The author blog of C. J. Ivory

Tinkerer with words. Dresser-Upper. Adorer of Steampunk and VictoriaNoir fiction. Occasional Lawgineer.

March 31, 2011

Thursday Cameo: G&S - possibly the best combination since the G&T

Love musicals? Who doesn't! Today's Victorian agers of note are a duo I think of as "Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Prequel (This Time, It's Whiskered)". No doubt you've heard of the operetta-writing pair Gilbert and Sullivan (and if you haven't, make yourself comfortable!).

W.S. Gilbert & A. Sullivan

These guys are pretty much the patron saints of light operettas. In the mid-nineteenth century, they took the old-style opera, dressed it up in bright colours, and kicked it up the bum. 

Begone, tedious operas dwelling endlessly on a single plot device! Farewell, high-pitched singing in a language I don't know and never care to learn! These two paved the way for the modern musical we know today: if it weren't for their influence, we'd be queuing up in New York for tickets to Les Chats, or straining to understand the storyline of Il Starlight Espresso (see what I did there?). Even the cast of Les Miserables would be speaking French - sacre bleu!

Gilbert, left, and Sullivan, right. In real life their heads were less bobbly.

So what did they write? Well, a bunch of great operettas, which are still being performed today, and a whole lot more average ones, which have disappeared into history. But most noteworthy are HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, Trial by Jury, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Gondoliers (which happens to be featured in my novel Unseemly Conduct, imagine that).

Pretty picture time:

The Mikado, a political satire, was the most successsful of the G&S operettas

The Gondoliers is set in Venice and pokes fun at the (English) class system

Their first international hit, HMS Pinafore satirised 'management by mediocrity'

Because their lyrics were catchy, cute, and (above all) in English, Gilbert and Sullivan appealed to a wide range of theatre-goers. Everyone could remember and sing along to their songs, and their political messages were not so subtle as to pass over anyone's heads. What's more, they contained enough slapstick humour and sexual innuendo to keep even the most jaded dandy entertained.

So popular were they, that the entrepreneurial producer Richard D'Oyly Carte actually built a theatre so that he had a venue good enough to present their works. And not just any theatre, either - The Savoy Theatre in London. Yes, I can hear you scriptwriters salivating from here.

Can't remember the last time anyone built anything this fancy to do justice to my creative genius...

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and after several years of producing operettas in the Savoy, an argument arose between Gilbert and their producer D'Oyly Carte. It was not an artistic difference, as one might imagine - it was a rather tawdry squabble over a rug. D'Oyly Carte had recarpeted the Savoy, and there was a difference of opinion over who should pick up the tab. Gilbert had previoulsy become suspicious about D'Oyly Carte's book-keeping, and the incriminations were enough to break up the working trio (Sullivan seemed to side with D'Oyly Carte). 

It was one of those spectacular rifts that had everyone in London talking, and though Gilbert and Sullivan reunited some years later for another run, they never produced anything as popular as in their wonder years.

Over a century later, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas remain a favourite of theatre goers around the world, and their influence on popular culture is still obvious. You might remember Sideshow Bob singing the HMS Pinafore score in the Cape Feare episode, or Stewie from Family Guy with his own version of "I've got a little list" (actually entitled "As Some Day It May Happen" from The Mikado).

Though related to a peer
I can hand, reef, and steer
And ship a selvagee;

I am never known to quail
At the fury of a gale,
And I'm never, never sick at sea!

What, Never?
No, never!
What, Never?
Well, hardly ever!
-Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore


jessb said...

Oh, I'm even more keen to read your novel now Charlotte Jane! We performed The Gondoliers as our high school production one year (I was Tessa..."when a merry maiden marries...") and in the manner of a true G&S classic, it was filled with twisty plot lines, satire and a good deal of eyelash batting and laughs.

Cat said...

Ahhhhh! I love Gilbert and Sullivan! Especially The Pirates of Penzance. The Kline/Lansbury/Ronstadt movie version came out around the time I was born and I grew up watching it on laserdisc (laserdisc!). My dad knew I was obsessed when he found me holding my baby tape recorder up to the TV to try and record a song. He took pity on me and got me the soundtrack!

Sadly I haven't gotten to see many of the operettas live. Just Pirates and maybe Pinafore. Though I did watch a DVD version of Mikado with Eric Idle, that was a bit strange. My dream would be to be in a production of Pirates. I'd love to play Edith or Kate though my singing is atrocious so I'd be lucky to get in to the chorus!