Gilbert and Sullivan - an Introduction to Everybody Who's Somebody

Gilbert & Sullivan - Not Just Another Pop Rock Group

When I was a teenager, everyone else I knew listened to rock, but my favorite "group" was Gilbert & Sullivan. W.S. Gilbert wrote the lyrics and Arthur Sullivan wrote the music to this bunch of Victorian theatrical performances, and they're still being performed today. I’d like to recommend these nineteenth-century operettas to everyone, but especially to teenagers. They’ve been around for 130 years for good reason; when you think how many fans that represents over the decades, what pop music of today compares?

Generations Enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas

1921 cartoon showing audiences at the D'Oyly Carte 1921 season. Initialled and dated by artist, bottom left. Reproduced, and here scanned from, Bettany, Clemence (ed). ''D'Oyly Carte Centenary, 1875-1975'', D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust, London 1975.
1921 cartoon showing audiences at the D'Oyly Carte 1921 season. Initialled and dated by artist, bottom left. Reproduced, and here scanned from, Bettany, Clemence (ed). ''D'Oyly Carte Centenary, 1875-1975'', D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust, London 1975. | Source

Reasons to Enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas

  1. The music is singable – it has rhythm, rhyme, and melody. Accompaniment is helpful but not necessary. Maybe “singable” isn’t the word for the really fast, tongue-twisting “patter” songs, but then those are a game to see how fast you can sing, or even say, them. (How about, “If I had been so lucky as to have a steady brother who could talk to me as we are talking now to one another...”)
  2. The lyrics are clever and memorable, with a lot of rhymes to "unrhymable" words. For instance, in The Pirates of Penzance, there’s a self-deprecating reference to H.M.S. Pinafore: “I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore / And whistle all the airs to that infernal nonsense Pinafore”.
  3. There’s a lot of wisdom about real life wrapped up in completely ridiculous comedy. As in these lines from The Yeomen of the Guard, sometimes people listen best when they’re laughing. “You can send a braggart quailing with a quip / The upstart you can wither with a whim / He may wear a merry laugh upon his lip / But his laughter has an echo that is grim.” In The Mikado, the Mikado of Japan himself points out, “I’m really very sorry for you all, but it’s an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.”

How to Enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas

First of all, don’t worry about the plots making sense, or you’ll miss the fun. The average plot is that the cast in general and the leading couple in particular need to get married, but some legal detail is standing in the way. In a clever twist of logic, the detail is turned on its head and everybody gets married.

The stories were written with similar character types (and singing voices) so the same actors could play each production. Of course there is always a leading lady and a leading man, and their friends/attendants/colleagues to provide male and female choruses that usually marry each other in the end.

Usually there is one particularly comic character who sings most of the tongue-twister songs, and a lady at least a generation older than the leading man trying to compete with the leading lady for his affections. Sometimes there is a man a generation older for her to marry in the end.

Opera? Operetta? Light Opera? Musical?

Now for the basic question about opera: why do they pretend that people go around singing all the time? Well, I don't know. But then, this isn't exactly opera; Gilbert & Sullivans are usually called operettas.

My theory of musical productions is that in opera, the whole thing is sung. Next to operas you have operettas, then light opera, then musicals, with each stage including more spoken dialog and more distinct songs. Sometimes Gilbert & Sullivans are called operas, sometimes musicals, but they have more singing than, say, The Sound of Music.

Find Fellow Savoyards and the Savoy Hotel (But Don't Expect a Tour of the Opera House)

You can find the entire text, and maybe entire productions, of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas on-line. You can also look on-line for the name of D’Oyly Carte, the original producer; the company has actually been producing Gilbert & Sullivans for 130 years.

Part of the experience is getting involved with your local Savoyard group, named for the Savoy Theatre where the operettas were originally performed. If you like watching the productions, wouldn’t it be even more fun to sing in one? Many local groups have a tradition of updating the productions a bit, inserting names of local politicians or recent scandals as a joke in place of the 1800s version.

One thing about the Savoy Theatre; if you are ever in London, don't go to the door of the Savoy Hotel and ask the doorman if you can go see where the operettas were performed, or you will, as I did, experience the doorman's silent expression of "go away, impudent little tourist."

If you find you like more than one or two Gilbert & Sullivan productions, a book to look up is Martyn Green’s Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan with all the music and lyrics, and his notes about his career acting in the comic roles of D'Oyly Carte productions between WWI and WWII.

