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Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, and Me

Updated on June 28, 2015

Scene from The Mikado

Source

The Mikado and I: A Musical Treat

I had never heard of Gilbert and Sullivan or The Mikado, until I was a student at Washington Junior High School playing the baritone horn in the band. As we practiced and performed the music, I became a fan. I also wanted to know the story that went with the music, and not too long after our performance, the Long Beach Civic Light Opera decided to perform the entire operetta. My elderly Cousin Edna decided this was an event I must attend.

I can't remember whether my entire family attended or whether I just went with Edna and her friend Lucile, but it was my first real experience with a live professional performance and it only whetted my appetite for more. Although in our school performance I had only an instrumental part, I learned the lyrics to my favorite songs as the choral groups practiced. I believe I also got hold of the lyrics somewhere, and I started singing a lot of the songs I liked best for the sheer joy of it.

After this first exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan, I went on to buy a book with the complete dialogue and lyrics to all the works of Gilbert. Then, after reading a play I especially liked, I would beg for the recordings, which, at the time were only available on 33 rpm vinyl records. Patience became another favorite, and I was able to see a professional performance of that when I was in college. Later on in life, after we adopted our children, we had an opportunity to take them to see a live production of the HMS Pinafore. I wanted to pass on the thrill I remembered from my first live performance of The Mikado.

An excerpt from a modernized Mikado production

The Mikado as originally written was set in Japan in "Titipu." The Mikado appeared to be respected only when he was present. Pooh-Bah, better known as Lord High Everything Else, is quite prominent in this video, and is known for sticking out his hand for money on every possible occasion for a bribe. This scene serves as a fair introduction to the plot, even though much liberty has been taken with the operetta itself.

Our Great Mikado

An Excellent Production of the Mikado

Gilbert & Sullivan - The Mikado/ENO · Robison [Highlights]
Gilbert & Sullivan - The Mikado/ENO · Robison [Highlights]

The music is performed well and appears true to the original score.

Be sure to listen to the sampler to get a feel for this delicious combination of the ridiculous and the sublime as Gilbert and Sullivan put the words and lyrics together.

 

The Music in the Mikado

I was hoping to find an authentic version on YouTube that was close to the original of one of my favorite songs, "I've Got a Little List," which is sung by Ko-Ko, who is Lord High Executioner. His major problem as the operetta begins is that he must find someone to execute or he will be executed himself. In this song, he shares his list of those he has on his list: Here is the first stanza. These are the lyrics a W.S. Gilbert wrote them. These words are now in the public domain so I am allowed to use them. I got them from Wikipedia. under a Creative Commons Share Alike Licence.

KO-KO

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,

I've got a little list - I've got a little list

Of society offenders who might well be underground,

And who never would be missed - who never would be missed!

There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs -

All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs -

All children who are up in dates, and floor you with 'em flat -

All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that -

And all third persons who on spoiling tête-á-têtes insist -

They'd none of 'em be missed - they'd none of 'em be missed!

CHORUS

He's got 'em on the list - he's got 'em on the list;

And they'll none of 'em be missed - they'll none of 'em be missed.

KO-KO

There's the banjo serenader[1], and the others of his race,

And the piano-organist - I've got him on the list!

And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,

They never would be missed - they never would be missed!

Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,

All centuries but this, and every country but his own;

And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,

And who "doesn't think she dances, but would rather like to try";

And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist[2] -

I don't think she'd be missed - I'm sure she'd not he missed!

CHORUS

He's got her on the list - he's got her on the list;

And I don't think she'll be missed - I'm sure she'll not be missed!

KO-KO

And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife,

The Judicial humorist - I've got him on the list!

All funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life -

They'd none of 'em be missed - they'd none of 'em be missed.

And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,

Such as - What d'ye call him - Thing'em-bob, and likewise - Never-mind,

And 'St- 'st- 'st- and What's-his-name, and also You-know-who -

The task of filling up the blanks I'd rather leave to you.

But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list,

For they'd none of 'em be missed - they'd none of 'em be missed!

Chorus.

You may put 'em on the list - you may put 'em on the list;

And they'll none of 'em be missed - they'll none of 'em be missed!

Footnotes:

  1. This wording in the 1940s was added to replace the use of the "n" word used in the original, to prevent offense [1].
  2. sometimes "prohibitionist"

These are the lyrics as originally written. When this is performed today, most productions update the list to suit themselves, which is fine. Offensive words have also been updates from those that appear here. See the footnotes. Some of the best revisions I've seen for our time are found on the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera site. Only one of the versions is performed on video, but you ought to read them all.

