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In "When I Was A Lad," The First Lord (assisted by a legion of "his sisters and his cousins and his aunts") explains how a man with no nautical experience could attain his lofty position --
Thanks to a freak heat wave and critical disapproval of anything making fun of Britain's sacred class system, Pinafore initially did sluggish business. Then Sullivan began including medleys of the score in his popular summer symphonic concerts. Listeners were intrigued, ticket sales improved, and the show became a sensation
Pinafore was such a hit that D'Oyly Carte's investors tried to literally steal the production from him, sending thugs to carry off the sets and costumes in the middle of a performance. The cast and crew fought the ruffians off, and the thieving investors only succeeded in losing further participation in a theatrical gold mine. Carte formed an exclusive producing partnership with Gilbert and Sullivan, splitting all the expenses and profits three ways. No interpolations by other composers were allowed, and the three men had joint say in casting and production decisions.
This 1885 program cover for New York's Madison Square Theatre shows a lavish Victorian interior. This is where Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance premiered six years before, when the space was called The Fifth Avenue Theatre.
The new partnership faced some daunting challenges. Since international copyright laws did not yet exist, producers had no qualms about stealing material. Both Britain and the United States were inundated with unauthorized ("pirated") Pinafore productions. When Gilbert and Sullivan brought their company of Pinafore to New York, the casts of several unauthorized Pinafore's brazenly turned out to welcome them.
Although most Broadway critics acclaimed the authorized staging for being superior to all other versions, it had a relatively brief run. After all, most of the public had already seen the show numerous times. Seeing how "Pinafore-mania" had swept the US, D'Oyly Carte was determined to protect the American rights to Gilbert and Sullivan's next work.
D'Oyly Carte secured the first international copyright by premiering The Pirates of Penzance (1880) simultaneously in New York and Great Britain. Illegal productions still sprang up, but this time were fought successfully in the courts.
Pirates is the story of Fredrick, a young man who was accidentally apprenticed to a band of pirates. He falls in love with a Major General's ward and tries to atone for his past by plotting the destruction of his former comrades. When it turns out the soft-hearted pirates are really "noblemen who have gone wrong," they and a relieved Frederick marry the multitudinous wards of a rather "Modern Major General" who doesn't know the difference between "a Mauser rifle and a javelin." The success of Pirates confirmed Gilbert and Sullivan's place in popular culture. The amazing thing was that they were just getting started.
Gilbert & Sullivan next took aim at artistic snobbery in Patience (1881 - 578), the story of a pretentious poet who dazzles every woman in an English town except the simple dairy maid he most desires. The comedy centered on the "aesthetes," a group of colorful writers and artists obsessed with beauty. To make sure Americans would understand this essentially British phenomenon, D'Oyly Carte sent famous aesthete Oscar Wilde on a lecture tour of the U.S., keeping him one city ahead of the Patience tour. The resulting public reaction helped to make Patience a hit in the States.
In Gilbert and Sullivan's earlier operettas, many of the characters were one-dimensional, inspiring little in the way of empathy. With Patience, the authors initiated a series of works that went further, deepening characterization and redefining musical theatre. They also made a greater effort to integrate words and music in order to serve plot and characterization. There were any number of songs in their early works that could be exchanged from one character to another even one show to another. From Patience onwards, the major characters are more completely realized, and the songs are almost always custom fit to each character and situation. Long before Rodgers and Hammerstein were born, Gilbert and Sullivan introduced the integrated musical. True, G&S billed their shows as "comic operas," but these shows were musicals.
How They Worked
It is no exaggeration to say that Gilbert redefined the art of stage direction for the musical theatre. Before rehearsals, he would work out stage movements on a model stage using small blocks of wood to represent the actors, then teach this blocking to the cast. He was a demanding director, and not above sarcasm. When a hefty actress tripped and landed on her rump during one rehearsal, Gilbert bellowed, "I knew you'd make an impression on the stage one day!" In most cases, he was said to be far more civil, and often showed remarkable patience in training performers to achieve the effects he desired.
During the run a of a production, Gilbert forbade ad-libbing or the addition of any unauthorized stage business. He was assisted in this by his wife Lucy, who made frequent return visits to the Savoy and gave her husband detailed reports on the performances.
The Savoy Theatre
The long-running Patience moved to the Savoy for its final months. Iolanthe (1882 - 398) premiered there, with its tale of a fairy queen humbling a "rather susceptible" Lord Chancellor and reforming the House of Lords in order that a mere shepherd may marry the Chancellor's lovely ward. This was Gilbert's "topsy-turvy" world view at its dizziest, and the chorus of fairies caused a sensation by appearing with illuminated electric wings.
With its focus on the British political system, Iolanthe was not as popular in the US as other G&S works, but Gilbert's comedy in this show is so solid, his aim at human pretense so timeless, and Sullivan's music so rich and irresistible that many American fans (this author included) consider Iolanthe a personal favorite.
Princess Ida (1884 - 246) spoofed a romantic poem by Tennyson which told of a medieval prince winning the hand of a princess who thinks women are superior to men. Based on one of Gilbert's early plays, it is the only G&S operetta where the dialogue is in blank verse. Although the plot pokes fun at militant feminism, it comes to the conclusion that true love makes men and women equals. Despite a fine score, the original Savoy production of Princess Ida was not well received and closed months ahead of schedule. In accordance with the terms of their partnership agreement, D'Oyly Carte asked G&S for a new work.
Despite the success they had enjoyed, the collaborators both had reservations about continuing their partnership. Instead of turning out a new show, they seriously considered going their separate ways.