The Pirates of Penzance

A short history of and introduction to Pirates of Penzance
By Philip Weiner

Marion Hood as Mabel in an early production of <i>Pirates</i> Pirates of Penzance, one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular light operas, first opened in New York City on December 31, 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theater. Gilbert and Sullivan premiered the operetta in America instead of England because, at the time, no copyright agreements existed between the two countries. As soon as a play was opened in London, it could be immediately produced in the United States (or vice versa) without the authors' permission. Having seen their work pirated in the past, Gilbert and Sullivan were taking no chances. A other maidens, seizing the opportunity to "get married with impunity." The girls' father, Major General Stanley (George Rose), intervenes, introducing himself with the show-stopping patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." He convinces the pirates to abandon their marital plans when he gains their sympathy by pretending to be an orphan- the pirates' well-known soft spot.

Act II begins with the Major General regretting his lie because he feels he

token performance of Pirates outside London established copyright in England and the New York premiere established copyright in America. When the curtain went up on the play's first performance, the Vanderbilts sat in the audience and Sullivan himself conducted the orchestra. The premiere was a popular and critical success.

A century later, in the summer of 1980, Joseph Papp produced an updated version of Pirates for his New York Shakespeare Festival, which starred Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith. The light opera then went to Broadway, where it, too, attained popular and critical acclaim. Papp's digressions from the original served Pirates well. He rendered the operetta suitable for a contemporary audience without making drastic revisions.

As in all light opera, Pirates of Penzance is filled with humorous musical numbers, lots of action, some spoken dialogue to further the plot, a happy ending, and a good-natured lampooning of traditional Italian opera. Perhaps because Pirates of Penzance is itself a parody, a satire on class, a poke at Victorian morals, and a spoof of the establishment, it stands up well to Papp's modern interpretation. These pirates are guilty of no more than rum-running and are, in fact, warm-hearted and honorable. The police, on the other hand, are portrayed as clumsy, cowardly, and inefficient.

As the play opens, the pirates introduce themselves with boisterous song and dance, swill sherry, and toast their companion Frederic (Rex Smith). When he was a boy, Frederic's nursemaid Ruth (Angela Lansbury) accidentally apprenticed him to the pirates- thinking they were pilots. Now that Frederic is twenty-one, he is free from his indentures and ready to join the respectable world.

After Frederic leaves the band of pirates, he soon discovers a "bevy of beautiful maidens," among whom is Mabel (Linda Ronstadt) who pities the former pirate. The two fall instantly in love, of course, and waltz offstage. The pirates meanwhile swoop down on the

has sullied his family's honor. To cheer him up, Frederic dutifully vows to lead the police "on a venture to sweep the pirates from the face of the earth." But as soon as the police have gone off to round up the pirates, the Pirate King (Kevin Kline) and Ruth find Frederic and inform him of a "most ingenious paradox." Since Frederic was born on February 29, by counting actual birthdays, he is really only five years old and therefore still indentured to the pirates. He sadly tells his predicament to Mabel, who pledges her eternal love and assures him that she'll wait until he comes of age, which he'll attain in 1940. Meanwhile, the pirates, enraged over the Major General's lie, seek him out to have their revenge.

After much "sallying forth" and comical fight scenes, the pirates appear to have bested the police. Just then, the Major General steps in and requests the pirates to yield "in Queen Victoria's name." Moved by a surprising patriotism, the pirates surrender. Ruth informs the Major General that the pirates are really former noblemen gone astray. As the play draws to a close, all is forgiven as everyone is blissfully paired off in joyous song.

Papp's version of Pirates of Penzance is popular with present-day audiences precisely because it did to the original what Gilbert and Sullivan did to Italian opera- made it lighter. In place of a full orchestra, Papp has made do with a smaller, more modern group of musicians who play, among other instruments, synthesizers and vibes. The set designs of both acts are based on the traditional staging, yet the show now opens with the pirates aboard a miniscale ship that cruises over cardboard waves, adding a bit of self-mocking humor. The costumes have also been changed- they are less burdensome. The Pirate King, relieved of his usual skull­and-crossbones regalia, and the Major General, with umbrella rather than sword and pith helmet rather than plumed headgear, are appropriately suited for this production.

Philip Weiner is a writer and architect who lives in New York.

originally published in Home Video Magazine, February 1983