HMS Pinafore Opens
With HMS Pinafore the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan graduated from mere success to national treasure and money making machine. The pair had collaborated seven years previously on Thespis, an opera after Offenbach’s style, which did well enough, but prompted no immediate continuation of their cooperation. Fortune threw them together to produce Trial by Jury in 1874, followed by The Sorcerer in 1877. The pieces were moving towards a determinedly English style, with cutting wit and enjoyment of the ridiculous. Trial by Jury ran for 131 performances; The Sorcerer for 178. HMS Pinafore, which opened on May 25 1878, would go beyond 550 before London audiences finally began to dwindle.
Gilbert and Sullivan , working with Richard D’Oyly Carte at The Opera Comique off the East Strand , had freedom and finance to produce the piece as they wished. Gilbert directed it himself, and was instrumental in stage and costume design and – a novelty – in making sure the actors were word perfect. Sullivan oversaw the musical rehearsals. The triumvirate were able to choose their own performers too, aiming for a natural rather than overtly theatrical effect as the best way to show off the topsy-turvy plot and barbed wit – among the cast George Grossmith as Sir Joseph Porter, a thinly-veiled caricature of W.H. Smith .
Early worries the piece would not have a long run proved false; the piano score was a smash hit; touring versions were arranged; dozens of American companies pirated the piece. A very English art form had been brought into the world and quickly spread across it.
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