The reception from the buoyant and boisterous Americans was beyond anything the British musical team could have imagined. Screaming throngs welcoming them when they arrived on our shores; fans clutching copies of their music, singing the fiendishly popular songs that had preceded them; audiences begging them for coveted seats to their first public performance in New York. It was pandemonium; it was the British Invasion; it was—Gilbert and Sullivan?
Whatever delirium of the popular consciousness was raised in the U.S. by four hip moptops from Liverpool in the early winter of 1964 had already scooped nearly a century earlier by two middle-aged gents from the U.K.—both with walrus moustaches, one with a kidney stone, the other an inveterate curmudgeon. By 1878, Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert were the premiere songwriter/dramatists of light comic operetta in the Western World. Their H.M.S. Pinafore had taken the English-speaking leisure class by storm and it was so popular that—in the days before YouTube, copyright laws, and persistent attorneys—it was being played everywhere, without remuneration. America supposedly had three dozen rogue companies—performing the British team’s work in every conceivable venue and style, even Yiddish. However much they may have liked the fact that their musical material was amusing audiences, Gilbert and Sullivan themselves were—in the words of their beloved sovereign, Queen Victoria—“not amused.” They didn’t like being ripped off, or, to use a word that appealed to Gilbert, pirated. Pirated? Ah ha!
The writers hit upon an astonishingly arduous idea for the 19th Century; they would make the transatlantic voyage to New York City and premiere their latest work, called—with apparent irony—The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway. This would secure an American copyright immediately, while at nearly the same time, they set up an inconspicuous production on the west coast of England to secure an European copyright. In the days before pdfs and Skype—let alone transatlantic telephone calls, fax, or DHL–this was a mammoth undertaking, requiring Gilbert, who took care of staging issues, to work out everything in advance; his cast would have only hours to learn the material before the production’s New York debut on New Year’s Eve, 1879. Sullivan, who always did things at the last minute anyway, was in a worse bind. Once he hopped aboard the transatlantic liner Bothnia and blithely set sail for the States, he retired to his stateroom to finish the score to Pirates—only to discover he had left his handwritten draft of all the musical material back in London. (When I tell this story to my students at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, the collective groan of agony can be heard for miles around.)
The preparation of the world premiere of The Pirates of Penzance was in a word (or two) simply nuts. Security guards were posted to keep fans from stealing or cribbing the music and lyrics; there were temper tantrums about the quality of the singing and orchestra; Sullivan was scribbling pages of orchestrations so furiously that, apparently, the pit musicians were playing parts with fresh ink streaming down the page. It hardly mattered. The world premiere of this classic soufflé of merrymaking went over like a dream fantasy; audiences at the Fifth Avenue Theater (which, despite its name, was at 28th and Broadway) were not only thrilled by the production itself, they basked in the reflected glory of making two British celebrities drag their wearied bottoms to America for their approbation. Sullivan and Gilbert simply stayed in their respective beds for a few days before making a tour of the northeastern United States for a month or two, as infatuated Americans tossed their hard-earned money at them.
The personal and critical approbation for Gilbert and Sullivan (and for The Pirates of Penzance in particular) continues unabated to this day. Kevin Kline just won his third Tony Award this June; I recall his second Tony Award-winning performance, as the Pirate King as if it were yesterday, buckling a comic swash (or swashing a comic buckle) while dueling with the orchestra conductor in the Central Park production of 1980. Since then, the score has been wrung through the pop culture ringer on innumerable platforms; if you’ve been parodied by both The Simpsons AND Phineas and Ferb, what worlds are there left to conquer? The Hypocrites’s immersive production seems the next logical step for enthusiastic New Yorkers to dive headfirst into The Pirates of Penzance, unless losing a handwritten manuscript of your masterpiece strikes you as a good time. (It’s happened to me as well as Sullivan—and I don’t recommend it.)
Sullivan got the last laugh, as is only fitting. He wrote to his mother from New York: “The Pirates of Penzance is still doing enormous business every night and likely to last, so that at last I really think I shall get a little money out of America. I ought to, for they have made a good deal out of me.”
Laurence Maslon is an arts professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Acting Program. A scholar of musical theatre he is also the host and producer of the weekly NPR-member station radio program “Broadway to Main Street.”