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Why Do Musicals Sound Like That? Gilbert and Sullivan

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Hello reader,

Unfortunately, this episode does not lend itself well to reading. It focuses heavily on the primary source of audio clips. That said, the script for the episode varies from the final produced episode in a few places and so it may hold additional information for the interested.

Reference Material:

Kevin Kline singing the Ruddigore song in Pirates of Penzance

My Name Is John Wellington Wells

A song from H.M.S. Pinafore with updated lyrics

Edward Said, Orientalism. This is what I'm referring to when I say "oriental"

How did the musical comedy get from [“stop you men of dark and dismal fate”] to this [“the internet is for porn”]? My answer is, it took a lot of work and a lot of genius. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my unlikely explanation.

This podcast is the first in a series I’m going to do on the development of the modern musical. There seems to be a very specific and schmaltzy tone that most musicals nowadays at least nod to. The first step on the road to that sound is Gilbert and Sullivan. Rather than try to give a comprehensive history, I’m going to give you my literary and musical analysis of these plays and introduce you to as much music as I can. Think of this as a guided tour of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Musicals are an important part of understanding the pop music we listen to today. Even though nowadays we usually consider music from musicals to be novelty music that isn’t usually heard outside of their shows except for the occasional breakout hit—I will spare you the clip of “let it go”—But theatrical music and pop music have shared a long, entwined history and many melodies and forms have been traded between the two. Keep in mind that when we listen to most of what’s considered “classical music”, that much of it was written to accompany a visual performance of some kind, like a ballet or an opera.

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote their plays in the 1870’s and 80’s, based on forms of opera which had been popular on the continent for centuries, and more directly on the light, comic operas that were taking Europe by storm. Think of this kind of music [orpheus in the underworld]. For context, this is the same time when Wagner was producing his Der Ring cycle which you probably know from this [ride of the valkyries] and Johann Strauss was writing his operettas in Vienna which had a little of this kind of flair: [all i want is more champagne]. The time was right for a new kind of entertainment in England. Transportation was improving with better and faster trains throughout the isles and so too was nighttime illumination. It was suddenly easier and safer for whole families to go out for a night of entertainment. In England, theater had dwindled to short runs of bawdy, pun-filled plays and occasional performances of the only respectable English dramatist: Shakespeare, whose own plays are bawdy and pun-filled too. The time was right for a new perspective in English theater. And this is what we got: [what never? No never!]

This was the work of W. S. Gilbert, a writer known for his comic, often satirical verse, as well as the libretti for several short, comic operas and “extravaganzas” and Arthur Sullivan, an up-and-coming composer of ballets, concertos, hymns, parlor songs and comic operas of his own. Gilbert was most interested in satire and subversion, creating fanciful scenarios that could recontextualize the absurdity of his own society. His plots were often described as “topsy-turvy”. Sullivan, on the other hand, considered himself a serious composer who was destined for greatness and took on lighter work to keep himself from going bankrupt in the meantime. This discrepancy in their self-images would cause strife throughout their collaboration. But in the meantime, they would become one of England’s most cherished institutions. Their far-seeing promoter started a new company so that they could properly own their own work and built them an opera house specifically to stage their plays which was an honor that only Wagner had achieved. It was called the D’Oyly Carte Theater after its builder, and it staged their plays for 107 years. Despite the tremendous profitability of their hugely successful plays and Richard D'Oyly Carte’s best efforts to keep it going, Gilbert and Sullivan’s partnership fell apart amid bickering. Although they eventually patched things up and even wrote a few more plays, they never regained the popularity and esteem of their earlier work.

So let’s get a sense for the songs they wrote. [my name is john wellington wells].

Hearing this was, for me, like finding a missing link in evolution because right away I can hear how it connects earlier opera [figaro from barber] to some of the songs I grew up with [one week barenaked ladies]. These are called patter songs and they seem to operate on the principle that assonance and consonance are twice as fun when performed twice as fast. It’s likely no coincidence that a rap musical actually worked (and worked super well) when there are so many patter-type songs in musicals over the last century. They’re often used in Gilbert and Sullivan shows to introduce a character as in the actually famous example from Pirates of Penzance [modern major general], or this amazing feat in Ruddigore [matter patter].

That was Vincent Price singing, by the way.

Now, I want to explore what was specifically Sullivan and what was Gilbert. The earliest surviving opera we have from Sullivan is the delightfully named Cox and Box. Yup. Cox and Box. So here we have a prototypical Sullivan patter song [my master is punctual].

