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penzance

Pirates of Penzance: The Very Model of a Modern Major Musical

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penzance

Drawing of the final of Act I of The Pirates of Penzance from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1880.

Tomorrow evening the “curtain” will rise at ATO for this year’s fall musical, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of PenzancePirates tells the story of Frederic, a duty-bound young man who has been apprenticed to the Tarantula and the band of pirates who sail her. This crew of scalawags isn’t quite what you would expect out of marine marauders, however; as orphans themselves, they are conscience-bound to release any orphans they capture. (A noble plan, to be sure — but word gets out and their fortunes take a downward turn as they encounter ship after ship of “orphans.”) With Frederic’s twenty-first birthday comes his first breath of freedom; his contract expires and he is given an opportunity to see the real world. Having sailed the seas for his entire life up to this point, Frederic has only ever set eyes on his former nursemaid Ruth (now the “maid of all work” aboard the Tarantula), and thus believes her to be the most beautiful woman on earth. The rest of the crew, however, knows better — and convinces him to take her along as he begins his new life. Frederic bids a fond adieu to his former crewmates, but alerts them to the fact that, as one who is driven by duty, he will now make it his life’s goal to see these piratical vermin exterminated.

Ashore, Frederic professes his love for Ruth, and she finally reveals her long-held secret: she made a mistake. Frederic’s parents intended him to be apprenticed to a pilot (a naval captain), but Ruth’s deafness caused her to mistake the command and to seek out a band of pirates. Realizing her error, she couldn’t show her face to Frederic’s parents, and so instead stayed on board the Tarantula. At that point, Frederic and Ruth are overtaken by a group of young women enjoying the beach on a sunny day. At his first glance of these beautiful ladies, Frederic realizes that he has been sorely misguided in his love for Ruth, and banishes her from his sight. Frederic reveals his presence to the young women and asks them to help him reform his ways; only one, Mabel, volunteers her services. Not surprisingly, she and Frederic quickly fall in love. Frederic warns the girls of the nearby pirates, but the crew returns and captures the young girls, intending to marry them. The girls’ father (Major General Stanley) arrives, and knowing the pirates’ reputation, claims to be an orphan in order to reclaim his daughters. The ruse works, but his conscience starts to plague him. He and his daughters gather at a ruined chapel on their estate to pray, and are met by the Sergeant of Police and his corps, who intend to arrest the crew of the Tarantula. They go to seek out the pirates, and Frederic, who is left behind, is met by the Pirate King and Ruth, who come with startling news: the contract for Frederic’s apprenticeship states that he would be indentured to the pirates until his twenty-first birthday. The only problem, however, is that Frederic was born on February 29th. Thus, his 21st birthday, and the end of his indentured servitude, is now over 60 years away… and only time will tell how these knots will get untangled. (Come to ATO this weekend to see how.)

Pirates of Penzance made its debut on New Year’s Eve in 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York City to overwhelming popular and critical acclaim. Three months later marked its London premier. This was the fifth collaboration between Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert; still riding on the commercial and critical success of their comic opera HMS Pinafore (which opened the year previous), they decided to continue the pattern of poking fun both at the British Navy and the conventions of “grand opera.” For Pirates, they expanded and revised elements of Gilbert’s one-act play Our Island Home, which also included a duty-bound pirate mistakenly apprenticed. Most notable within this work, however, is the role of Major General Stanley; easily the most famous (and parodied) of the songs within the operetta is his self-introduction, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” (It’s been “borrowed” everywhere from GEICO commercials to Veggie Tales.) On the whole, Pirates is largely considered to be Gilbert and Sullivan’s best work; it’s easily their most popular, and is still regularly performed by professional and amateur theatrical companies alike.

If what you see this weekend piques your interest, or if you can’t make it out to the show, check out the Rolfing holdings on Pirates of Penzance

See you at the show!

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