I still like the original. I found only one video with a sound tract of professional quality, and I have put it below. The best way to sample the music is to follow the link for the music on Amazon here and play the sampler. Lyrics are now in the public domain. I use them here to make a point that could not be made with a paraphrase.

Very Close to the Original Version of "Little List" Song

A Revision of Ko-Ko's Little List Song

Some of what is sung below comes from some of the revised lyrics I linked to above. This was produced by the Lyric Theatre Mainstage, June 2010 and features soloist Ben Cohen as Ko-Ko. This little list covers some very contemporary annoyances.

One of the cleverest revisions of Ko-Ko's song.

The Full Performance of the Mikado

This DVD is performed by the experts in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas -- the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

The Mikado
The Mikado

It's a great and classic performance by the most talented cast.

 

Opera companies often rewrite lyrics to update them.

Ko-Ko's "Little List Song" readily adapts to updating with more modern social sinners. In your opinion, does this modernizing enhance the performance of a comic operetta? Or would you rather the cast stick to the original score?

Do you think Mikado casts should sitck to the score as written?

See results

"The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring" - I was reminded of this song as I walked my property this morning, with spring on the way.

Henbit flowrs
Henbit flowrs | Source

Do you love or hate the flowers of spring?

When you see flowers like those above, is your reaction a "Tra la" because you welcome them? Or are you more sympathetic to Ko-Ko when he sings: "Oh, bother the flowers of spring."

You can find the lyrics to this song from the Mikado on my blog post inspired by a spring walk .

Here's how the song fits into the plot, which is full of twists and turns and seems ridiculous to modern minds. At this point in the plot, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, had made a deal with the Mikado's son, Nanki-Poo,who was engaged to the elderly and ugly Katisha because she had influence with his father.

Ko-Ko needed someone to execute, and Nanki-Poo was ready to hang himself so he wouldn't have to marry Katisha. He was in love with the young and lovely Yum-Yum, and she was engaged to Ko-Ko. Everyone was unhappy. Nanki-Poo had agreed to be executed if he could marry Yum-Yum for a month first and then be executed by the time Ko-Ko had to have found a victim. So they made the deal. The two married, and ran off.

It also turned out that Ko-Ko didn't have the heart to execute anyone. So instead, they faked the execution, with Yum-Yum's schoolmates and Poo-Bah all testifying about what they witnessed. That was when the word got out that if a man is executed, his wife dies, too. In fact she would be buried alive.

Right about then the Mikado comes to town and wants to see his son, whom he has found out has been masquerading as a wandering minstrel to escape marrying Katisha. Katisha is beside the Mikado in front of his court when she sees the proclamation that Nanki-Poo has been executed. Of course, it's a capital offense to kill the heir to the throne, so unless Nanki-Poo is produced alive, Ko-Ko and, I believe, all those who witnessed the death were going to be boiled in oil if I remember correctly. In any case, their doom was sealed unless they could produce a living Nanki-Poo.

Those who would be affected tracked down the happy couple to try to get Nanki-Poo resurrected, but he said he won't come back to life unless Katisha is married. They decide that the only solution is for Ko-Ko to marry Katisha. That's what you need to know a background for this song.


"The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring"

I watched four versions of this before picking this one, which seems most authentic, though not as complete as the others. I present this version first, since it shows the scene with Katisha before the song is sung, and you get to meet her. She does not appear in the other versions I found on You Tube. I will offer you a more modern version below that has a bit of the dialog not available in this version. I also enjoyed the unique humor of their presentation, though both are funny.

"The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring" Version 1

"The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring" -- Another Version

This one features Jon English, Drew Forsythe, The Fabulous Singlettes, Derek Metzger and Terri Crouch. I loved the way the women performed as they ridiculed Ko-Ko for his embellished made-up tale about how he had "executed" Nanki-Poo with his "snickersnee."

That scene had a song "The Criminal Cried" in which each witness is boasting about something in his or her testimony that makes you laugh. Unfortunately, I can't post a video for every song. You really ought to get one of the video versions.


"The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring" Version 2

Spring Flowers

Springtime daffodils
Springtime daffodils | Source

Which version did you like best?

The first one, labeled Version 1 , featured Katisha. The second one, labeled Version 2, featured Jon English, Drew Forsythe, The Fabulous Singlettes, Derek Metzger and Terri Crouch.

Which version of "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring" did you think was funniest?