The music of these plays is so different from modern musicals or pop songs for that matter. You can find some similarities in writers like Sondheim but it feels much more rooted in symphonic music than what we listen to today. Some of these melodies are really sweet in a uniquely romantic-era way that has a subtlety and complexity that you don’t hear as much anymore. This example is from one of their first collaborations, Trial by Jury, in which Gilbert is satirizing the English legal profession. They sing a very operatic song about a nice dilemma that calls for all their wit. [a nice dilemma we have here].

Gilbert and Sullivan brought over from the opera (and from earlier theater traditions) the idea of the chorus, as in a group of singers that comment on the action of the play. In many cases the chorus simply repeats the principal melody to lend balance to the musical line like in This example from HMS Pinafore [when I was a lad]. You end up with a lot of this [montage of “yes yes”] But sometimes the chorus plays an active role in the song like when the police in Pirates of Penzance are encouraged to bravely face their death [that is not a pleasant way of putting it]. And I thoroughly enjoy how Gilbert plays with the chorus, poking fun at the opera form itself. Here’s a great example from the same play where we have the pirates sing a triumphant song about how utterly quiet they are [with cat-like tred] and then hide, which is followed by their intended victim singing [I thought I heard a noise] and the chorus ironically replies [ha- he thought he heard a noise].

I think this is indicative of what Gilbert brought to the collaboration. The music is often played earnestly, complementing the lyrics but usually staying within established conventions. Gilbert meanwhile seems so self-aware as to sound modern at times. In Trial by Jury there’s this funny moment that could work in a satire of musicals today. [order in the court] and [let me speak]

But beyond that, Gilbert was simply a great poet. Many of his turns of phrase have become a normal part of our lexicon, like, let the punishment fit the crime. And he could turn a thought as mundane as “I hope I don’t get executed” into a poem as beautiful as this: [to sit in solemn silence]

So, now that we’ve established the context and the skills of each man, let’s look at some moments where the work really shines as a collaboration. In Pirates there’s a moment when our tenor protagonist, who has been a child pirate his whole life and therefore has never seen women before, because comic musicals have never had to make sense, sees women for the first time and instantly makes a jackass of himself trying to woo them with this pitiful offer sung to a gorgeous melody [is there not one maiden here] and as a chorus they answer him [no there’s not one maiden here]. I feel like that gag is still very funny and the melody is so subtle and pretty.

I also want to point out a few moments from their most popular show, The Mikado, that stand out for their brilliance. There’s a song where we are introduced to the Mikado himself, the Emperor of Japan, and he explains that it is his most humane duty to reform justice in Japan by making the punishment fit the crime. This is really a way for Gilbert to poke fun at Victorian “society sinners” in London. Here is the terrible fate assigned to pool sharks. [punishment fit the crime].

The turn in this next song still stands out to me as wickedly subversive. We get this blithe, optimistic song from the young minstrel who has to convince our protagonist, Koko, to marry a woman the protagonist doesn’t want to. So he sings him this optimistic little song [the flowers that bloom in the spring], which Koko spits back in his face [the rest of it].

At the end of the Mikado there’s this song where Koko must seduce this most unattractible thing we just heard about. He does this by spinning his anxieties about her into positives. And I think it has a very fun melody. [beauty in the bellow of the blast]

So, after all that high praise, I think it is right to talk about things that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote that haven’t aged as well.

First there’s some silliness around how language changes that I’d like to note. I already mentioned that Sullivan wrote “Cox and Box”. Titter titter titter. And there’s this line in Pinafore: [never use a big big D]. So that’s a bit surprising to hear today. For the record, he’s talking about the word “damn”

Then, at the end of the modern major general song he sings “a better major general has never sat-a-gee”. The best explanation I’ve found for that is that a particularly fast horse would be called a “gee” as in “gee whiz this is a fast horse” and so he’s saying a better major general has never ridden a sweet horse. I was perplexed by that one for a while.

Now I’d like to talk about how Gilbert wrote the plays themselves. This is true of a lot of comic plays, but the plots are pretty unsatisfying. People called Gilbert’s writing topsy-turvy because he liked silly juxtapositions and reversals. So in The Gondoliers we have two pro-republic gondoliers becoming kings against their will and in Pinafore we have high-born people getting tricked into marrying low-born people. This has always been good fodder for comic plays, but many of Gilbert’s constructions end up having no stakes and therefore no drama.

