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Ten Facts about The Pirates of Penzance

Laurie Birmingham (left) as Ruth and Glenn Seven Allen as Frederick in the Festival’s 2001 production of The Pirates of Penzance.

Laurie Birmingham (left) as Ruth and Glenn Seven Allen as Frederick in the Festival’s 2001 production of The Pirates of Penzance.

By Parker Bowring

Witty, comedic, and heartfelt, the Pirates of Penzance is a play the whole family will love. With larger-than-life characters and a plot rife with laughter, warmth, and sparkling music, this play has so much to offer adults and children alike.

“Nothing is what it appears to be,” said director Cassie Abate. “The rough pirates are sentimental. The brave policemen are scaredy cats.  The major general has very limited military knowledge.”

In fact, the play, and the story of its creation, are full of fun and surprising facts. Here are just ten:

  1. Part of the inspiration for the The Pirates of Penzance was the literal piracy of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work—most notably H.M.S. Pinafore which saw unlicensed (pirated) versions performed throughout the United States.

  2. To avoid this problem of unlicensed American productions, The Pirates of Penzance played in England for one performance, then opened in New York City the next night, thus securing both British and American copyrights.

  3. When the play had its actual run in England, it played for almost a year, after 363 performances.

  4. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote fourteen operettas. The Pirates of Penzance is their fifth.

  5. Gilbert and Sullivan were known for creating topsy turvy worlds where characters behave logically in completely illogical circumstances.

  6. The Song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” is Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous patter song and has been parodied or pastiched in books, movies, television shows, songs, and musicals.

  7. In The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan poked fun at another of their plays, H.M.S. Pinafore. In the second verse of “A Modern Major-General.” Major-General Stanley sang: “I can . . . whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

  8. The playwrights also spoofed operatic conventions, particularly one employed by many serious operas of the time that called for different characters to sing onstage at the same time yet remain oblivious to each other’s presence. The trick is especially humorous in Act 2, when the pirate-hunting policemen fail to notice those pirates who have just stalked onstage singing “With Cat-Like Tread.”

  9. Another opera insiders’ joke occurs in Mabel’s entrance aria, in which she and a single flute engage in a highly ornamented duet that would have brought to many opera lovers’ minds the similar interchange in the mad scene of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

  10. In the opening number the pirates pass around a “pirate bumper” which is a cup filled to the brim.


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