The bluffer’s guide to Gilbert & Sullivan

The Mikado

They’re commonly regarded as one of the greatest musical duos of all time – but if your knowledge of Gilbert & Sullivan is limited to being able to hum a few bars from Pirates Of Penzance, don’t worry! Here’s everything that you’ll need to know if you’re to seem like a G&S expert. A ‘G&Spert’, maybe?


W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan collaborated on 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1896. Sullivan composed the tunes, while Gilbert provided the words – although both men famously considered the other one to be the weak link holding him back.

The duo’s work had an enduring impact on the Victorian world around them, and a number of Gilbert’s turns of phrase are still in common use today. They include ‘short, sharp shock’ and ‘let the punishment fit the crime.’ Their work influenced the likes of Noel Coward and Irving Berlin, and they can lay claim to being forefathers of modern musical theatre.

Their operas often satirise the establishment. Keep an eye out, and you’ll notice that many of their powerful characters, from generals to dukes, haven’t the faintest idea what they’re doing!

They were the subject of a 1999 movie directed by Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Mr Turner). Starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, it tells the true story of a major falling-out between the pair. Sullivan, wanting to do something more realistic, is decidedly unimpressed with Gilbert’s suggestion that he write the music for something called ‘The Magic Lozenge.’ The pair eventually settle on The Mikado – which will turn out to be one of their greatest successes.


The Mikado

The first of three shows that the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company will perform here at the Theatre Royal in September, The Mikado waswritten at a time when English trade with Japan was on the increase, and Japanese culture would have been a real source of fascination for their audience.

Like many of the duo’s operas, The Mikado satirises authority; setting it in a far-off land allowed them to be much more direct in their mockery than if they’d gone after the British government directly.

It’s the story of Ko-Ko, the newly-appointed Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu. When news arrives that the Emperor of Japan (The Mikado) is coming, Ko-Ko assumes that this can only be to ascertain whether he’s executing enough people, and he has to come up with an elaborate plot to keep hold of his job – without actually executing anyone…

You might know The Mikado from the unavoidably catchy earworm ‘Three Little Maids.’ It’s bound to be stuck in your head for weeks after the show!


Pirates Of Penzance

When Frederic is apprenticed to a good-hearted band of pirates, he’s expected to stay until his 21st birthday. Unfortunately, as it turns out, he was born on a leap year – meaning that he’s indentured until the age of 63.

This might be Frederic’s story, but the opera is probably best known for introducing us to the Major-General. His ‘patter song’ (a type of song characterised by the fast tempo, tongue-twisting lyrics and quick jokes) is one of the duo’s most famous tunes – good luck trying to keep up…

That particular song is referenced all the time. Recently, Lin Manuel Miranda, in his 2015 Broadway hit Hamilton, has George Washington refer to himself as ‘the model of a modern major general’ (although he rhymes it with “men are all” and “pedestal”).


HMS Pinafore

Another nautically-themed operetta, HMS Pinafore was the duo’s first international hit, with hundreds of unauthorised productions quickly springing up across America.

When the Captain’s daughter falls in love with a lower-class sailor, the pair make plans to elope together – but as in so many G&S musicals, nothing turns out in quite the way they expect it to!

The show was revolutionary in its day; directed by Gilbert himself, he insisted that the actors follow their stage directions exactly (apparently, something of a rarity for the time), as well as refusing to acknowledge the inherent absurdity of the characters they were playing. Instead of playing it up for the audiences, they were expected to play characters who didn’t realise how ridiculous these situations were.


So there you have it – enough G&S facts to bluff your way through the next time they pop up in conversation.

And if that’s got you wanting more, The National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company perform all three of these shows here from 14-16 September. Click here to buy tickets from Norwich Theatre Royal.


While they’re here, the singers will also be performing a very special dementia-friendly concert. It’s perfect for people with dementia and their carers: it features much-loved G&S classics, as well as some music-hall ditties for you to sign along to. To find out more, head to the website and click on ‘Accessibility’.