I doubt that one can find an adult in the English
speaking world that has never encountered the works of Gilbert
& Sullivan in some form. Their comic operettas have so infiltrated
the Western world that they are still performed, referenced,
and lampooned in theatres and on television daily. Gilbert’s
words are part of the international lexicon. His characters
are archetypes; in daily conversation, it is possible to find
Poor Little Buttercups, Modern Major Generals, Pirate Kings
and Three Little Maids from School. Likewise, Sullivan’s melodies
are commonly enough encountered that many would consider them
simply “traditional”. The irony is that most of those people
could not even make an educated guess as to the famous pairing’s
first names. Even more ironically, the two men never considered
their work with the other as their best or most important. They
both considered themselves serious artists, and these musical
theatre productions were in their eyes lesser works. However,
today their names are indelibly linked and their comic works
epitomize the genre.
As he has done for many other artists and operas,
Thomson Smillie now sets out to present a solid grounding in
the lives and works of Gilbert and Sullivan. He tells the story
of the two men as well as of Richard D’Oyly Carte and the other
men who were able to bring them together. Or more accurately
perhaps, the men that were able to keep them together amid all
their differences. After all, they were never close friends
and were from vastly differing backgrounds. They never mixed
socially and had fundamentally different personalities. The
most remarkable thing is that they were able to work together
at all despite their quarrels and differences. That they were
collaborators for more than fifteen years is nothing short of
amazing. As the script makes very clear, neither man needed
the other to be a success. Gilbert was the greatest name in
theatre for the Victorian age, and Sullivan was considered the
greatest English composer since Purcell. However, both men seemed
to drive the other to greatness by working as master and master.
Their combination never required either man to subjugate his
work to the other.
Each of their collaborations is given attention,
including their first, Thespis from 1871; now largely
lost. Trial by Jury, a very early one-act comic operetta
is given extensive time as the primogenitor of the Gilbert and
Sullivan repertory. The Sorcerer, Patience, and Princess
Ida are all briefly discussed and excerpted as well, though
obviously a great deal more attention is given to H.M.S.
Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, the Mikado, Ruddigore,
and The Gondoliers.
The biography, both in audio and in the supplemental
booklet, is engaging and often fascinating. It does a very good
job of explaining the circumstances surrounding the creation
of each work and adroitly highlights Sullivan’s musical innovations
(such as the double chorus) as well as many of Gilbert’s more
memorable or notable linguistic devices. It enlightens the modern
listener in many ways, explaining some of the more dated topical
references in Gilbert’s language and showing how Sullivan would
expose the target of Gilbert’s words through musical cues or
The vocal performances are all vintage recordings
from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Also presented are excerpts
from two of the overtures composed entirely by Sullivan and
performed by the New Promenade Orchestra and Isidore Godfrey.
Considering the esteem of Godfrey in Gilbert and Sullivan’s
works and the special standing of the D’Oyly Carte company this
allows for a certain assuredness that the performances are good.
However, when compared side-by-side with the voice-over the
lack of high fidelity sound is difficult to overlook. It feels
backward that the speaking voice is so pleasantly vibrant where
the singing voices are obviously dated. They are still skillfully
utilized as didactic tools, but it would be nice if some of
the recordings were updated.
The packaging does a better job of complementing
the audio-biography. It covers some of the same material on
the recording, but supplements the story by discussing the life
of the musicals after the death of the creators. Also, it notes
the similarities between the D’Oyly Carte Company traditions
and the Wagner legacy. There are parallels drawn between Bayreuth
and the Savoy theatre, as well as the impassioned responses
of their fan-bases to any innovation or alterations to the original
performances. Generally speaking, this is an excellent primer
for this collection of great works.
There are two obvious audiences for this history-on-disc.
The most energetic of the G&S fans would enjoy owning this
as a vehicle for introducing others to their love. These people
may also appreciate the short history, and could find some new
trivia to appreciate. The other group is the novice or student
that has never (well hardly ever) seen a Gilbert and Sullivan
musical, but wants instantly to have a smattering of information
at their fingertips in accessible form. For this latter group,
a better resource could hardly be imagined. Smillie is incredibly
knowledgeable, and quite good at making that learning readily
obtainable. As this type of understanding is the first step
in winning new fans, one can only hope that Smillie continues
to produce this series.