The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty was first performed at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on December 31, 1879. It was the only Gilbert & Sullivan operetta to have its world premiere in the United States and it has remained popular both here and throughout the English speaking world ever since. Gilbert’s wit (always incisive but never vicious or dated) and Sullivan’s memorable score (including the original tune from which “Hail, hail the gang’s all here” is drawn) are among the most valuable treasures of musical theater history.
Patter songs are a Gilbert & Sullivan trademark and Pirates features the most famous of them all, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” This jaunty tune has been cleverly set to different words countless times (Tom Lehrer’s element song a notable example) and used in commercials to sell every-thing from Campbells soup to Handi-wipes, cars, newspapers and other items. Pirates also contains some of Gilbert’s most famous lyrics such as the often used quotation “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one” from the act two lament of the diffident “men in blue.” Other highlights of the show include “For I am a Pirate King”, the pirates’ “Here’s a first rate opportunity”, the policemen’s “When the foeman bears his steel” and Mabel’s show stopping coloratura aria “Poor wand’ring one”.
The plot of Pirates centers on the dilemma of young Frederic who, as a child, was mistakenly apprenticed to the pirates until his twenty first birthday. Since he was born in leap year on February 29, he is honor bound to remain a pirate until the distant date of 1940, despite his moral objection to piracy. Helping Frederic to deal with this unusual predicament are the brash Pirate King, Ruth – the pirate maid-of-all-work, romantic Mabel, and the delightfully stuffy Major-General Stanley.