Readers here know that web lists of “bests” and “greatests” regularly drive me crazy, as they are almost invariably clickbait assembled according to no real standards, usually by self-appointed mavens who don’t know what they are talking about. But what drives me even more crazy are such lists created by actual authorities, whose assessments are taken to be gospel by readers who don’t know what they are talking about.
On March 1, I will be heading a 90 minute program for D.C.’s venerable Cosmos Club, whose members over the past 144 years have included men and (only relatively recently) women distinguished in science, literature, politics, scholarship and the arts. The title is “The Enduring Magic of Gilbert and Sullivan, and 12 numbers from eleven of the operettas will be performed with my narration and commentary. This is, I believe, my 14th such production over the years, but I may be missing a few. The works of Gilbert and Sullivan have had a greater influence on the path of my life and careers than even my obsession with the Presidents of the United States and the Boston Red Sox. I’ve been enjoying them, watching them, studying them, performing in them, directing them, producing them, forming organizations dedicated to them and writing parodies of them since I was ten-years-old.
(That’s the cast of Georgetown Law Center’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s 1977 production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” above, which I directed. And that’s me, in the center, as Sir. Joseph Porter, KCB.)
In preparation for the presentation at the Cosmos Club, I decided to see how the old Victorian pair’s masterpieces were doing during The Great Stupid, as they have been subject to the predictable attacks that the shows are dated, sexist, racist, etc. (They aren’t any of these things.) In the process, I stumbled upon a post by Daniel Jaffé, a BBC music critic and classical music expert from a year ago titled, “The Top 10 Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas, Ranked And Rated.”
The piece turned out to be fascinating mess of many ethics problems such as,
- Abuse of authority
- Bias making one stupid
- Double standards or the absence of standards
- Misapplied expertise.
Jaffe presumes to be qualified to rank and rate the operettas, but he never explains his standards or criteria. Reading his brief commentaries, it is clear that his perspective is primarily the music, which means he’s not adequately considering the whole of the operettas. This isn’t surprising for a classical music critic, but surprising or not, it’s not how the works should be examined. Even Sullivan, the composer, agreed that the words and plot came first, and his music was subordinate to Gilbert’s satire and wit. This was a continuing source of tension between the two, but it was also one of the reasons the shows worked, and work, so well.
Gilbert insisted that the shows be performed by comic actors who could sing, not trained singers attempting to act, who are the bane of most professional opera production. Indeed, one of the many factors that has put Gilbert and Sullivan in a period of decline is their frequent productions as operas. In such productions the roles are over-sung and the words are neglected. Judging the show by opera standards, which Jaffe, as an opera critic, is bound to do, almost guarantees poor analysis.
If Jaffe simply called his list “My Top Ten Favorite Gilbert and Sullivan Operattas,” I would have no complaint. In fact, his #1 and #2, “Patience” and “Ruddigore,” would be #3 and #1 on my favorites list, but neither is among the three best or “greatest” ranked by reasonable objective standards.
The objective standards I apply include,
- The strength of the libretto.
- The amount of comedy and satire in the libretto.
- Memorable lines, especially lines that have become catch phrases, like “Let the punishment fit the crime” or “What never? Well, hardly ever…”
- Memorable, well-developed characters.
- Continuing relevance of the satire and social commentary
- Ability to excite an audience.
- Enduring popularity.
- Cultural and historical significance.
- Presence of trademark G&S features, like a memorable patter song, epic first act finales, trick plot resolutions, and exuberant second act encore numbers.
- Sill famous songs
- Sullivan’s music
- The show’s ability to succeed despite poor production values and mediocre direction
- The overture.
- Use of the chorus as a dynamic character.
It is clear that Jaffe considered very few of these categories. Here’s a tell: on Jaffe’s list, “The Sorcerer,” the team’s first full-length operetta (not counting “Thespis,” for which the score has been lost). is rated #7. In my lectures, I tell the audience that “The Sorceror” isn’t even a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but has the same relationship to the subsequent shows that Eohippus has to horses. Gilbert hadn’t figured out the genre yet: “The Sorceror” is mostly a slightly livelier clone of the other operettas of the time. It’s not very funny; there are no rousing numbers, and it’s boring—except, perhaps, to classical music critics. “Highlights include the… splendidly silly chorus in anticipation of a feast of “The eggs and the ham, and the strawberry jam! The rollicking bun, and the gay Sally Lunn!” Wow, my sides ached from laughing at those lyrics. (Quick: what’s a ‘Sally Lunn”?)
Worse, Jaffe ranks this bomb ahead of three wonderful shows: “Iolanthe,” “Trial by Jury,” and “Yeomen of the Guard.” Not only is “The Sorcerer” by any reasonable standards well below these, it is far, far below two of the operettas that didn’t make Jaffe’s list at all: “Princess Ida,” and “Utopia, Ltd.”