So let’s look at Pirates of Penzance since that’s the one that’s been most revived over the last few decades. Our protagonist tenor, Frederick, has turned twenty-two and therefore is no longer indentured to be a pirate. The pirates have indentured servitude I guess and he was brought to pirates instead of to a ship’s pilot because his nursery maid was hard of hearing. Right out of the gate nothing makes sense, cool. So he encounters women for the first time in his life, I guess these pirates never docked anywhere, and one of the women takes pity on his lonely soul. The pirates show up wanting to kidnap the maidens and marry them but their dad, the Major General, informs the pirates that he is an orphan and therefore the pirates leave them alone. You see these pirates are honorable towards orphans. It’s so wacky. But then in Act II, the major general feels bad about having lied and says that he wants to confess to the pirates that he’s not an orphan but doesn’t want to die for it or have his daughters married to scoundrels. So, okay, for some reason Frederick gets a band of policemen to help him. I don’t really get what policemen have to do with pirates but that’s okay. But before the pirates and police can clash, the pirate King tells Frederick that he’s still indentured to them. This is because he was born on the 29th of February and therefore he’s only 5 years old and a little bit over. What a loophole! So, Frederick being an honorable guy tells his beloved that since she’s pledged to him, she now needs to wait till he’s 80 they can get married. “It seems so long,” she says. So with that settled, the pirates handily defeat the policemen because these policemen are cowardly (oh it’s so topsy turvy) and it ends with, I kid you not, the policemen saying “yield in queen victoria’s name” and then Frederick’s old nursery maid jumps in and reveals that all the pirates are actually noblemen. So now they’re not going to be pirates anymore, they’re going to join the house of lords and marry all the daughters. Happy ending.

So, that’s a garbage fire of a plot. I think I can see how all these reversals would work better in a poem or something that doesn’t demand a clear story, but it just doesn’t lead to a satisfying arc. You have these sweeping, unironic songs of love between the main characters, it’s clear that we’re meant to relate to them and care about their inner lives, and then we have a series of totally arbitrary twists that suck the stakes out of the story completely. Like, Frederick gets the policeman to take on the pirates, but in the very next scene, he changes sides again. So while we care about the fate of his beloved, it’s kinda hard to care about these singing cops. And then the whole thing is resolved by this hail to the queen that just comes out of nowhere. Like, never is the queen mentioned up to this point. Like, I get the humor of an anti-climax but it feels like such a hollow way to resolve the conflict. So, I’m going to say that while Gilbert’s verse is excellent, the plays taken in their entirety feel kinda cheap.

Okay, now let’s talk about the stuff thornier to tackle from a modern perspective. As good historians we should keep in mind that these men were writing in Victorian times with their Victorian minds. The way they saw the world and morality is different from how we do. The past is a foreign country. So that said, some of this ranges from tone-deaf to downright mean.

In Pirates of Penzance, when the undefended maidens are set upon by the pirates, they sing this. [first rate opportunity]. There’s some good stuff here, like the rhyme between parsonified and matrimonified but it’s pretty messed up to show a bunch of characters getting ready for what’s pretty much a straight-up rape dancing on stage singing “here’s a first-rate opportunity to get married with impunity”. That’s just so callous and doesn’t have any kind of wink like Sondheim’s dark comedy does. It’s basically played straight. Yikes. Maybe there was another way to establish your pirates’ desire to get married, there, Gilbert.

Then there’s the Mikado. We have a lot of stereotypes that we’re all sick of today. There’s The Emperor who is pretty much every trope of an oriental despot you can have: He thinks he’s wise but he’s actually a buffoon, he is cursed with both too much power and too much bureaucracy, he’s weirdly effeminate and at the same time unfeeling. There’s the daughter-in-law elect who’s this old archetype of the reaching woman who has to be taken down a notch. So she’s punished by being offensively ugly and unpleasant and the great comic ending of the play is seeing her grab for power denied. The love interest of the show then is instead this submissive wilting flower. So, there’s a lot of racist and sexist assumptions there.

And then there’s the problem of how the whole thing is set in Japan. It makes it pretty hard to stage today without looking really bad. The play never really attempts to portray Japan in a realistic way. It’s a satire of England. There’s lines like “the Japanese equivalent of hear hear”. So when people stage it they have to choose between trying to play this not-very-Japanese Japan in a realistic way or playing it the way it was written and looking kinda racist. It’s a satire of Victorian England, it’s set in essentially an imaginary place, one where one man can hold all the titles of county seats at once and an executioner contemplates cutting off his own head to save face. It could easily be medieval Europe or fairyland or someplace. And remember, this was written at the height of Empire. This is Empress of India era Victoria. This is the culture that most of 20th-century art is reacting against. But the bottom line is that we live in the 2010s and The Mikado is set in an Imperial Englishified version of Japan so when people stage it today they have to either commit being out of step with how we view the world today or altering chunks of the book.

