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


of Seville."

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

The Pirates of Penzance, McCarter Theater, 91


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 SRO $15.


April 18, 8 p.m.

HMS Pinafore, McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787. SRO

$15. Thursday, April 19, 8 p.m.

The Mikado, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

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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