I know too many Gilbert and Sullivan fanatics than is good for me, and not one of them is fond of “The Sorceror.” Again: if Jaffe likes the show, swell. But he’s using his position and presumed expertise to represent as an objective expert opinion what is in reality an eccentric judgment by someone with a narrow perspective. I produced “The Sorceror,” and it was a strong production. It was tepidly received. “Trial by Jury,’ on the same program, saved the evening.
I could deconstruct each of his rankings, but that would be as boring for non-Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados as “The Sorceror.” I’ll just end with my list, applying the standards above, of the top 12 Gilbert and Sullivan shows, followed by my favorites, in order.
1. The Mikado.
2. The Pirates of Penzance
3. H.M.S. Pinafore
5. Trial By Jury
7. Yeomen of the Guard
9. The Gondoliers
10. Princess Ida.
11. Utopia, Ltd.
12. The Sorceror
4. The Pirates of Penzance
5. The Mikado
6. (tie) H.M.S. Pinafore; Yeomen of the Guard; Trial By Jury
9. (tie) Princess Ida; The Gondoliers
11. Utopia, Ltd.
12. The Sorceror
9 thoughts on “Critic Ethics: “The Top 10 Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas, Ranked And Rated””
First, as relative musical ignoramus, what exactly qualifies a musical as an opera? Should there be no mere talking at all, or can there be a certain amount? Or are there other factors besides amount of singing?
Second, what are your reasons behind your favorites ranking? Just curious.
An opera is sung through: no dialogue at all, but often dance and orchestral interludes. “Les Miz” and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals are essentially opera-lite. An operetta has dialogue and dramatic scenes between songs.
Sure: “Ruddigore,” done right, is a funny show with lots of terrific numbers. It’s a parody of melodrama, about curses, madness and ghosts; lots of terrific characters, and the dumbest heroine ever. At one point a portrait gallery comes to life, with all the portraits walking out of their frames. The two best professional G&S productions I ever saw (other than my own) were of “Ruddigore.”
“Iolanthe” was the first of the shows I saw. Later I saw John Lithgow (as a student) kill the lead comic role as the Lord Chancellor. Its full of political and legal satire, has real drama, the best female chorus (a buch of tough fairies; the best female character of them all, the Queen of the Fairies, the best patter song (The Nightmare Song), the best encore trio (which should bring down the house) and by far the best Act I finale. It was my best production at Georgetown, and I played the Lord Chancellor after Lithgow at Harvard. I think if it were given the “Pirates” treatment and a few tweaks, it could be a Broadway hit.
Patience was my first directing job. I had the best cast I ever had, and the audience went bonkers like I’ve never seen since. It’s probably Gilbert’s funniest show, at least according to my warped sense of humor. I know how that one works. When I applied to direct it, I said, “I don’t know about any other show, but I know how to make this one work, and most directors don’t. I guarantee it will be a roaring success. I know this show.” And I was right!
When I was a very young aspiring musician I was taught that it broke down into three categories:
Grand opera: serious plot, everything is sung.
Light opera: not necessarily a serious plot, maybe even a funny plot, not necessarily everything sung.
Operetta: sometimes not much of a plot at all and definitely not everything song.
Gilbert and Sullivan is definitely operetta. Some of the operettas have the thinnest of plots and are more vehicles for the songs than anything else, and there is much dialogue in between. The only one of the shows that is at all what I describe as serious is “Yeomen of the Guard,’ which also has some of Sullivan’s best music. It’s also the only one that does not have a happy ending (Fairfax marries Elsie, but two other characters are forced into marriages they do not want and Jack Point falls over dead).
Mikado is considered the pinnacle of the group, but the plot is cartoonish and at this point the satire of Japanese culture is considered politically incorrect. You and I may be okay with it, but donors might not be and a production would become a magnet for nasty criticism. Patience and Iolanthe have some great music, but a lot of the humor is lost on a modern audience, who are unlikely to be versed in either the aesthetic movement which was parodied in Patience or the Wagnerian parody that is the underlying theme of Iolanthe. I agree with you that the sorcerer is probably the thinnest plot of them all. It was probably also the reason that Sullivan refused to set Gilbert’s persistent “magic lozenge” plot. If you don’t “just go with it,” the plot and ending might seem unfair, since John Wellington Wells, the eponymous sorcerer, is condemned to hell, when all he did was perform agreed upon services to assist Alexis, the romantic young tenor character.
You have to be willing to accept Gilbert’s cartoonish world of satire that is often unfair and sometimes cruel to really enjoy a lot of the shows without asking questions. You also have to enjoy the somewhat formulaic musical structure : i.e. here’s the ballad, here’s the patter song, here’s the madrigal, etc. Even Gilbert and Sullivan themselves realized that they were being formulaic to the point where they sort of self-parody in their final collaboration, The Grand Duke, which is almost never produced anymore.
