What’s So Special about Gilbert and Sullivan? Or We’ve Got a Little List...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011 - 10:50 AM

With the first-ever Gilbert and Sullivan sing-along taking place at Symphony Space on Sunday and Caramoor kicking off its summer season with H.M.S. Pinafore on June 25, Naomi Lewin and Midge Woolsey talk about the timeless charm of the dynamic operetta duo and list the reasons that they’re dyed in the wool Savoyards.

Midge: I think the amazing thing about Gilbert and Sullivan is that even though they had very adult intentions with their writing, first and foremost they were entertainers. As a result, their operettas appeal to audiences of all kinds – from the very young to the very old.

Naomi: That’s so true. I fell in love with Gilbert and Sullivan as a kid, and spent hours listening to recordings of their shows. I could sing every line of every song from most of them.

Midge: I’ve loved Gilbert and Sullivan since I was a child, too. My parents participated in the annual faculty G&S productions at Casady School in Oklahoma City. If I close my eyes, I can still see my mom giggling and chattering with the other teachers ‘Climbing Over Rocky Mountain’ in The Pirates of Penzance. And my dad fooled us all when he crept through the audience as a bearded pirate “With Cat Like Tread.”

To make the productions super special, an incredibly funny man used to come all the way from the East Coast – with his own costumes in hand! – to play the patter roles. He was indeed “the very model of a modern Major General!” I distinctly remember him dressed in a nightshirt and cap with a candle in one hand posing in an arabesque forever and singing ”Sighing Softly to the River.” His name was Lee Bristol.  

Naomi: Lee Bristol also figured in my “well spent” Gilbert and Sullivan youth! I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, where Lee Bristol was President of Westminster Choir College, and participated in local G. & S. productions. I have vivid memories of his Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. in Pinafore. My father, who was a composer, introduced me to Gilbert and Sullivan. Dad worshipped the operatic ground Wagner walked on – but he also adored Gilbert and Sullivan, for the extraordinary combination of beautiful melodies and clever lyrics. The moment I got the chance, I started performing G.&S. Our seventh grade class play was The Mikado, and when I became a professional singer, I toured with a Gilbert and Sullivan company.

Midge: I was 30 years old before I played my first G. & S. role – Gianetta in The Gondoliers. Gianetta was followed by Dame Hannah in Ruddigore. This was when I started to realize precisely how brilliant Gilbert and Sullivan were. And I learned that as long as you played the role with complete conviction you could have as much fun as you wanted and never go over the top.

Naomi: I’m a mezzo-soprano, but neither my voice nor I were ever hefty enough to be cast in plummy G.&S. alto roles like Buttercup, Katisha, and Lady Jane. Fortunately, Gilbert and Sullivan created a whole series of wise-cracking sidekick mezzo roles like Pitti-Sing (Mikado), Tessa (Gondoliers), and Mad Margaret (Ruddigore). They’re right up my vocal alley, and lots of fun to sing. (Lots of words, too!) My Dad’s favorite number was always “The Silver Churn,” from Patience. I’m pretty partial to the madrigal from The Mikado, and the “Matter” trio from Ruddigore.

Midge: I recently spoke with G&S specialist extraordinaire, maestro Gerald Steichen. Jerry made his New York City Opera debut in the 1980’s conducting the Lotfi Monsouri production of The Mikado. The Jonathan Miller Mikados followed soon after. (Full disclosure: Jerry also played The Duke of Plaza Toro in that production of Gondoliers with me many moons ago.) Jerry says that he approaches a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta exactly as though he’s conducting Mozart, striving for the ”same clarity of line and cleanliness of articulation.” He says, “It requires that same level of musicianship. And politically speaking, the operettas still say so much about mocking ourselves and human fallibility.”

Naomi: It’s amazing how well they satirized 19th-century Victorian conventions, and how well those satires hold up today. What’s also amazing is that two such different people as lyricist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan – who basically didn’t like working with each other – created lasting pieces that people of all ages still adore. When my “Gen Y” nieces were little, I took them to see The Sorcerer, and they rode all the way home singing “My name is John Wellington Wells.”

Midge: If you’re geared up to sing a few G&S tunes, too, consider the G&S Sing-Along this Sunday at Symphony Space.

Naomi: Representatives from all the local G. & S. companies will be there – and New York is a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-rich place. (So far this season, I’ve seen the NYGASP Mikado and Blue Hill Troupe Pinafore.) The sing-along is B.Y.O.S., or bring your own scores. If you want to know which ones… well, of course, on the Web site for the event, they’ve got a little list.


