right.
Now in their third century of production, G & S shows
were written during a 25-year span, between 1871 and 1896, in
England, by two men whose tastes and personal styles could not have
been more different. Trained as an attorney, William Schwenck Gilbert
preferred training his eye on his peers (and on the Peers, or members
of the House of Lords): Victorian society gave him endless targets
for satire. A "classic Victorian" in his prolific output,
he was a sort of straitlaced iconoclast; an incisive and witty
a rigorous stage director. Arthur Seymour Sullivan was a popular
bon vivant, and thoroughly establishment figure. Musically precocious,
could play every instrument in the orchestra.
One commentator saw it this way: "The strength was Gilbert’s,
the sweetness was Sullivan’s, each providing his partner with
he lacked. Gilbert kindled the fire of genius in Sullivan, whose flame
irradiated Gilbert." Or, as Bergeret says, "Gilbert was never
successful without Sullivan, and Sullivan was only mildly successful
on his own. Their particular forms of brilliance were such that,
they created something new and better."
Or 13 "somethings," to be exact. Starting with "Trial
by Jury," the G & S canon runs through "The Grand Duke."
The score for "Thespis," the team’s earliest collaboration,
has been lost, so No. 14 cannot be produced, although it’s known that
Sullivan borrowed from its music for at least one song in
(1879). Still another loss had occasioned that expropriation: the
"Pirates" score had been lost during a transatlantic voyage
to New York for its official U.S. premiere. So G & S buffs who enjoy
"Climbing over rocky mountain…" can thank "Thespis"
for its song about climbing Mount Olympus!
"HMS Pinafore, or the Lass That Loved a Sailor" was the fourth
"musical theater piece" produced by G & S. In this 1878 show,
Ralph Rackstraw, a British tar and "the smartest lad in all the
fleet," loves Josephine, the daughter of his captain, who secretly
loves him back. The gap in their social classes inhibits declarations
of love until Ralph enlists all but one of his messmates’ support,
and Josephine is threatened with marriage to Sir Joseph Porter, KCB,
"our Admiralty’s First Lord." At the same time, Josephine’s
father, Captain Corcoran, is smitten by Little Buttercup, a woman
who sells trinkets to the sailors on his ship. When Dick Deadeye,
a bitter, eye patch-wearing sailor who had warned Ralph not to love
above his station tells the captain of the intended elopement, the
action, and fun, really begin.
No child should grow up without knowing the famous exchange in
"What, never? — Hardly ever!" That’s how often Captain
Corcoran may get sick at sea or swear a big, big D — -, and it’s
an all-purpose expression to have in one’s arsenal. "Love can
level ranks" (though only sometimes) and "Things are seldom
what they seem" are two more familiar truisms.
"The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty," named for
a rugged coastal area of western England and actually premiered
nearby, in Paignton, in 1879, was the fifth in the G & S series.
Produced a year after "Pinafore," it, too, won a rapturous
reception from audiences at its debut. Young Frederick, an involuntary
pirate apprentice, reaches his 21st birthday and leaves his pirate
band vowing to bring them to justice. Ruth, his childhood nursery
maid and the one who had mistakenly bound him to the pirates —
instead of to a pilot — wants to go with him. But Frederick’s
sighting of a group of comely young maidens dashes Ruth’s romantic
aspirations, and the pirates soon swoop down upon the whole company,
which now includes Major General Stanley, the girls’ father. Their
escape, owing to a falsehood and their subsequent plans to fight
another day, take up the rest of the show. Rollickingly and
Swords down, Albert Bergeret recommends "Pirates" as the best
G & S production for a young person. It’s the most child-like, he
says, as well as the most child-friendly. It’s like kids dressing
up and playing games; it’s about tough pirates who often cry
at the idea of "an orphan" — and it includes political
satire and bite. The familiar "Hail, hail, the gang’s all
melody comes directly from "Pirates," where it is sung by
the pirate band — "Come, friends who plow the sea, truce to
navigation, take another station. . . " Expected to capture the
pirates, the police discomfort with that notion causes them to hide:
"A policeman’s lot is not a happy one."
By the time "The Mikado, or the Town of Titipu" took to the
boards in 1885, the Savoy Theater already served as the exclusive
London venue for three earlier G & S productions. Built by impresario
Richard D’Oyly Carte, who had long hoped to establish English comic
opera in a theater of its own, the Savoy was the first theater in
the world to be wholly illuminated by electric lights. So firmly did
the Savoy represent all things G & S that the duo’s disciples came
to be called "Savoyards."
The story goes that the Mikado story came to Gilbert at the drop of
a Japanese sword, souvenir from an Orientalism exhibition in London.
Set in Japan, replete with vases, jars, screens and fans, and offering
exciting possibilities for costumes, sets, and manners, not to mention
music, this show quickly became a great favorite. Nanki-Poo,
a wandering minstrel, happens to arrive in Titipu, the town where
(his secret love) Yum-Yum lives, on the very day she must wed Ko-Ko,
the Lord High Executioner. But that’s not all: a visit by the Mikado
(or emperor) with his daughter-in-law-elect, together with the related
necessity for a beheading, or at least a reported beheading, combine
for humor and pathos at once.