Frankly, Gilbert had issues, in my opinion. He probably could have benefited from a few therapy sessions. Among other things, he hated his mother, which is probably why almost every show contains, as one comedian put it, “the great fat contralto with a voice like a foghorn”who is typically an old, ugly, and unhappy spinster, who someone is often forced into an unhappy marriage with because no one would have her otherwise.
It is also worth noting that Gilbert collaborated with a few other composers, but none of those shows, like “Haddon Hall,” are at all remembered now. Likewise Sullivan composed music for other purposes including the oratorio “The Martyr of Antioch” and a full-on operatic treatment of Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” but, apart from the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the Victorian ballad “The Lost Chord,” nothing of his other output is at all well known. Like it or not, while not exactly a “one hit wonder” these two artists would have been nowhere and would still be nowhere without one another.
A couple of points:
1. The Mikado is entirely a parody of British culture and politics, using Japanese tropes for cover. All Gilbertian plots are silly, by design. The formula for the humor is people behaving completely logically in reaction to illogical conditions: it’s Bizarro World.
2. Gilbert’s worlds are parallel universes, and thus timeless. The Peers in Iolanthe are pompous, dumb, rich entitled fools—the actual House of Lords, or any knowledge about them, is neither necessary for the humor to land nor mostly relevant. Nor do you have to understand the crazy Aesthetic fad for “Patience” to be funny: Gilbert’s jokes about celebrity and how men and women go to stupid lengths to appeal to the other are as spot on now as in the 19th Century.
3. Most of your criticism I would trace to bad productions. Most G&S productions are terrible—the music saves those productions. Sullivan was one of a handful of gifted melody masters: Grieg, Victor Herbert, Rossini, Rodgers, McCartney, a few others. Oh: Sullivan’s “Cox and Box” is still done, and still funny: I’ve directed it and played Mr. Cox. It’s a very Gilbertian plot, but Burnand wrote the libretto.
4. Sure it’s a formula, but one with many variations. Trust me: The Grand Duke isn’t a parody. It’s two estranged partners trying to squeeze out one last hit after they no longer were communicating and had lost their edge. It’s embarrassingly bad. Utopia was a self-referential spoof to some extent, and it should have ended the series.
5. I’d argue that the Sorcerer has an unhappy ending: the most interesting character in the operetta, John Wellington Wells, sacrifices his life to fix the problem he caused. Yeoman has a schizo ending: the lovers are happily united and while the crowd is celebrating, the poor jester drops dead of a broken heart, or, in Mrtyn Green’s innovation, a heart attack. Again, done right, it’s stunning.
6. At some level both Gilbert and Sullivan recognized that they were just good, not great, without the other. It made both resentful. But they knew it. (Lennon and McCartney!)
7. Gilbert’s contralto battleaxes were more varied than conventional wisdom gives them credit for. It was a comic type before Gilbert, and extended into the US and Hollywood: Margaret Dumont, Marie Dressler, Bea Arthur and Melissa McCarthy represent the same type. Gilbert may have had mother issues, but he was a devoted, loving husband; Sullivan, a life-time bachelor who loved bordellos, was the real misogynist.
8. The biggest blow to the genre was the demise of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed the shows with Gilbert’s original staging mostly intact right up until it folded 40 years ago. The shows were essential reference points, even though they all benefit from new concepts and visions. Gilbert was an innovator: today he’s be using lasers in Iolanthe. Donald Adams, the company’s bass-baritone lead for decades, wrote me a letter after seeing my “Pirates,” and said, “That’s exactly the kind of fresh staging I tried to get them to do at D’Oyly Carte!”
I don’t remember having time to attend a play during law school, never mind produce, direct and act in one. Do you ever sleep, Marshallsan?
1. Not lately.
2. It’s amazing how much random stuff you can do if you’re incapable of committing to a single area or goal and cursed to be a life-long dilettante.
His assessment reminds me of many theatre critics’ assessment of Shakespeare’s early plays about Henry VI: He only looks at one aspect of the play, and not at the play as a whole. Henry VI Parts 1-3, lacks much of the verbal style that characterize Shakespeare’s later works, so the critics write the plays off as second-rate, but when they are actually produced, they are actually interesting plays to watch. If Shakespeare’s later work was John Wayne’s The Searchers, then the Henry VI plays could be compared to The Sons of Katie Elder: It’s not so deep, and many aspects don’t quite compare, but it’s still well worth watching. The literary critics don’t see past the words on the page, so they don’t see how the whole thing fits together to make a decent action yarn.
You get large amounts of bonus points for the Shakespeare-Duke analogy.
Ranking “The Sorcerer” over “Iolanthe” and “Yeomen of the Guard” is like ranking “Timon of Athens” over “The Tempest” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
Or “Rooster Cogburn” over “Rio Bravo” and “Red River”…