A markerStrand London, United Kingdom WC2R 0EU -
Strand, City of Westminster, London WC2, UK
[get directions]

Location of the Savoy Hotel in London

The Operettas - I've Got a Little List

To quote from The Mikado, “I’ve got a little list” of the operettas in no real order except that the first ones are the best known, and also my very favorites. You can read the plot and lyrics elsewhere; I’m just trying to pique your interest with some quotes and thoughts from each, as well as cultural references you may have heard of, not knowing they came from Gilbert & Sullivan.

Bab Sketches

Sketch by W. S. Gilbert, showing the difficult job of the the Lord High Executioner
Sketch by W. S. Gilbert, showing the difficult job of the the Lord High Executioner | Source

Operetta - The Mikado

Not really about Japan, but England. If you’ve heard of "three little maids from school", the "Lord High Everything Else", or the "Grand Pooh-Bah”, it was probably a reference to The Mikado. Also well known are the creative ways to “make the punishment fit the crime”, and the “little list of society offenders" who "never would be missed” (this from the country which now has anti social behavior laws!) And if you can call 130-year-old humor edgy, that seems like a good word for orchestral arrangements discussing the pros and cons of being beheaded, whether one’s true love wishes to be buried alive, and the romance you find in volcanoes, earthquakes, and roaring lions. Examines the question: if you have to behead yourself, is your professional reputation as a headsman at stake if you fail?

Operetta - HMS Pinafore

The plot is a bit challenging to those who pay attention to relative ages of the characters, but the songs are great fun. This is a cautionary tale on the dangers of accidentally switching babies. Fortunately, the terrible deed is exposed before anyone gets married, because love levels all ranks, but not so far as all that. Ever heard someone say, “What, never? No, never! What, never? Well, hardly ever.” That’s from this. Includes the not-so-official English national anthem, “He Is an Englishman”, honoring those who remain English despite temptations to belong to other nations. Explores ways of professional advancement in the Navy for the seasick.

Operetta - Ruddigore

This one has a lot of tongue-twister songs, one of which says, “This particularly rapid unintelligible patter / Isn’t generally heard, and if it is, it doesn’t matter.” Ruddigore features a perennial problem for women: how to get an excessively shy suitor to propose. And one for men: how to modestly promote yourself as an ideal specimen of manhood. Examines the question: if you are cursed to die if you don’t commit a crime every day, what happens if you commit the crime of suicide?

Operetta - The Pirates of Penzance

This is where “I am the very model of a modern major-general” is from. It’s a good song to remember in a math test: “I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical / I understand equations both the simple and quadratical / About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news / With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse”. Actually, math has a lot to do with this operetta. For instance, what are the chances that the ship you are attacking is manned entirely by orphans? And, if you are a dutiful Victorian boy apprenticed to a pirate until your 21st birthday - and you were born on February 29th - when will you finish your apprenticeship? Slightly anachronistic answer: During WWII.

Very Model of A Modern Major General

Operetta - The Yeomen of the Guard

This one seems to be Gilbert & Sullivan’s attempt at a tragedy, but it’s mostly funny anyway. To get money for your dying mother, is it okay to marry a man for one hour in a good cause if he will absolutely for sure be executed right afterward? Yeomen of the Guard contains lessons on winning women – noting particularly that it takes study and practice. “You must learn that the thrill of a touch / May mean little, or nothing or much / It’s an instrument rare, to be handled with care / And ought to be treated as such”. Also there is a song which all tourists ought to learn before visiting the Tower of London. It seems like something out of Lord of the Rings, and if you like those books, you, too will probably be stirred by “The screw may twist, and the rack may turn / And men may bleed and men may burn / O’er London town and its golden hoard / I keep my silent watch and ward.”

Operetta - Patience

“If love is a nettle that makes you smart, then why do you wear it next your heart?” Good question, I say. And how should soldiers attract women, especially when they’ve all gone crazy about a poet? A poet who loves the girl Patience, who loves another poet, who is perfect. Since it would be selfish of Patience to marry a perfect man, and love is unselfish, clearly she can’t marry him and so obviously nobody else is getting married either. This operetta has one of the best songs by the elderly lady character, about aging. Patience is about the craze for Oscar Wilde, so some would say it’s dated. But is there really no-one today who impresses people by saying deep nothings to them? “You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind, / The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind. / And ev’ry one will say, / As you walk your mystic way, / ’If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, / Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!’”