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Comments [30]

Frances Yasprica from New York City

I hope that PINAFORE that was shown on PBS the other night doesn't scare too many people off from exploring the real thing. The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of New York, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season does concert versions of all of the G&S works, as well as Sullivan's non-Gilbert works and Gilbert's plays and comic operas with other composers. Tuesday, Oct. 18 is our Anniversary Mini-Gala, where we will sample EVERY G&S opera, at the Community Church, 40 East 35th Street, 7:45 pm. www.g-and-s.org

Oct. 16 2011 03:16 AM
David Lubell

My G&S infatuation began in the 1950's when I spent summer vacations back home in Waterville, Me. and often accompanied my father, a G&S devotee, to performances of the American Savoyards at the small Victorian theatre in Monmouth. They ran through the entire repertoire in lavishly costumed productions, with their excellent singers accompanied by piano and organ. My favorite: "Yeoman of the Guard."

Aug. 08 2011 11:52 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, N.J.

Right now the overture to "Ruddigore" is playing, which is kind of ironic, as while the overtures are the "G&S" (albeit without the "G") pieces most likely to be played on QXR, Sullivan didn't write most of them, and the Gilbert part is a key attraction for many fans. Anyway, for those true believers out there, this week Gettysburg, Pa., is host to the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, and tonight the local Ridgewood, New Jersey, company will be performing "HMS Pinafore" at 7:30 at the Majestic theater.

Jun. 30 2011 09:37 AM
anderj77@verizon.net from New York, New York

love the fact that two major Wagnerians are the lead singers in this!!

Jun. 25 2011 03:35 PM
Theodore Fishman from rye brook, ny.

to add artistic versimilitude to your programing how about reviving "The Gilbert &Sullivan Hour" as presented by Duncan Pirney so many years ago.

May. 30 2011 09:44 AM
Ken Thompson from New York City

Who can resist Gilbert & Sullivan? My very first exposure to live theater was "Trial by Jury" when I was eight years old. (My mom was a juror.)

One of my favorite theatrical experiences was in 1981 when the New York Shakespeare Festival mounted a delightfully daffy production of "The Pirates of Penzance" at the Delacourt Theater in Central Park. The show went on to win a pile of awards when it transfered to the Uris Theater on Broadway. It was staged by Wilford Leach, choreographed by Grace Daniele and conducted by William Elliot. The brilliant cast included Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, Rex Smith as Frederic, Kevin Kline as The Pirate King, George Rose as The Major General, Tony Azito as The Sergeant of Police, and Patricia Rutledge as Ruth (Estelle Parsons took over the role on Broadway). Bob Shaw designed the lavish sets; Patricia McGourty, the witty costumes; and Jennifer Tipton, the beautiful lighting. The pit band was augmented with synthesizers for a refreshingly modern sound. I heartily recommend tracking down a video recording of either version of this production.

Another fun piece is the ballet "Pineapple Poll," a pastiche of popular Gilbert & Sullivan tunes arranged for a suitably silly story of a swain, a maiden and thwarted love. Unfortunately, the ballet seems to have dropped out of favor but its score has been recorded a couple of times.

May. 27 2011 11:11 PM
estelle from Brooklyn

Yes, please! More G & S. And sung, not just the overtures. Gilbert's wit enhanced Sullivan's melodies. To truly enjoy G & S, one needs both.

May. 26 2011 10:53 AM
Jerry Stevenson from Jerusalem, Israel

I was only introduced to G&S when I retired about 2 years ago. At that time I joined the wonderful Encore Educational English Theater Company in Jerusalem. They make it a point to produce at least one G&S Production a year. What great Fun and joy in learning the difficult lyrics and melodies from "Ruddigore" and "The Pirates of Pensance"....and even more fun to FINALLY get it right!!!

May. 25 2011 10:08 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

As stated many times, G&S appeals to all ages, genders, races and all national backgrounds and NEVER seems outdated.

May. 20 2011 03:41 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

As stated many times, G&S appeals to all ages, genders, races and all national backgrounds and NEVER seems outdated. LET'S HAVE MORE OF THESE MASTERPIECES ON WQXR.

May. 19 2011 02:11 PM
norman m canter from New York, N.Y.

Gilbert possessed great intellect and could, like Kipling, make anything rhyme. Of interest to me, as a cornetist, is that Sullivan used the instrument brilliantly only five years after it had reached perfection (1866-1875). He scored for 2 cornets, which had a central role in the music. There is a doctoral dissertation: THE USE OF THE CORNET IN THE OPERETTAS OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN ....on the internet. The words in G&S are eternally fresh, but so too is the music. They were of equal genius.

May. 18 2011 03:54 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

My intro to G&S was at avery young age....

My father was in three productions of G&S in high school (Mikado, Pinafore, Penzance) and would occasionally be heard walking around the house singing parts.

May. 18 2011 10:29 AM
Kathryn from Boston

In the mid-1970s, I joined a group of performers and enthusiasts from throughout the U.S. in spending two weeks in London celebrating the centennial of Gilbert & Sullivan. The highlight was a series of D'Oyly Carte performances of every operetta in sequence, including "Utopia Ltd." and "Grand Duke." The trip package also included a half-day coach tour of London. Our group was combined with another group that had no G&S connection. I still remember the expressions of the other tourists when the G&S enthusiasts burst into "Warders are ye/Who do ye ward" at the Tower of London and other appropriate songs at different stops.

May. 18 2011 09:28 AM
Anne from Chicago

I was in a theater camp production of The Sorcerer when I was thirteen--and I was in the men's chorus. But by the time I did my second production of The Sorcerer (as Aline, two months ago), I still knew all of the words to "Now to the banquet we press." I actually wrote a paper for a music history survey class in college about G&S, and what makes them the "national music" of England, and a lot of it was the way the text and the music go together so naturally. It's almost impossible to look at the words "The eggs and the ham and the strawberry jam" without hearing the jaunty melody that Sullivan set it to--which makes the music easy (or at least quick) to learn and hard to forget!

I also love that, as an earlier poster mentioned, G&S appeals to audiences of all ages. I would say too that it appeals to performers of all ages. My senior year of high school, we did Pirates of Penzance. At first everybody groaned because we thought it was going to be lame--operetta?!--but we wound up having a rollicking good time. Half of the pirate chorus had never been in a musical before--they just wanted to be pirates. We all fell madly in love with the cleverness of it all, and the patter, and the topsy-turvy elements in evidence even without a magic potion or lozenge. ;)

By the end of this June, I will have done four Gilbert and Sullivan shows in one year--Yeomen of the Guard (my current favorite), The Gondoliers, The Sorcerer and The Mikado--and I wouldn't have it any other way. They're a source of never-ending delight and amusement for me, not to mention a great way for a very young singer to get stage experience. Bravi!

May. 18 2011 08:43 AM

I'm posting to encore the requests for more G&S on WQXR. The occasional overture you usually present is appreciated but it would be great to hear full length recordings again.

Does anyone else miss LOOM?

May. 17 2011 09:55 PM
Patricia Schafffel from New York

Years ago WQXR used to play G&S on some Saturday's when th Met was not in town. I wish you now had a regular playing time - even more frequently.
The shows are so good and can bear repeating
Thanks for the blogs.

May. 17 2011 08:01 PM
Sam from NYC

Thanks for this great blog.

One unfortunate misconception about G&S, however, is that they "basically didn’t like working with each other". Not true! They produced 14 comic operas together (and one cantata and some other published songs), often working at each others' homes to finalize each libretto and score. They dined together very frequently, played tennis together and were members of some of the same clubs. Yes, they had several disagreements over what to choose as their next show, and they had one major argument in 1890, but they were always able to come back together and produce works that very thoroughly integrated dialogue and songs. For more detail, see the article about Gilbert and Sullivan on Wikipedia, which has footnotes to many of the best reference books about G&S.

Also, Catherine, Gilbert did not make an enemy of Queen Victoria. No playwright or librettist had ever been knighted before him on the basis of their writings. In fact, the Queen called for a command performance of a G&S opera at Windsor Castle, and her sons frequently attended the operas. Gilbert had some enemies, but not because of his lyrics. Check out Andrew Crowther's new book: "W. S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan" (2011).

I also hope that WQXR resumes the G&S broadcasts!

May. 17 2011 07:38 PM

Hello, David Cantor!

It's so great to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to write. And, thanks for listening!