Which actually might not be a bad way to go. So there are two songs in the Mikado which drop hard-r n-words. I was listening back to some early recordings while I was researching this and I gotta say it’s a little startling to hear. I guess that they were expunged from the official D’Oyly Carte lyrics in the 50’s which still seems pretty late. But this need for change actually caused a fortuitous tradition with one song in the Mikado: the list song. In this song we are introduced to the Lord High Executioner, and he reads off his list of people that he would execute if he needed to. It’s very tongue in cheek. After the official lyrics updated a certain lyric to “the banjo serenader and the other of his race”, other stagings updated other parts of the song to reference current day “society offenders.” So we go from the slightly funny [shaking hands verse] to the much funnier [cell phones verse]. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the alterations that modern stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan tend to add. Gilbert’s language can get very stuffy and it’s nice to cut through it sometimes. In one production of Pinafore there’s this silly but pretty great verse added on to “never mind the why and wherefore” [underwear verse].

Now that we’ve explored the libretto and book, let’s take a closer look at the music itself, Sullivan’s territory. Some of the music is painfully English. I can’t decide if it’s just very old or it was always silly or it’s just a foreign culture to me but there’s a song in the Mikado that goes like this: [here’s a how-de-do] and I just hate it so much. It’s meant to be this silly folly to break up the serious situation, but, I mean, just listen to that. Ugh.

Other songs are wonderfully English. Some of these melodies, inspired by opera, have a particularly Italian flair to the music [punishment fit the crime], but a few songs stand out as being particularly English. There’s a very silly song in Pirates about how cops and robbers really love the simple joys of life when they’re not doing their jobs which has a very English sensibility to it [when a felon's not engaged]. There’s also this interpolation of the folk melody “for he’s a jolly good fellow” [we seek a penalty 50 fold].

One idea I really like is the interweaving of three parts. Listen to this beautiful section from The Mikado. We get each strain of this represented by a similar melody but different rhythms. Then we hear the three interwoven so you can experience how all three rhythms fit into the gaps in each other [I am so proud].

Okay, so what does all this have to do with today? Gilbert and Sullivan were hugely influential on the music and form of the musicals of the 20th century. There are lots of references both direct and indirect in both musicals and popular music. Here are some of my favorite examples.

This is the song that first introduced me to Gilbert and Sullivan. As a kid, I was a nerd who loved novelty music and I bought the Doctor Demento 20th Anniversary double CD. Along with hits like Fish Heads and Another One Rides the Bus, there was this tune from Tom Lehrer. [the elements song] Tom Lehrer was a child prodigy, a mathematician and a lecturer on musical theater as well as a track he explores how the folk song Clementine would sound coming from different musical styles and this is the Gilbert and Sullivan version: [clemintine]

In the 70’s Stephen Sondheim would write some very Sondheimian takes on what you can hear is the basic Gilbert and Sullivan model. Here’s his take on the patter song in 1970’s Company [not getting married]. His tightly interwoven songs with multiple voices and his love of recursive wordplay definitely take influence from Gilbert and Sullivan. In his later work, Assassins, there’s this battle of a song that reminds me of how Gilbert and Sullivan used their chorus. [another national anthem]

I already mentioned the Barenaked Ladies at the beginning of this. One week certainly fits the form of a patter song and it hit #1 on the Billboard charts in the ’90s. But once we get into the ’80s and ’90s, we start seeing the influence of rap and r&b on pop music which obviously comes from a different musical tradition than Gilbert and Sullivan. Who can say whether this draws more from comic theater or rap: [billy joel]. But clearly there’s an appetite in both pop music and musicals for interesting poetry delivered very quickly. [guns and ships]. Again, I don’t think we can separate how much of that is patter and how much is rap but Lin Manuel Miranda certainly knows theater and he was aware of his influences [modern major general].

And that brings us up to the 2010s and back to our initial question. How did we end up with shows like Hamilton and Book of Mormon that are so popular today? It’s a story too big to tell in just one installment, but it started with Gilbert and Sullivan merging ideas from opera with English satire and recontextualizing both as a new form of show. They did not create an English equivalent to Wagner. Instead, they forged a new path, one that would make Broadway and West End the theater capitols of the world. And a path that would lead to this: [Kyle's mom’s a bitch]. Next time, we will pick up the story with Cole Porter and George Gershwin and I guess anyone else interesting I discover while I’m researching. I’m Peter McGuire and this has been, the first part of my, unlikely explanation.

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Jul 20, 2023

Interesting and entertaining show! I'm sure you already know this, but there is a Gilbert & Sullivan of Facebook page and you will find a lot of purists on there (but also a lot of general fans of the duo who want the shows be not be so wedded in to the Victorian era - as that is the way of museum theatre...)


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