Operetta - Princess Ida

This one makes fun of Victorian feminists. So it’s quite politically incorrect these days, sort of like, oh, The Taming of the Shrew. But the funniest jokes are the ones closest to truth, so this operetta is probably funnier now than 130 years ago. Now there are lots of colleges (or at least Women’s Studies departments) where each “newly joined aspirant to the clan must repudiate the tyrant known as Man…For they do not care about him / And they’re going to do without him / If they can”. Many 21st-century women think “Man is Nature’s sole mistake!” and aim to change the world so that Posterity will bow in gratitude. Though there is now IVF, until artificial sperm are invented, “the obvious question” still arises: “How is this Posterity to be provided?” Tune in to see whether the prince is man, and gentleman, enough to win even Princess Ida’s heart.

Favorite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta

Got a favorite? Vote here.

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Operetta - Iolanthe

Not that it matters, but Iolanthe is another form of the name Yolanda. (I always wondered where W. S. Gilbert found such an exotic name.) If you are a rustic, handsome shepherd suddenly transferred into Parliament, wouldn’t it be nice to have an influential fairy making sure all your bills get passed? Explores the question of, should you believe a 25-year-old man when he claims the 17-year-old he was hugging was his mother. Has a wonderful song about how you feel when you can’t sleep, including dreams about your eleven-year-old attorney planting tradesmen to get fruit. Also explores the relationship between the glory days of Great Britain and the times when Parliament did nothing.

Operetta - The Gondoliers

“If everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody!” An exploration of what happens when two believers in total democracy discover that one of them – nobody knows which – was born the heir to the kingdom. They are quite serious about absolute equality and as jointly ruling kings enjoy running little errands for the Ministers of State. And wouldn’t it be nice to be a right-down, regular, royal queen, and have everyone say “How clever!” at whatsoever you condescend to say? Can three women marry two kings, and if so, is each woman 2/3 of a queen?

Operetta - The Sorcerer

If true love is the source of every earthly joy, shouldn’t everyone be forced to experience it? So a happy couple employs a magician to come up with a Patent Oxy-Hydrogen Love-at-first-sight Philtre, and the results are about like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I don’t think sorcerer John Wellington Wells should be the one to pay for what happens, but the ode to eggs and ham and strawberry jam is a great ending for an opera.

Half an Operetta - Trial by Jury

One of the earliest Gilbert & Sullivans, this is a short courtroom romance drama, with a commitment-phobic man, a gold-digging woman, an extremely partial judge and jury. But it’s fun, with good lawyer jokes. “Monster! Monster! dread our fury! / There’s the judge and we’re the jury / Come, substantial damages!“

Utopia, Limited

Does it fix the problems with monarchy if the monarch is always accompanied by two wise men ready to blow him up if he does anything wrong?  Also, should you trust a man who sings a love song well?  Captain Fitzbattleaxe demonstrates that when he is madly in love, a tenor can’t do himself justice.

Other Gilbert & Sullivans

Thespis and The Grand Duke were at the beginning and end of Gilbert & Sullivan's collaboration, so they are not performed much, so I haven’t seen either.  Cox and Box had Sullivan’s music, but not Gilbert’s libretto; sometimes it is included with the real Gilbert & Sullivans. 

So There You Are

For romance, melody, harmony, cleverness, ridiculousness, and all-around fun, there is just nothing like a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. If you aren't convinced yet, well then maybe your punishment should fit your crime: endless heavy metal concerts.

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Comments 18 comments

Doug 5 years ago

Hmm, never realized before that Carrie the cat's half-talking exclamation of "fitzbattleaxe!" in Half Magic was probably a reference to G&S.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Never thought of that. Thank you for another cultural reference. I hereby also recommend Edward Eager's books to everyone who enjoys clever entertainment.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

I am a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and have been since I was in a Jr. high school production of the Mikado way too many years ago. In fact, after blogging about flowers people consider weeks, I used "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring" as the basis for my title "Do You Welcome All the Flowers of Spring?" I kept singing the song all week after that. Patience is my favorite after the Mikado. I had a senior English class read it and read the dialog in between the songs I had on tape. The we made another tape of the whole thing. It was great fun, and a great vocabulary builder. I thoroughly enjoyed this hub. After that jr high Mikado production, I got hold of a book with all the plays, including the dialog, and then I bought the recordings of the ones I liked best. I have always liked Gilbert and Sullivan better than any of the popular music I heard growing up, but I love choral music and harmony and wit. These light operas have it all.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Nice to hear from a fellow fan! I have to say, I like the first dandelions of spring, but not the rest.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

Right now I'm into Mallows, and just wrote a hub about them which I will probably publish on Tuesday.


