Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Pirates of Penzance: Musical

The famous Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, is put on for the second time in the history of the Camarata Music Company (CMC) since its opening in 2010. The CMC now has over 900 members, including performers, musicians, behind the scene workers and supporters. The choir and music groups within the CMC organization provide musicals, concerts and volunteer for the disabled, at hospitals, nursing facilities, and more, with the dedication to providing high-quality musical outlets and camaraderie for all involved. (For more on their performances and volunteering, check out the website at

The term "Camarata" comes from two meanings: First, from the "Florentine Camerata", a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals in Renaissance Florence, Italy. Important members included Giulio Caccini, Vincenzo Galilei, Count Giovanni de Bardi, Pietro Strozzi, and Ottavio Rinuccini. Second, Camarata comes from the word "camaraderie" meaning 'togetherness'. It is with this concept that they perform and label themselves as an international group, with members from 62 countries.


The Pirates of Penzance hardly needs an introduction. Long before Joe Papp's Broadway production and major motion picture added renewed popularity, this engaging operetta had established itself as one of the best loved pieces of musical theater in the English speaking world.

The Pirates of Penzance was the only Gilbert & Sullivan opus to receive its premiere in the US. In a vain attempt to secure an international copyright for their work, the celebrated team brought their fifth collaboration to the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York, clearly establishing the American appreciation for this uniquely British art form.

The history of Pirates is notable for several other reasons as well. On the voyage across the ocean, Sullivan misplaced his musical score and had to recreate all of the music from memory. His composition for the women's entrance eluded him, so he substituted a similar chorus from the never published score of Thespis. As a result, "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" is the only authentic chorus in existence from that lost score. With the rousing ensemble number "When the Foeman Bares His Steel", Sullivan perfected the double chorus technique which was to become one of his hallmarks. Two distinct choral themes are introduced separately and then overlapped for a dramatic musical climax. Gilbert also brought to the foreground for the first time his frequent lampooning of the British Aristocracy, with direct references to Queen Victoria and the Peerage. Then of course "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" raised the art of the patter song to an all-time high. This song has been parodied in numerous product commercials (Campbell's Soup, Handiwipes, and The New York Times, among others), has been frequently used as an elocution exercise for speech students, and was once employed by comedian Tom Lehrer to set a list of all the elements from the periodic table!

The score for Pirates is as effervescent as its characters. Sullivan's reference to grand opera (and Verdi in particular) is everywhere, most notably in Mabel's aria "Poor Wand'ring One", which is a direct parody of Violetta's "Sempre Libera" from La Traviata -- in the same key and with the identical cadenza. Yet another layer of imitation enters the picture when Sullivan's take on the Anvil Chorus in Il Trovatore, "Come Friends Who Plough the Sea", later becomes the tune for the popular camp song "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here". These examples refer to well-known moments; however, in many other Gilbert & Sullivan settings the parody remains more memorable than its original source!


When Frederic was still a little boy, his nurse (Ruth) was told to apprentice him to become a pilot. She heard the word incorrectly and apprenticed him to a band of pirates, remaining with them herself as a maid-of-all-work. Although Frederic loathed the trade to which he had thus been bound, he dutifully served. As the show begins, his indentures are up and he announces his intention to leave the band and devote himself to the extermination of piracy. He urges the pirates to join him in embracing a more lawful calling, but they refuse. Ruth, however, wishes to become his wife. Having seen but few women during his pirate life at sea, Frederic hesitates to accept a woman so much older than himself, but he finally consents to take her.

Just then a group of girls, all the wards of Major-General Stanley, happen upon the scene. Frederic sees their beauty -- and Ruth's plainness -- and renounces her. Of these girls, Mabel takes a particular interest in Frederic, and he in her. The other girls are seized by the pirates and threatened with immediate marriage. When the Major-General arrives, he can dissuade the pirates only through a ruse; he tells them that he is an orphan, and so works upon their sympathies so that they let him and his wards go free.

During the ensuing days and nights, however, this lie troubles the Major-General's conscience. He sits brooding over it at night in a ruined chapel. He is consoled by his wards' sympathy and Frederic's plan of immediately leading a band of police against the pirates. The police are reluctant, but Frederic is still enthusiastic.

Meanwhile, the Pirate King and Ruth seek out Frederic with surprising news. They have discovered that his indentures were to run until his twenty-first birthday, and, as he was born in Leap Year on February 29, he has really had as yet only five birthdays. Obeying the dictates of his strong sense of duty, he immediately rejoins the pirates and tells them of the deception that has been practiced upon them by Major-General Stanley. The Pirate King and Ruth storm off threatening revenge, and Frederic sadly bids Mabel farewell.

And from there, without spoiling the ending, you will need to watch this cleverly written play-on-word musical to discover the ending for yourself. Quite entertaining. Very witty. Remarkably colorful. But decidedly slapstick.

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