See results

A Delightful Rendering of "There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast"

I ran across this while trying to find another link. I had never seen Groucho Marx on anything but his own show, You Bet Your Life, which we watched when I was growing up. I was looking for his version of the "Willow,tit willow" song, which has been removed. Instead I found him singing this one, which follows it. In the play, Ko-Ko sings "Tit Willow" to try to persuade Katisha to marry him so he can avoid execution. He tries to convince her he will die of love sickness if she refuses.

They sing the song in this video after they agree to marry and it celebrates their upcoming marriage. This duet by Groucho Marx and Helen Traubel is even funnier than the song I was looking for. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, you might also enjoy the video of this entire production with Groucho playing Ko-Ko, which you can purchase below.

Duet by Groucho Marx and Helen Traubel

The Mikado DVD with Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx in the Mikado
Groucho Marx in the Mikado

You heard a sample in the video above. This is the funniest rendering of Ko-Ko I've ever seen, and I will have to buy this version myself, even though I have another very good video of a professional company.

 

Are you a fan? Or are they not your cup of tea? Whatever your opinion, feel free to leave it in the space below, or just let me know you stopped by.

What do you think of Gilbert and Sullivan?

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    • BarbRad profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      3 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Funny how being in a school production can get us interested in something we didn't know existed before.

    • BarbRad profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      3 years ago from Templeton, CA

      I really loved the Groucho clip and I'll have to buy that whole production as soon as I have enough time and money.

    • profile image

      Carolyn Martin 

      3 years ago

      I love the Mikado also. I was one of the three little maids in a local production back in my college days during summer vacation. It was a lot of fun.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 

      3 years ago from Massachusetts

      I've always loved The Mikado and really enjoyed your article. That clip of Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko is priceless!

    • BarbRad profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      6 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: Thanks for the added information.

    • BarbRad profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      6 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: Funny how we both had experiences in Jr. High that turned us into G&S fans.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      @floppypoppygift1: Topsy Turvey is all about the making of The Mikado, but it has selections from The Sorcerer, Princess Ida, and Patience as well.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      I adore G&S! Like you, I discovered it at an early age because I had a great Jr.High music teacher who taught us songs from Pinafore, and we staged an edited-down version that Spring. I played a sailor (they were short on boys). But it began a similar lifelong journey for me in discovering G&S. And my favorite is The Mikado, too.

    • LaraineRoses profile image

      Laraine Sims 

      6 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      Congratulations, fellow Squidacademy winner. It's great to have a front page lens! This one was such a joy to read and to watch the videos. I am a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan. Angel blessings!

    • BarbRad profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      6 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @floppypoppygift1: I'm afraid I didn't see it. I don't see many movies.

    • floppypoppygift1 profile image

      floppypoppygift1 

      6 years ago

      Did you ever see the movie Topsy Turvy with Jim Broadbent starring? I think it's about the Mikado and it's a great show!

    • Art-Aspirations profile image

      Art-Aspirations 

      6 years ago

      I am definitely a fan. The music is delightful and the lyrics are so clever. The enjoyment grows with each exposure. Of course no one watches these comic operettas for the plots! My first live Gilbert and Sullivan was Pirates of Penzance, and I think it's still my favorite, although Mikado runs a close second.

    • The Philologist profile image

      The Philologist 

      7 years ago

      Big Gilbert and Sullivan fan, loved your article. "The Mikado" was my first G&S experience as well

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      I haven't seen the original version so I guess, the original one must be truly conveying the essence, however recent live performances have the edge of technology and sound acoustics.

    • TeacherSerenia profile image

      TeacherSerenia 

      7 years ago

      Yes I'm a fan. I too love the Mikado. And like you I prefer the original version as written by G&S. While I do enjoy seeing that funny Australian version every now and then (the one you showed the video of with jon english and derek metzger - the entire opera is on youtube in several parts) it does stray from the pure original recording that I fell in love with back in the 1970s as a child.

    • annieangel1 profile image

      Ann 

      8 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      great lens bringing back happy memories of my childhood. My parents loved G&S and at that time all the small towns around us put on productions every year, we went to them all.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      8 years ago

      LOVE G&S and belong to my local company http://www.derbygsc.com/index.html here in the UK, thank you for the interesting blog. My favorite actor is Baritone Simon Butteriss http://unitedagents.co.uk/simon-butteriss I would think you might find some his own little lists rather interesting :0)

    • Grasmere Sue profile image

      Sue Dixon 

      8 years ago from Grasmere, Cumbria, UK

      I love G & S! It goes back to my childhood when my parents used to sing it.

    • The-Java-Gal profile image

      The-Java-Gal 

      8 years ago

      Not a fan but really appreciated the insight into Mikado,and how using distant cultures allowed Gilbert to satirise British politics and institutions more freely by disguising them Nice job.

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