Gilbert and Sullivan: The facts behind the fame | New York Theater | -- Your State. Your News.

Jul 04th
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Gilbert and Sullivan: The facts behind the fame

gilbertWS031912_optBY WARREN BOROSON

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the start of one of the most celebrated G&S companies in the world: the one in Ridgewood, N.J.

It’s scheduled to perform “Pirates of Penzance” this spring, with performances on Saturday and Sunday, May 19 and 20, at Ben Franklin Middle School in Teaneck. Chorus members are still being sought. You can phone the company at 973-423-0300, or write to To mark the anniversary, the company will revive “Iolanthe” in the fall – the operetta that the company began with in 1937. I myself will be teaching a class on G&S at Bergen Community College in April.

The composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), and the writer, William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911), were wonderfully gifted, and their operettas remain clever, witty, and fresh — with marvelously melodious music. Of their 13 collaborations, the big three are “Pinafore,” “Penzance,” and “Mikado.” The last is probably the most popular.

One of my favorite tales about Sullivan: Visiting the United States, he was sitting in a tavern out West. A big, burly cowboy came over to him and said, “Let’s go outside and fight.” Shocked, Sullivan said, “Why do you want to fight me? I’m just a composer!” The cowboy replied: “Aren’t you John L. Sullivan?” (Champion boxer.) Sullivan repeated nervously that he was a composer. “The fellow who wrote ‘Pinafore’?” said the cowboy. “I’ll buy you a drink!”

Among the interesting things about G&S and their works:

* Famous people who have sung G&S operettas: Groucho Marx (Mikado), Eric Idle (Mikado), Vincent Price (Ruddigore), Joel Grey (Yeomen of the Guard), Angela Lansbury (Penzance), Kevin Kline (Penzance), Linda Ronstadt (Penzance). Famous singers: Robert Rounseville (Mikado), Helen Traubel (Mikado), Maureen Forrester (Mikado), Nelson Eddy (Pinafore), Benjamin Luxon (Sorcerer). sullivanArthur031912_opt

* Yet a G&S authority, Gayden Wren, claims that their popularity suffered because for many years there was an Iron Curtain around G&S operettas, and talented people were kept away. He writes, “We will never know what Noel Coward might have brought to the role of Sir Joseph Porter, or Charles Laughton to Wilfred Shadbolt, or Julie Andrews to Josephine or Mabel.” And Sir Thomas Beecham never conducted “Yeomen of the Guard,” although it is considered the closest to a real opera and was the favorite of G&S themselves. 

* G&S is even today incredibly popular, and Wren claims that more than 200 groups perform primarily the works of G&S throughout the world. Their only rival: Shakespeare.

* Gilbert was a conservative. He said the theater was “not the place to advocate anarchism, socialism and agnostician — or questions of free love and adultery before a mixed audience….” As the song in Mkado indicates, he didn’t think much of female novelists…or a “lovely suffragist” … or a “red-hot socialist.” They will none of them be missed. (A performance of “Mikado” in Princeton in 2009, by the Opera Compay of New Jersey, added Bernard Madoff and Sarah Palin.)

* Gilbert lived the life of the Earl of Grantham. He kept buying bigger and bigger yachts; he lived on 110 acres of farmland, with several tennis courts and greenhouses, employed 40 servants, and held dinner parties for 24 people.

Comments (2)
2 Tuesday, 10 July 2012 14:34
Daniel Kravetz
"In his 60s, Sullivan..." No he didn't. He died in 1900 at the age of 58.
1 Tuesday, 20 March 2012 03:18
Warren Boroson
A story I shouldn't have omitted:

Dame Ethel Smyth wrote of Sullivan, "One day he presented me with a copy of the full score of The Golden Legend, adding: 'I think this is the best thing I've done, don't you?' and when truth compelled me to say that in my opinionThe Mikado is his masterpiece, he cried out: 'O you wretch!' But though he laughed, I could see he was disappointed."

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