The tragi-comic situations that evolve are accompanied by music and
expressions now known the world over: Pooh-Bah, the proud
is still a familiar type, and Ko-Ko’s "little list" of society
offenders is a model for us all. "To let the punishment fit the
crime" may call for use of a snickersnee now and then. Altogether,
"Here’s a pretty how-de-do!"
"Mikado" was followed by "Ruddigore" (1887); "The
Yeomen of the Guard" (1888); "The Gondoliers" (1889);
"Utopia Limited" (1893); and "The Grand Duke" (1896).
None of these rivaled the appeal of earlier shows — no doubt in
part because Gilbert and Sullivan’s professional relationship, always
stormy, had continued to deteriorate. Increasingly dissatisfied with
Gilbert’s librettos, Sullivan maintained his desire to write
music — the hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers" and his
sacred song, "The Last Chord," are among the few things
Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883;
much less sunny and less accepted too, had to wait till 1907 for his
knighthood, bestowed by Edward VII. Never in good health, Sullivan
died at 58 in 1900, while Gilbert, then 74, died in 1911. Attempting
to save a young woman, he drowned in the lake at his property outside
Why does Gilbert’s wordsmithery still amaze, amuse, and gratify?
The breadth of his vocabulary is astounding, enriching the rhymed
lyrics of his "splendidly absurd" plots — another story
in themselves. His wit must be heard to be believed; the smallest
chorus is a wonder. It’s almost as hard to analyze the delights of
Gilbert as to decide why, once heard, Sullivan’s music is impossible
to forget. One listener says, "The genius is in the melodies,"
both fresh and familiar at once. They are sparkling, colorful,
Sullivan’s uncanny knack for successful word-setting is another
Bergeret says, "Gilbert’s words are enhanced, rather than
by his parallel musical wit. He did unique things with rhythmic
Unlike the experience you might have with Offenbach, for example,
you haven’t `had it’ after six verses of a Sullivan song." And
contributing to the sense that his music is immediately accessible
without being predictable may be Sullivan’s practice of quoting or
parodying other musicians — among them, Handel, Schubert, Bellini,
Wagner, and Donizetti.
Although Richard D’Oyly Carte died in 1901 at age 57, his D’Oyly Carte
production company survived until 1982, for most of that time with
the copyright for all the G & S musical theater pieces firmly in its
possession. During that time, permission was required to produce G
& S, and much of the stage business came directly from W. S. Gilbert’s
original direction. Bergeret says members of the D’Oyly Carte Company
had to be British-born, and that requirement, together with all the
other protocols and customs, caused it to grow "stodgy, dull and
boring." He’s reserving judgment on the "new" D’Oyly
which was established in 1988.
Bergeret says his GASP repertory company is made up of
who bring an unquantifiable sense of style and multiple layering"
to their productions. He admits that as director, he micro-manages,
but after his cast members get "the building blocks," he
them to "find the moment" — that is, to ad lib sometimes,
infusing performances with freshness and spontaneity.
"I’m not an academic or a purist. I’m a man of the theater,"
Bergeret says. He sees NY-GASP’s job as bringing G & S to the
"We’re here to communicate, not keep a museum:" that’s the
rationale behind the "tiny percentage" of topical reference
changes to update G & S. One for-instance: In "Pinafore,"
when Ralph is thrown into the dungeon, the original lyric goes,
telephone communicates with his cell." The telephone had just
been invented then, Bergeret notes, but since that’s not true now,
the reference could be confusing. So "without a change in
the wording now goes, "No cellular phone communicates. . . "
At this juncture, a Savoyard might wonder if the cell phone reference
might not be even more distracting — and in fact contradict the
production’s period costumes and values. Bergeret had already
scorn for the ego-driven, modern-dress G & S productions, such as
Jonathan Miller’s radical production of "Mikado" some years
ago. And the more recent Broadway production of "Pirates,"
with Linda Ronstadt, drew mixed reviews, at best.
Not only can works by G & S be marred; works about them can be ruined
too. One example: Mike Leigh’s film, "Topsy Turvy," supposedly
about the two men and production of "The Mikado." The
were dull, Bergeret complains; the bordello scene was gratuitous;
the behavior, not well-documented. Overall, he says, it was "not
narrative enough, from here to there. I hated it."
There’s unwarranted condescension toward G & S, Bergeret declares.
For reasons that he, a professional who directs other professionals,
can’t understand, people often think of G & S as the purview of
And those in musical theater regard it as old hat. "But just
to Sondheim, and tell me it’s not on the same continuum as Gilbert
and Sullivan!" he steams. "He does patter songs!"
"Five years from now if you’re still doing this part, you’ll still
be finding new things," Bergeret tells his cast members. Under
the broad slapstick there are recognizably real people, he says;
brain work behind it all. That’s why G & S "has legs." After
all these years, Bergeret says, "I still laugh at
Or does he often still laugh at "orphan-often"?
G & S as musical theater piece, as operetta, as comic or light opera
— even as "Savoy opera," which it has also been called:
what’s in a name? Whatever you call G & S, it’s so delightful,
delovely, it’s going on immortal.
— Pat Summers
Place, 609-258-2787. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players present
their fully staged production, directed by Albert Bergeret. For more
information about NY-GASP, visit www.nygasp.org. SRO $15.
April 18, 8 p.m.
$15. Thursday, April 19, 8 p.m.
New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players,
directed by Albert Bergeret. $20 to $34. Friday, April 27, 8
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