Jane Grey profile image

Jane Grey 5 years ago from Oregon

I'm ashamed to say I've only seen one of the ones you mentioned (The Yeomen of the Guard), but I did enjoy it to the hilt, and I agree-- it is invaluable preparation for a visit to the Tower! Your summaries and catchy, clever quotes made me smile. I'll have to bookmark your page pursue more of these to watch! Thanks for a great article.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

The Yeomen of the Guard has a part that all writers who disagree with their editors should enjoy, where the jester is supposed to be teaching the jailer the art of being witty with words. When the jailer says, "Like a stone I saw him sinking -" the jester interrupts with "I should say a lump of lead."

Jailer: Like a stone, my boy, I said -

Jester: Like a heavy lump of lead.

Jailer: Anyhow, the man is dead,/Whether stone or lump of lead!

And the chorus agrees: "And it matters very little whether stone or lump of lead,/It is very, very certain that he's very, very dead!"

Well, anyway, it reminds me of an argument I once got into over whether "begin" or "start" is the best word to use.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

I will have to see Yeoman of the Guard. You convinced me. But I've got to read the script first until I know the words.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

I recommend listening to a record - sorry, showing my age, but that's how I learned them - I mean a CD until you know the words.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

That's actually what I did, too,with Patience and Ruddigore, but getting hold of the book first helped me get the story line down so I'd know what the songs were about when I heard them and to check out any words that didn't come through clearly when sung.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

You might want to check out Martyn Green's book. Besides the librettos, it has a lot of interesting notes about how the text got to be the way it is. For instance, Nanki-Poo's exclamation in The Mikado of "Modified rapture!" didn't start out that way.


Winsome profile image

Winsome 5 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

Aethelthryth you amaze me with your breadth of knowledge about these wonderful operettas. I enjoy the songs from these immensely (those I know anyway) and I find I have been doing the "topsy-turvy" style in my articles (The Myopia Club for example,) where in humour is derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd.

I didn't know I was ripping off Gilbert but I'm sure he won't mind now. =:)


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Well, Winsome, comments like that show you live up to your name! I would love to say I spent weeks and weeks of diligent research to know all this, but actually it's just that you learn what you love. Like my nephew who could say "tyrannosaurus" before just about any normal word.

And I think W.S. Gilbert was really smart, but I doubt everything was absolutely original with him, either. Ever heard Tom Lehrer's song about plagiarizing? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL4vWJbwmqM


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK

This is an amazing survey of the Gilbert and Sullivan works packed with nuggets of interesting information. I was familiar vaguely with some of their works but after reading this I am more than equipped with the G&S facts, thanks to you. I had to memorize ' I'm the very model of modern major General' for a competition at school and I still enjoy singing it! Thanks for bringing some memories back, aethelthryth. voted up and away, of course!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Docmo, thank you! I don't know how anyone else gets to know Gilbert & Sullivan. I watched "Chariots of Fire" so many times I have it pretty much memorized, and there are so many G&S references in it, that meant also getting into all the operettas.


GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 2 years ago from The High Seas

I had season tickets to the opera for many years but I do not believe that i have ever seen a gilbert and sullivan show in my life. How'd that happen?


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 2 years ago from American Southwest Author

GetitScene, my opinion is it's for the same reason I hear music like Stravinsky all the time on National Public Radio, but can only think of once I've heard anything from Sullivan. I say somebody out there thinks it is too fun and singable to be there with "real" classical music. You know, like how if everyone likes your art you're not a real artist. And sort of like how when I was in high school I asked how come we didn't get to read GOOD books like Lord of the Rings, and was told that's not a real classic. Well, now apparently everyone thinks it is. I guess a few more decades needed to pass to call LOTR a classic.


GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 2 years ago from The High Seas

That's an interesting point. I'll download some G&S and give it a listen!

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