GILBERT WOULD HAVE loved it.
Sullivan? Well that's not so clear.
What Joe Papp has done to "The Pirates of Penzance" should happen to, say, "Patience" or "Gondeliers" or "Yeoman of the Guard" or "Iolanthe." Even "Princess Ida," Gilbert's sexist-beyond-belief bow to Tennyson. (Even as one Papp company heads for London, another opens here at the National on Thursday.)
I mean I'm a G&S purist. And if the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in its final years was apt to perform costumed concert performances, that was pretty much okay by me.
I didn't know what I was missing until I saw "The Pirates" a la Papp.
Nothing, not a single thing that Joe Papp has done is inimical to the intent of William Schwenck Gilbert. The Papply staged characters veritably leap into the very positions sketched by Gilbert himself in his stage directions. (In the last D'Oyly Carte version of "The Pirates" I saw, I don't remember anybody leaping into anything.)
Even the transposition of two non-Piratical songs--one from "Pinafore" and another from "Ruddigore"--is not without precedent. The entrance of General Stanley's daughters, "Climbing Over Rocky Mountains," was lifted by G&S themselves from their earlier and, excepting that number, not especially memorable work, "Thespis."
Piracy was the main reason Gilbert, Sir Arthur Sullivan and Richard D'Oyly Carte decided to hold the actual premiere of "The Pirates of Penzance" in New York on New Year's Eve, 1879. It was the musical piracy that saw bastard companies of the London Gilbert & Sullivan hits proliferating in New York and other points U.S. with no royalties accruing to the authors or producers. At that time there was no mutual copyright arrangement between this country and Britain.
Security around the production of "Pirates" was so tight that the company even gave out the rumor that it was to be called "The Robbers," and was about a band of thieves who fell in love with the daughters of a house they were robbing. Close but no cigar. To protect their English copyright, one performance of "The Pirates" (with incomplete score and libretto) was performed in Devon the night before the New York opening.
The bastardization of G&S hits had been especially flagrant with "H.M.S. Pinafore" which, by 1879, was reportedly playing in assorted incarnations--none of them the real thing--at eight different theaters in New York, all at the same time. There were another four in Washington.
A letter from Sullivan, quoted in Christopher Hibbert's "Gilbert & Sullivan and Their Victorian World," to an American friend says this:
"It is very good of you to send me so many interesting scraps about the Pinafore in America. I am gratified beyond measure at its success there, but there is one matter of great regret to me. Not the money question, although I don't pretend for an instant that I should not prefer to be paid for my work. No, my regret is that my music is not performed as I wrote it."
It is that letter that suggests to me that Sullivan might not have been too pleased with what Joe Papp hath wrought.
It's those tubas.
Those oompah, oompah tubas, or perhaps bassoons? And the piccolos and some other clanky, clunky instruments I'm sure Sir Arthur would never have admitted to, much less suffered--poor Sir Arthur, composer of Grand (but awful) Opera whose musical pretensions played perfect straight-note to Gilbert's irreverent satire.
The oompahs are the Joe Papp touch.
Sir Arthur might have flinched.
Sir William would have snickered.
Me? I love it.