How often do I use this space to wish a happy birthday to a fictional character? Not often, since he was born on Leap Year Day. But everybody raise a glass for that old “Slave of Duty,” Frederick, from The Pirates of Penzance, turns 40 today!
Now, I ask you: Could you build a plot around this quirk of the calendar? You might have to be an attorney who relishes the absurdity of the way the law, and some people, value principles more than logic. And then you’d be W. S. Gilbert. Frederick has been indentured to a pirate ship until his twentieth birthday. He’s loved his time with his pirate mates – they’re a lovable lot – and bids them a fond farewell. But he warns them that once he’s no longer an apprentice pirate and becomes a law-abiding British subject his honor compels him to go to the police and turn them in. And that’s the plan until it’s pointed out to Frederick he won’t reach his twentieth birthday until his eightieth revolution around the sun. Are you following all this?
When you study Gilbert & Sullivan – as every musical writer should, just as every playwright should study Shakespeare and Moliere – you find they go a long way with surprisingly little plot. The “most ingenious paradox” of Frederick’s one birthday every four years is given a full musical sequence to explain: All that’s really needed is his realization “I am a little boy of five!” set to a declarative fanfare. G&S choose to amplify. And they want to be sure you get it.
Another key plot point involved a guardian of many marriageable young ladies lying about being an orphan. Most viewers recognize right away that a strategic fib is being deployed, but just in case we don’t, the character confesses to us, in an aside:
I’m telling a terrible story,
But it doesn’t diminish my glory;
For they would have taken my daughters
Over the billowy waters,
If I hadn’t, in elegant diction,
Indulged in an innocent fiction;
Which is not in the same category
As telling a regular terrible story.
Asides, of course, are a big deal in musical theatre, just as they are in Shakespeare. Here, the audience is like a priest in a confession box. And the pirate chorus answers with an aside that’s a little more frightening:
If he’s telling a story
He shall die by a death that is gory,
Yes, one of the cruelest slaughters
That ever were known in these waters;
It is easy, in elegant diction,
To call it an innocent fiction;
But it comes in the same category
As telling a regular terrible story.
Sound scary, that cruelest slaughter? Be not afraid! There’s a running gag in The Pirates of Penzance that these particular buccaneers are the politest set of tars to ever plow the waters. They appreciate poetry; they love their Queen. The band of far-from-scary criminals was much on my mind when I was commissioned to write a show for schoolchildren. The Pirate Captains also lacks frightening misbehavior, as it’s really about two people who aspire to be pirates, but never rob anyone.
Lehman Engel thought so much of the libretto, he once read the entire first act to us workshoppers out loud. In retrospect, that seems like schoolmarmish spoon-feeding. But when people are bringing in witless scripts that exhibit little understanding of how to create funny moments on stage, putting a paradigm front and center is called for. And there’s an obscure subliminal connection between the workshop and the origin of The Pirates of Penzance. After the unprecedented international success of the first three Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas, they wanted to end the practice of overseas companies performing their works without paying them royalties.
There’s a word for that – when you steal artists’ works: piracy. (You’ve probably read an FBI warning about this.) So the choice to do a show about pirates was a slap on the wrist to the pirates who hadn’t paid them. In order to secure a copyright in America, they needed to premiere the work here. It played, one night, in upstate New York before the London opening. BMI, which sponsored and hosted Engel’s workshop, is the natural foe of piracy. They collect fees every time a member’s song is broadcast. And Penzance? Well, it may sound exotic to Americans, but to the English it’s the least likely place to find seaborne rapscallions, a little like, say, Perth Amboy, NJ.
I’ve declared this place a politics-free-zone, but I’ve a personal recollection which lies at the intersection of musical comedy and politics. When I was in high school, the brilliant team of director John Ingle and musical director Joel Pressman planned to do Pirates as a summer production. I was thrilled to be cast as the Major-General. But in June, there was an initiative on the ballot, a proposal to cut property taxes drastically. This meant there’d be no funding for summer school. Or a host of educational and other public-welfare programs. It was hard to believe people could be so selfish – that they’d rather reduce rates for owners of million-dollar mansions than fund schools, roads, parks and libraries. The proposal passed, and soon other states were slashing programs so the rich could keep more of their money. And so began the economic trend of reverse Robin Hood-ism, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. A so-called “nanny state” gets derided, as if taking care of people in need isn’t precisely what a benevolent government ought to be doing. I can only go back to the lines I didn’t get to say: