The Musicals of Gilbert & Sullivan:
The Canon & Auxiliary Works
Compiled by John Kenrick
Here in chronological order are the fourteen G&S works known affectionately as "The Canon," as well as two "Auxiliary Works" Sullivan created with other collaborators. (Although Gilbert wrote several shows with other composers, they have not been revived or recorded.)
A. Auxiliary Works
Sullivan wrote musicals with other collaborators, but only two of those works are still performed. Though the librettos are not as witty as Gilbert's best, they are still delightful.
1. Cox and Box
Premiere - 1869 - St. George's Hall, London
Two men tricked by their landlord into sharing a room discover they are also engaged to the same girl. With libretto by F. C. Burnand, this charmer was privately performed in 1866 and 1867, and received a public run two years later. In later years, it was staged and recorded by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.
2. The Zoo
Premiere - June 5, 1875 - St. James Theatre, London
Produced while Trial By Jury (see below) was still running, this curtain raiser told of two pairs of lovers who save their endangered relationships one afternoon beside the bear pit at The London Zoo. B.C. Stephenson wrote the libretto under the pen name "Bolton Rowe." Long forgotten, the score was rediscovered and recorded by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in the 1970s. The Light Opera of Manhattan staged a short New York run in the same decade.
B. The Canon
With these thirteen works, Gilbert and Sullivan brought the musical theater to new S of wit and sophistication.
Premiere: Dec. 26, 1871 at The Gaiety Theatre, London (63 performances)
The aging gods and goddesses of Olympus temporarily hand their powers over to a traveling troupe of actors. The cartoonish characters include such comic gods as "Preposteros" and "Stupidas." Thrown together in just five weeks, this ninety minute holiday production was a disappointment to the authors. Except for two melodies, the score is lost. Some scholars suggest the surviving libretto is only a preliminary draft a point now impossible to prove. Caught somewhere between Offenbach's mythological comic operettas and the burlesques then popular in Britain, Thespis gave only slight indication of what lay ahead.
2. Trial By Jury
Premiere: March 25, 1875 - Royalty Theatre, London (131 performances)
A giddy one act spoof of the British courtroom. A jilted bride-to-be sues her former fiancée for breach of contract, resulting in a hilarious trial where any ideals of romance are eclipsed by the realities of greed and lust. Intended by producer D'Oyly Carte as a curtain raiser for his London production of Offenbach's Perichole, Trial By Jury became a tremendous success in its own right. D'Oyly Carte soon encouraged Gilbert and Sullivan to write full length "comic operas."
3. The Sorcerer
Premiere: Nov. 17, 1877 - Opera Comique, London (178 performances)
A newly engaged Victorian couple wants everyone in their small town to have the thrill of falling in love. They hire a modern day wizard to unleash a love potion at their betrothal reception, wreaking havoc with the unsuspecting guests. The first full-length G&S work, it was a solid money maker and showed what its creators were capable of. D'Oyly Carte had no trouble convincing G&S to try another.
4. H.M.S. Pinafore
Premiere: May 25, 1878 - Opera Comique, London (571 performances)
At first, this tale of a common sailor competing for the hand of his captain's daughter with none other than the Lord Admiral of the Royal Navy seemed doomed to failure. It became an international sensation, reshaping the commercial theater in both England and the United States. After some greedy investors failed in a clumsy attempt to take over the profitable production, D'Oyly Carte signed Gilbert and Sullivan to a three-way partnership. Sharing profits and expenses, this trio now set out to reshape British musical theatre.
5. The Pirates of Penzance
British Premiere: Dec. 30, 1879 - Bijou Theatre, Paignton
U.S. Premiere: Dec. 31, 1879 - The Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York (91 performances)
London Run: April 3, 1880 - Opera Comique (363 performances)
A young man who was accidentally apprenticed to a band of pirates celebrates his 21st birthday by going straight. Resolved to destroy his former thieving comrades, he must choose between his love for a Major General's daughter and his overwhelming sense of duty. Jointly premiered on both sides of the Atlantic to protect Gilbert and Sullivan's copyright, it proved to be one of their most enduring hits. Pirates also brought the team to new creative levels. Sullivan's music has an operatic scope, and Gilbert made his best use yet of extended musicalized scenes. While the comedy of their contemporaries has evaporated over time, this spoof still wins hearty laughs after more than 120 years. (Note: Many sources claim the original NY production ran for 154 performances, but that figure includes time on tour.)
Premiere: April 23, 1881 - Opera Comique, London (578 performances)
Reopened: Oct. 10, 1881 - Savoy Theatre, London
The story of an effete poet who spurns an army of female admirers while he pines in vain for a simple milkmaid becomes a wicked spoof of Oscar Wilde and the Esthetic Movement. When concerns were expressed that American audiences would not understand the show's rather British comic targets, D'Oyly Carte sent Wilde on an American lecture tour, hitting major cities just before the tour of Patience came to town. This operetta remains entertaining because, beneath all the now-dated satire, it examines the meaning of love -- always a rich topic for comedy. This work remains a favorite with history buffs and Anglophiles.
Premiere: Nov. 25, 1882 - Savoy Theatre, London (398 performances)
U.S. Premiere: Nov. 25, 1882 - Standard Theatre, New York
When an Arcadian shepherd defies the Lord Chancellor of England to claim the Chancellor's lovely young ward, Britain's House of Peers winds up at odds with the shepherd's relatives a platoon of female fairies. All is resolved when the shepherd's fairy mother reveals that her son's father is none other than the Chancellor. A rich satire that has lost little if any of its bite over the years, many a G&S connoisseur considers this the canon's caviar piece.
8. Princess Ida
Premiere: Jan. 5, 1884 - Savoy Theatre, London (246 performances)
Based on a poem by Tennyson, this is the story of a medieval feminist princess who spurns all male attention and turns her castle into a college for women. However, her principles crumble when confronted with the love of the prince she was betrothed to in infancy. Far from what our age would consider politically correct, this work is still funny and is the only full length G&S musical written completely in verse form.
9. The Mikado
Premiere: Mar. 14, 1885 - Savoy Theatre, London (672 performances)
The residents of the Japanese town of Titipu, anxious to please their strict Emperor, seek an excuse to enforce the death penalty for flirting and their executioner almost beheads the heir to the throne. From its premiere to the present, this cunning send-up of British mores has been the most popular work in the G&S canon, successful in many languages and interpretations. Still one of the funniest musicals ever written, it remains the most frequently produced 19th Century theatre piece.
Premiere: Jan. 22, 1887 - Savoy Theatre, London (288 performances)
Spoofing the blood-and-thunder melodramas so beloved by Victorian audiences, this is the murky tale of a noble family forced by a curse to commit a crime a day. With wacky locals like Mad Margaret, a gallery of haunted paintings that spring to life, and the showstopping patter song "Oh, My Eyes Are Fully Open," Ruddigore has its pleasures. But audiences and critics considered it a weak follow-up to The Mikado, and some British critics found the title (which invokes images of "ruddy/bloody gore") distasteful.
11. The Yeomen of the Guard
Premiere: Oct. 3, 1888 - Savoy Theatre, London (423 performances)
Justice is served but the course of true love does not "run smooth" in this tale set in the Tower of London during the bloody reign of King Henry VIII. Strolling player Jack Point loves fellow performer Elsie Maynard, but Elsie falls for condemned prisoner Colonel Fairfax. Plots and mistaken identities abound. When Fairfax marries Elsie and is pardoned, Point collapses with grief. The most serious work in the canon, both Gilbert and Sullivan considered it their best collaboration.
Note: While Yeomen was in preparation, Sullivan was also working on Ivanhoe, a grand opera with libretto by Julian Sturgis. Despite a lavish D'Oyly Carte production, it was not a success. A long overdue recording finally appeared, but has not ignited new interest in this work.
12. The Gondoliers
Premiere: Dec. 7, 1889 - Savoy Theatre, London (554 performances)
This show has two major plots. In the first, two newly wed Venetian gondoliers are dragged away from their wives to rule an island kingdom. It seems one of them was born to be king of this revolution-torn country, and they must act as co-regents while a pompous Spanish Inquisitor verifies who is who. The second story is that of the Duke of Plaza Toro, an impoverished Spanish nobleman whose daughter is betrothed to marry the true king. While waiting for the monarch to be identified, the Duke incorporates himself, going from poverty to extraordinary wealth. Lots of romance and giddy music make this one of the best known and most frequently performed G&S masterworks, the last of their super-hits.
Note: During the long run of The Gondoliers, D'Oyly Carte replaced some worn out carpeting in the Savoy Theatre. When Gilbert bridled at sharing the expense, Sullivan sided with D'Oyly Carte. The resulting feud interrupted the team's three-way partnership for several years.
13. Utopia, Limited
Premiere: Oct. 7, 1893 - Savoy Theatre, London (245 performances)
U.S. Premiere: March 26, 1894 - Broadway Theatre, New York
Having buried the so-called "carpet quarrel," G&S collaborated on this spoof of British envoys anglicizing a tropical island kingdom. After a triumphant first night there was a sense of disappointment. Although this show lacks the spark of this team at their best, even so-so G&S is still quite entertaining. Gilbert's first political/social satire since H.M.S. Pinafore, its run was too brief to cover the costs of its lavish production.
14. The Grand Duke
Premiere: Mar. 7, 1896 - Savoy Theatre, London (123 performances)
A petty German ruler tries to hand over his tottering duchy to a theatrical troupe -- a plot strangely reminiscent of Thespis. Despite some charming songs, this operetta was a disappointment to most observers. G&S were still talented, but their enthusiasm for such projects had waned. It was not professionally staged in the US until decades later.