Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This is my joy-day unalloyed.

Can I just take a moment to talk about how much I love Gilbert and Sullivan?

I really, really do. And it's funny, because I almost didn't. I almost never even got the chance. The musical my senior year of high school could have been anything--the two previous years we performed The Music Man and Into the Woods. But it wasn't just anything. It was The Pirates of Penzance. I remember when that was announced in October we were all crestfallen. Gilbert and Sullivan? Operetta? Who cared? (Actually, this was not my first Gilbert and Sullivan experience, but the theater camp production of The Sorcerer in which I was a member of the MALE chorus obviously didn't make much of an impression beyond "The eggs and the ham and the strawberry jam, / the rollicking bun and the gay Sally Lunn!")

But then I started listening to the D'Oyly Carte recording, with all the dialogue, and by the time auditions rolled around we were all hooked. I sang "And This Is My Beloved" from Kismet and was cast as Mabel. Our Pirate King had been waiting since having one line in Guys and Dolls in sixth grade to play the Pirate King--he actually lived that character all the time, so it wasn't much of a stretch. Boys who had never before shown interest in the musical turned up to audition, because honestly, who doesn't want to be a pirate? Even the girls wanted to be pirates. The Major-General had twenty-one lovely daughters, and the Chief of Police, who had never danced before, led a chorus of middle school girls (and short high schoolers) in wonderfully charming choreography. To this day, even after several college productions, our high school's Pirates of Penzance is still my favorite theatrical experience.

And it's all thanks to William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, who look like Jim Broadbent and Alan Corduner in my head, thanks to the wonderful film Topsy-Turvy, and who collaborated fourteen times for the Savoy Opera House--Pirates, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, The Gondoliers, Ruddigore, Patience, The Sorcerer, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Grand Duke, Trial By Jury, Utopia, Limited and Thespis (okay, yes, I had to go to Google for the last couple). These shows look like frothy confections with not much substance, and for the most part, they are, but they're also witty, blazingly intelligent, and sometimes scathing commentaries on English society--for whether Japan, Italy, or some fictional location, the Savoy operas were always about England at heart.

Now here's where I get to dust off the paper I wrote on Gilbert and Sullivan my sophomore year of college in music history. We were discussing national music (Smetana, Dvorak, Bartok, etc.) in discussion section, and when I wondered aloud if Gilbert and Sullivan could be considered England's national music, I was appalled to find that neither my TA nor my classmates knew anything about them. Not that I was such an expert, but I took the floor and explained the G&S phenomenon as best I could. And then I parked myself in the stacks and read.

My thesis, as I recall, was that it wasn't just the slightly snarky criticism of England that made the Savoy operas English national music, but the reverence for the English language shared by both composer and lyricist. Gilbert always wrote the words first--in Topsy-Turvy he is seen reading Act I of The Mikado to his wife, Kitty, and also to Sullivan. Once the libretto was written, Sullivan would begin to write the music. His chief concern in composing for operetta was the clarity of the text and simplicity of tune, so that the words could be understood and the music heard and remembered by even the least musical of audience members. (One can understand, then, Sullivan's ambition to write a grand opera, what with years of putting his music second to Gilbert's words. The Savoy operas, however, do boast some glorious music, and I think Sullivan would be immensely proud if he could see his legacy.) But anyway, he was very, very careful that the stresses should be on the proper syllables; people like Balfe were writing Italianate music that just happened to have English words, and there's a reason nobody remembers Balfe (the only reason I know about him is because of that one story in James Joyce's Dubliners where she sings "I Dreamt That I Dwelt"). And a lot of Gilbert's lyrics have similar rhyme and stress structures to English folk songs. I think that the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are some of the only "operatic" works in English that trust the English language to sing (I'd put Britten into the same category)--we tend to fall into the trap of saying that English isn't a good language to sing in. But Sullivan wrote English music for English text, and that's why we still love Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

That's also why they are SO catchy. I'm currently learning the role of Elsie Maynard in The Yeomen of the Guard, and I find it easy to memorize because of how much sense the words and the music make together. But honestly, what I really love about Gilbert and Sullivan is how funny the operettas are--straight up, please, I don't want any updates or ad-libbing or anything to interfere with my G&S. I still get a good laugh out of the "orphan/often" debate in Pirates (the original "who's on first?" joke!), the "two-thirds of a husband for each wife" bit in Gondoliers (an opera I know regretfully little about), and who doesn't love "To sit in solemn silence in a dull dark dock" in The Mikado? Not to mention all of the names that seem chosen specifically for rhyme value--"Frederic, save us!" "Beautiful Mabel, I would if I could, but I am not able!" or "Phoebe--who the deuce can SHE be?" Tee hee.

I have some friends who laugh at me for my adoration of Gilbert and Sullivan, but I just tell them to rent Topsy-Turvy and tell me if they can really resist it. I hope if anybody reading this blog isn't familiar with the Savoy operas, they go out and find their local Gilbert and Sullivan society, or even watch that episode of The West Wing called "And It's Surely to Their Credit" (Sam Seaborn, that most adorable of deputy communications directors, was the president of the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society!). The influence of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is everywhere, and I hope everyone comes to enjoy their operettas as much as I do.


  1. I LOVE that West Wing episode! Every so often I watch it and miss Ainsley and Sam.