History has rarely seen a funnier musical duo than W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Working together in England, the pair created 14 comic operettas between 1871 and 1896. Three of the most well known works included H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.
Gilbert wrote the words to each operetta while Sullivan composed the music. Each song brought down the roof as Gilbert and Sullivan poked fun at the royal family, members of Parliament, the British aristocracy, and the British Royal Navy.
Beginning with Trial by Jury, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote one smash hit after another — Pinafore, Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, Utopia, The Grand Duke, and others. Many of the shows went into 500 and 600 performances.
If Londoners wanted to see the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, they travelled to the city’s West End and attended the Savoy Theatre. Built in 1881 by Richard Carte, the building was completely electrified. It was the first in the world to bear this honor. Carte built a hotel next to the theatre to provide accomodations for the actors, actresses, and theatre patrons and did quite a booming business for years. The Savoy later premiered Oscar Wilde’s Salome and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Visitors to London can still a play or show there today.
The Gilbert and Sullivan operaetta songs were as singable as some of the great arias from the operas of Bizet, Verdi, and Puccini. People hummed them in the streets the day after seeing a show and then for weeks afterwards. Who could forget “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” “When I Was a Lad!” Once More, Gondolieri,” and “For He’s Gone and Married Yum-Yum.” The tempo kept a steady beat, the verses rhymed, the lines poked fun at everything and everyone, and the sarcasm just oozed from every number. Audiences laughed and laughed and hung onto every word. Going to the theatre was great fun!
Listen to a song or two of Gilbert and Sullivan’s and see if you don’t agree with the critics. These men put musical theatre on the map in England for all to enjoy!