The Gilbert and Sullivan Story

by John Kenrick

Copyright 2000-2003

(All the photos below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

William S. GilbertArthur SullivanRichard Doyly Carte
William Gilbert – Arthur Sullivan – Richard D'Oyly Carte

Beginning in the 1870s, three Englishmen -- playwright William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan --revolutionized the musical theatre, creating a series of witty, melodic operettas that set a new standard for stage professionalism. Sullivan's music sparkled with fresh melody, and Gilbert's librettos blended silliness and satire in settings that ranged from pure fantasy to the utterly realistic. Innovative producer Richard D'Oyly Carte publicized these shows as "light operas", but by any name, they were musicals – some of the finest the world would ever see in any language.


Gilbert was an unsuccessful attorney before a series of his illustrated comic poems were published in several popular British magazines. This opened the way to a successful career as a London playwright and director. At the same time, Sullivan was winning acclaim as Britain's most promising serious composer, but he was quite willing to compose lighter pieces to cover the expenses of the high-society lifestyle he craved. Both men had written minor musical shows with other collaborators, but neither expected that musical theatre would be their key to lasting fame.

In the 1860s, the British musical theatre consisted of variety shows, French operettas, and the slapdash comic light operas presented by John Hollingshead at his Gaiety Theatre. Hollingshead hired Gilbert and Sullivan to create Thespis (1871 - 63), a mythological spoof involving a theatrical troupe that stumbles onto Mount Olympus and trades places with the aging Greek gods. Written and staged in a frantic five weeks, Gilbert himself later dismissed this show as "crude and ineffective," but it impressed at least one audience member – aspiring producer Richard D'Oyly Carte. Four years later, when Carte needed a one-act "curtain raiser" to share the bill with his production of Offenbach's La Perichole at London's Opera Comique, he convinced G&S to adapt one of Gilbert's satirical poems.

Trial By Jury: The Curtain Raiser

Trial by JuryThe opening night of Trial By Jury as recreated for The Gilbert and Sullivan Story.

The resulting thirty five minute musical eclipsed La Perichole and became the talk of London. Trial By Jury (1875 - 131) was a delicious spoof of a breach of promise trial, a now-forgotten procedure where a man could be sued by a woman for withdrawing a proposal of marriage. In the show, the defendant is a roguish playboy, the pretty plaintiff (wearing her wedding dress) flirts shamelessly with the all-male jury, and an amoral judge shamelessly resolves the case by marrying the girl himself. Trial By Jury established several comic themes that would run through most of Gilbert and Sullivan's shows –

Example: Trial's "Learned Judge" (originally portrayed by Sullivan's brother Frederic) sings of the questionable tactics that brought him to his exalted position --

At Westminster Hall
I danced a dance,
Like a semi-despondent fury;
For I thought I never
Should hit on a chance
Of addressing a British Jury.
But I soon got tired
Of third-class journeys,
And dinners of bread and water;
So I fell in love
With a rich attorney's
Elderly, ugly daughter.

The rich attorney,
He jumped with joy,
And replied to my fond professions:
"You shall reap the rewards
Of your pluck, my boy,
At the Bailey and
Middlesex sessions.
"You'll soon get used
To her looks," said he,
"And a very nice girl
You will find her!
She may very well pass
For forty-three
In the dusk,
With a light behind her!"

Although both Gilbert and Sullivan looked on operetta as a sideline, they realized it could prove very profitable. So D'Oyly Carte had little if any trouble persuading them to attempt a full-length work.

The Sorcerer

George GrossmithGeorge Grossmith, who originated most of the G&S comic "patter" roles – seen here as John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer.

The Sorcerer (1877 - 178) involved magician John Wellington Wells, who wreaks havoc in a small English village with a love potion. By having members of the upper and lower classes fall in love with each other, The Sorcerer lampooned Victorian notions of social propriety and class distinction, but it's comedy was so polished, witty and utterly respectable that no one took offense. It had a healthy run, and unauthorized productions soon appeared in the United States, which at that time did not recognize international copyrights.

Gilbert and Sullivan were initiating a form of British operetta that was quite unlike its continental predecessors. The sexual references and situations found in Offenbach were avoided. Where French operettas usually had cartoonish characters, G&S made a conscious effort to use more familiar, believable characters. Most of the townspeople in The Sorcerer were the sort that British audiences knew from everyday life -- with the obvious exception of the slightly bizarre title character.

Encouraged by The Sorcerer's profitable run, the authors next wrote an operetta that had even greater fun with British social conventions. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, creating a show that would reshape the popular musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.

Next: G&S Story II - "Pinafore-mania!"