In honour of Frederic’s birthday, let’s talk about Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which have achieved a kind of cult classic status in our family. Quotable quotes for every situation abound and pop unbidden into our minds. Recognizing references and snatches of melody, far more common in popular culture than anyone would realize if they were unfamiliar with this body of work, brings quick understanding and shared delight. As for myself, I’ve watched every play that has been recorded, and some of them many, many times. Our weekly Nana Night with five granddaughters includes an annual film festival of the Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre, closely tracked in our collection of the librettos.

If you love theatre, memorable music and clever wordplay, the light comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan may be your cup of tea too. These musicals have been delighting audiences for more than 140 years and their popularity only increases as time goes by. Rollicking music, clever lyrics, gentle satire, implausible plots, hilarious characters and stunning costumes – what’s not to like?

Victorian age theatre-goers had to wait for a Gilbert and Sullivan performance on stage. Today we are much luckier. We can find their works on DVD performed by some of the top theater companies. My first loyalty is to the Stratford Festival Theatre productions since we once lived nearby. I was in the audience of Pirates of Penzance the night it was filmed for CBC. “Ho ho. Gotta watch that boat!” More readily available are the Opera Australia productions, which are brilliant. I highly recommend them. Check out Anthony Warlow as the pirate king with a Jack Sparrow veneer.

For a first dip into the comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, I’d recommend the following three plays. If you only want to try one, pick The Pirates of Penzance.

The Pirates of Penzance

or The Slave of Duty

Young Frederic has come of age and completed his apprenticeship as a pirate but it turns out that was a mistake so now he wants to return to civilization. This decision will be much more difficult than he imagines, and will bring great danger to those who try to help him – beautiful Mabel, the quick-thinking major general who is her father, her sisters, and the entire Penzance police force. Who will deliver them from the pirates’ dastardly clutches?

This was my first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I saw it live in 1985 at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario. That version has some unique twists including a whole blue-stocking segment that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’ve enjoyed many other productions since then. The made-for-film version starring Linda Ronstadt (her incredible voice), Kevin Kline and Angela Lansbury might be a good one for a first introduction.

The Mikado

or The Town of Titipu

Naki-Poo, a wandering minstrel, has arrived at the town of Titipu to woo and win fair Yum-Yum, but his hopes are soon dashed when he learns that she is to marry the Lord High Executioner this very day. His fate becomes inextricably entwined with that of the town when the Mikado pays a surprise visit. Confusion and complicated subterfuge rule the day, but will someone lose their head at the end of it? And what of Ko-Ko’s plans to marry, or Pooh-Bah’s unceasing efforts to mortify his pride?

The story is set in Japan and the characters are Japanese. But the intention, as always, was to tweak the tails of the Victorian British audience. The Opera Australia’s Mikado has lavish sets and an interesting fusion of Japanese and proper British costumes and props, underlining the satire of a play set in Japan but really poking fun at Victorian English society. As is typical with Gilbert and Sullivan productions, there are some rewrites to reflect current events and local politics, especially in the patter songs. To my mind, this has the best casting for Nanki-Poo. Heather Begg shines as Katisha. The National English Opera’s production, set in the 1920s without a Japanese costume in sight, is a parody of a parody. The best Pooh-Bah ever is Richard McMillan at the Stratford Festival in 1982. I never get tired of watching this one. Encore!


or The Peer and the Peri

Enter young Strephon, playing merrily on his flute. He has every reason to be joyful. He is in love with Phyllis, a beautiful shepherdess, and they are to be married that very day. But Strephon has a secret he must keep at all costs, even from his fiance. His mother, who has been banished for the last twenty-five years, has an even more dangerous secret. As affairs begin to unravel, fairies hear the sound of alarm and fly to the rescue. Will their interference make things better or worse? Can there possibly be a happy ending?

I’ve seen two versions of Iolanthe, the Stratford Festival performance (love it) and a local live theatre production, also excellent. I wish there were more.

By the way, it’s pronounced “Eye-oh-lan-they.” You’re welcome.

In Popular Culture

Once at church I commented to our pastor on his skill in leading songs a capella. He told me he performed the Duke of Plaza Toro in a high school musical, The Gondoliers. He then proceeded to sing me the duke’s entire introductory solo in the church foyer. So good.

The more you recognize of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, the more you notice references to them. Backdrops to novels, snatches of songs in movies – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: Insurrection,Chariots of Fire, Milo and Otis to name only a few, as well as shows such as Magnum P.I., Frasier, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show. Two Veggie Tales episodes are strongly styled after Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s great fun to meet these friends in the most surprising places.

Happy birthday, Frederic, and many more!