When I first got this, Kevin Kline was on cable on a pretty solid basis, most notably the Cole Porter Biopic De-Lovely. When I was picking out records for the month, this trend continued but with the movie based on the Broadway production this soundtrack is from. So it kind of went full circle. Plus bring a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan in general made this purchase inevitable, especially with the low price of $1.20 with discount for a double record.
The Pirates of the Penzance, was G&S’s fifth collaboration and actually the first of their productions to open in the US (it opened in New York in 1879). This was done to combat the lack of international copyright laws in the US. With their previous works such as HMS Pinafore, over 150 production companies staged unauthorized performances in America with many liberties to the text and no money in the pockets of the creators. After a three month run (that initially remedied the fore mentioned problem), the production was opened in London in 1880 and ran for 383 performances, garnishing praise from both critics and audiences. Filled with the patter and counterpoint vocals common in G&S’s work along with a playful parody of the works of Verdi, Gounard, Mozart, and Donizetti, Pirates remains one of the pairs most popular works today.
Though there have been many productions over the years, the most notable was staged in 1980 by Joe Papp and the New York Shakespeare in the Park organization. After 10 previews and 35 performances, the production was moved to Broadway were it ran 20 previews and 787, becoming a massive success. The performance featured more swashbuckling (which makes me cringe to think what prior versions were like), more musical comedy, enhanced instrumentation and arrangements, and a restoration of the original G&S ending. The production was nominated for seven Tony’s, winning three including one for Best Revival and a Best Director nod for Wilford Leach. It is this Broadway production for which this album is based. It has also served as the musical basis for most productions since.
Based on the success on Broadway, a movie version of this production was made with most of the principals in place. This was released in 1983 but was not as successful as its stage counterpart. Maybe perhaps as America was not ready to accept movie-musicals again but also in part because a good amount theater owners boycotted the release due to the fact that it was also released to a direct home market thru subscription tv at the same time. What ever reason you want to believe, the movie was a box office bomb. However, growing up in the mid-80’s, I do vividly recall HBO playing the crap out of this as well as making a big deal about it. This and a half naked Brooke Shields were my early memories of HBO (reinforced because Rex Smith looked very similar to the actor in Blue Lagoon). Anyway, back to this narrative, I tried watching it as a 10 year old on TV at the time but could not as ultimately I found it too silly. (I also found Blue Lagoon to be boring despite a half naked Brooke Shields).
Well, I watched again for the first time last month and again, I found it was still rather silly. But then again, wast G&S production isn’t? I was impressed this go around by both the music and the actors and found it to be an enjoyable movie.
The star of both the Broadway production and the movie, was undoubtedly Kevin Kline who played the Pirate King. This was one of his early roles but the Tony he won for Best Actor in a Musical was his second. As he would later win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in A Fish Called Wanda, he is only short an Emmy and a Grammy to complete the EGOT. Also, Kline did what Judge Reinhold could not, land Pheobe Cates. The pair has been married since 1989. But back to something relevant, Kline’s performance shows a strong comedic timing and great vocal performance.
When the movie played on HBO, the station made a big deal over the performance of Linda Ronstadt, who at the time was a major singing star. Given her penchant for collaborating with many different styles of artists. Ronstadt, who played the female lead of Mabel, was nominated for a Tony for her role and generally gave a great performance in the production from at least what I have heard.
The only role that really changed radically thru the Papp productions was that of Little Ruth. Ruth was played by Patricia Routledge in the Shakespeare in the Park version. She was later played by Sweeney Todd murderess/ Murder She Wrote sleuth Angela Lansbury in the movie version. However, for the Broadway run, the role went to Estelle Parsons.
After seeing performances from all of the above (well more like hearing), my favorite tends to lean towards Parsons, although both Lansbury and Routledge gave fine performances. It does prove however, the G&S were able to do something that Hollywood can not do today: provide great roles for older actresses.
The most popular song in the production as well as perhaps the most popular song in all of G&S’s catalog is the “Modern Major General”song. It has been widely covered, parodied, lampooned, and praised as it showcases the rapid fire patter execution that is the work of the duo. For the Papp production, the role of the Major General was played by George Rose.
Of course the main plot device centers around the main protagonist, Young Frederick who finds that he is still a slave to duty to the pirates as he was born on the last day of February in a leap year and thus, going by birthdays as per his agreement, is 5 years old and not 21 as he believed. There was a teacher at my middle school who had the same affliction (although not contractually bound to pirates or such). She used to tell students that she was 8 years old. Honestly even at my age back then, I found it annoying. It should also be noted that the role of Frederick, who is the central character was played by Rex Smith, who did an excellent job. He was also the first actor to portray Marvel Comic book hero, Daredevil and I am speculating he was neither the best or the worst at it.
Also of note, the music to the song “With Cat Like Tread” was used for the American song, “Hail, Hail The Gangs All Here” in 1917. It was subsequently borrowed by Glasgow Celtic fans for their cheers. The original melody by Sullivan was meant to parody Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”.
The Papp production also added two songs from other G&S works; “Sorry Her Lot” from Pinafore, and “My Eyes Are Fully Open” from Ruddigore. It is the latter that has become one of my favorites as it again highlights the rapid fire delivery as well as the vocal interplay that G&S made famous. The lyrics have been slightly modified to fit the subject of Pirates, but in general, the verse that was suited for Mad Margaret seems a bit strange for Ruth. However, you fans of meta-reference should note that Ruth mentions that this is from Ruddigore. And yes, that is Vincent Price in the video below.
In general, I find plot and story wise, that the endings of G&S work are quite silly and Pirates does not detour much from this route. To find that suddenly, the pirates are all actually noblemen and thus resolved seems kind of weak. Plus I am not sure how stopping pirates by reverence to the Queen would play for a US audience. Music-wise, however, I have the opposite opinion as I feel G&S finales really wrap up the production. This finale references the big numbers including “General” and “Poor Wandering One”. It should be noted that for Papp’s version, he restored the original G&S ending as well as returned the “General’s Song” to the finale.
Top rated album for sure. Really good job by all involved. Man, this post turned into more of a book. Expect short posts the rest of this week.