Back to Before: Part II The Very Model Framework for a Modern Broadway Musical
Picking up where we left off in Part I of this series, we started looking at the transition from opera to contemporary musical theatre via the vehicle of operetta. Operetta really began to take off with heightened popularity in Great Britain in the late 1800s, largely thanks to the commercial success of the composing and producing team of Gilbert and Sullivan. It would be these two gentlemen who would advance the art form of musical theatre style storytelling one step closer toward its contemporary conventions.
W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) were not an easy partnership. In fact, the team of Gilbert & Sullivan often met with great tension exacerbated by diametrically opposed personalities and agendas. Gilbert was a sensitive person, often easily provoked to being argumentative and even confrontational. He was a wordsmith of the first order, capable of telling fascinating stories with veiled social references, wit, and poetry. He was particularly adept at writing patter songs that required a dexterity of tongue unequaled in the world of comic opera. Arthur Sullivan was a more reserved gentleman, professional, shy and preferred to be less controversial in the topics of their collaborations. He composed wide range of infectious melodies that would become some of the best-known in the world of operetta (and music in general). The polar opposition of these two gentlemen seemed to work to their advantage, as they were never more successful than when they worked together. In many ways, they are precursors to composing teams like Rodgers and Hart and Lerner and Loewe where people of different backgrounds, upbringings, and opinions incited the best in each other artistically.
Their popularity aside, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, usually based in some world of whimsy or fantasy, often incorporated characters that poked fun at contemporary British royalty and politics. This social relevance and satire gave their operettas substance beyond most of the high-end entertainment of the day. Gilbert’s audacity especially made the case that musical theatre style entertainment could have deeper meaning than just a frothy and fun night on the town. Musical theatre could be used to shape minds and opinions; music could spin and deepen emotion. Though the idea of the modern musical, one that has integrated scores growing out of the plot and character development, would take another sixty or seventy years to catch on, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas signal a shift in how an audience’s experience in understanding character and plot, as well as the impact music and lyrics have in storytelling, will be the area of musical theatre that will evolve in the decades to come.
At one point during their career, Gilbert & Sullivan had great success with titles such as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889) proving to be some of their biggest hits. In fact, it is estimated that, between touring companies and residential productions, Gilbert & Sullivan had over 100 productions in their name in Great Britain alone. Of course their shows traveled oversees, many arriving soon after their London inceptions, in New York City. In the late 1800s, New York City was quickly beginning to establish itself as the centerpiece of the North America Theatre scene and it welcomed, with open arms, any hit production that the London Theatre sent their way. Gilbert & Sullivan and their wares were an enormous success in NYC. Soon, American composers were clamoring to create similar pieces of commercial operetta that were in the same vein as the G&S hits. More importantly, British copyright laws were not well-enforced in the United States. This resulted in hundreds of productions of Gilbert & Sullivan’s works that traveled, unfettered and spreading their popularity and musical stylings, to the hinterlands of America. In many ways, this is what gave the duo their mass appeal and sales of the sheet music to their operettas were just as healthy in the music shops of Kansas City as they were in New York City. The Gilbert & Sullivan style was engrained in the psyche of the average American music buff.
Though Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are not produced with as much fervor and regularity as they used to be, they are still a healthy part of both the British and American Theatre repertoire. The influence this duo had on shaping the contemporary musical my establishing a framework for how the next hundred years of musical theatre evolution would play out may not have been intentional, but they certainly did their part in solving some of the basic problems of creating entertaining and substantive musical theatre. As America would establish its own penchant for writing operetta and homegrown composers rose to the occasion of creating them, the influence of Gilbert & Sullivan would be apparent.
Songs to listen to:
“Three Little Maids from School Are We” from The Mikado
“Poor Wand’ring One” from The Pirates of Penzance
“Major General’s Song” from The Pirates of Penzance
“My Gallant Crew, Good Morning” from H.M.S. Pinafore
“Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” from The Gondoliers
“I’m Called Little Buttercup” from H.M.S. Pinafore
“Love, Unrequited” from Iolanthe