May. 17 2011 03:27 PM
carol prisant from new york

I started off at the age of seven as a Sister, Cousin and Aunt (and I didn't care which), and at fifteen, I owned every the recording and sang-along with Doyly Carte. As a young married, I saw Martyn Green "Ring the Merry Bells on Board Ship" shortly after he'd lost his leg in his DYI elevator accident in a Manhattan parking lot. He performed that evening with a cane, and when it came to the refrain, he rang the merry bells by reaching up with the crook of his cane and pulling on an imaginary rope in time to the music. The crowd went wild!!!

May. 17 2011 03:26 PM
Barbra Lewis from Bristol, RI

Carol has already mentioned Ridgewood's Pinafore this weekend, which is why we will not be at the Sing-Along. But we will be part of the Intl. G&S Festival in Gettysburg, PA June 24-July 3. Our show will be on June 30. Many other fine groups will perform full length operas in the evening, and the days will be filled with smaller performances, recitals, panels, lectures; something for everyone. Contact rich.wiley@gs-festival.co.uk. He'll give you any further information.

May. 17 2011 03:20 PM

As a child, my parents often took me to see G&S productions at the Jan Hus playhouse in Manhattan, we're talking back in the 1950s/60s. I have been in love with them ever since.

There is nothing funnier than the Mikado, it never loses its relevance--or its appeal. "Is it weakness of intellect, birdie? I cried, or a rather tough worm in your little inside?" Nobody writes like this anymore!

May. 17 2011 03:15 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

Regarding Carol's foregoing post about "Pinafore" in Teaneck, New Jersey (a stone's throw from the GW Bridge!): the website www.ridgewoodgands.com has details.

May. 17 2011 03:08 PM
Ridgewood G&S Opera Co. from New Jersey

Visit us at www.ridgewoodgands.com for more information about our HMS PINAFORE production in Teaneck, NJ, this weekend.

May. 17 2011 03:05 PM
Carol Ciancia

I was listening to Midge this morning and heard about this BLOG. The Ridgewood G&S Opera Co (with a 74+ yr history) is performing HMS PInafore this weekend, Sat May 21 at 8 pm and Sun May 22 at 2 pm at the Ben Franklin Middle School Taft Road, Teaneck, NJ located minutes from the GW Br off Rt 4. We have created a wonderfull production with new sets, costumes and many funny "bits"..Please come see us!

May. 17 2011 02:43 PM
Dan Aron from New Jersey

Interesting how G&S has influenced so many people, some for the music, some for the satire, all for the fun of it. I do miss the monthly Saturday afternoon G&S broadcasts on WQXR. Any chance they'll come back?

May. 17 2011 02:28 PM
Catherine from Philadelphia

I too grew up on G and S, and sang roles in most of them, starting with chorus roles and progressing to leads- Tessa, Katisha, Phoebe.
It was amazing the political enemies Gilbert made with his lyrics, most notably Queen Victoria with HMS Pinafore. She knighted Sullivan but refused to beknight Gilbert who had to wait until Victoria died to receive his knighthood.

May. 17 2011 02:13 PM
Bill Dollison from New Rochelle, NY

I'd like to say I love your post -- and how such amazingly-crafted melodies and the attendant SUPER-clever lyrics infused my brain during my childhood -- but at present I'm afraid I'm as mad as any hatter so I'll keep 'em to myself for my opinion doesn't matter.

May. 17 2011 01:08 PM
Elise Curran from Orlando, FL

Lots of good points made above, and to them I'd like to add that it is the COMBINATION of Gilbert and Sullivan that is unique. No one but Sullivan ever set Gilbert's words to their maximum advantage, while at the same time being enjoyable on a purely musical basis, on the highest level. And Gilbert was always up to date; he did updates of the revivals of his works, and we continue to update to this day. The subjects he chose to lampoon are eternal truths, and will always draw knowing nods and laughing appreciation.

May. 17 2011 01:00 PM
Robyn Shoulson from New Jersey

G&S seems to have been a standard in high school productions. I remember my mother telling me of her understudy role for Patience at James Monroe HS in the Bronx in the 30's. I was Josephine in our HS performance of HMS Pinafore. (There were only 8 girls in the class, so my only real qualification for the role was my ability to carry a tune!)
I would love to hear more G&S on WQXR.

May. 17 2011 12:55 PM
David Cantor from New Jersey

Thanks for this blog! Always great to know that G&S have (has?) friends in high places.

And Midge, I remember your Dame Hannah well--I was Robin Oakapple in that production!

May. 17 2011 12:44 PM

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