Pirates of Penzance by
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Prompted By Leap Day

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Linda Ronstadt & Rex Smith in “The Pirates of Penzance”

Leap Day is a once-every-four-years astronomical anomaly in the calendar, meant to sweep up the few extra minutes accumulated over the intervening years and set the calendar straight again. It happens to coincide with our presidential election years and I’m sure is a pain for people born on this particular day. When do they celebrate?

For those of us who love (and perform) the Gilbert and Sullivan body of works, we know the plots are always silly and the characters are culled from a standard repertory format. For over 100 years, the definitive performances were done by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company of London (as depicted in “Chariots of Fire”). But they are enjoyed and performed all over the world.

One of those famous operettas, “The Pirates of Penzance” takes place along the cliffs of Cornwall in southwest England, where the beautiful daughter of the Major-General, Mabel, is in love with Fredric. (Yes, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” comes from this operetta.) However, Fredric is apprenticed to a group of pirates until his 21st birthday which is quickly approaching. Since he is a good, dutiful Brit, he is honor-bound to fulfill that apprenticeship, much as he hates being a pirate. He will come of age in a matter of days, then can lead a virtous life and marry Mabel, until it is revealed that he was born on LEAP DAY! So he won’t come of age until he is 84 and must continue to stay with the pirates! Finally, the old woman who was his guardian confesses that she is hard of hearing, misunderstood the arrangement and Fredric was really supposed to be apprenticed to a PILOT (on a ship)! Problem solved, silly but satisfying for all and lovely music.

My brother played Samuel, the Pirate King’s lieutenant, at the National Music Camp in 1965. That was my first exposure to the show.

Long a favorite of G&S fans, in 1981, Joseph Papp decided to stage a version of it with popular stars and invited Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Kevin Kline to star in it on Broadway, to much acclaim. Two years later he turned it into a well-received movie so it is preserved for all to see; the winsome story of the lass who loved a pirate, born on Leap Day.

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: Pirates of Penzance, Linda Ronstadt, Gilbert & Sullivan, D'Oyly Carte
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    As I also mentioned in commenting to Suzy’s story, Betsy, I am sufficient familiar with the G & S oeuvre to have had a vague recollection that Leap Year was a major plot line in “Pirates.” But thank you for filling me in on the particulars. Of course, it makes about as much sense as the stumbling block in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but that, of course, is the point.

    To be honest, I first learned of the work when I was a little kid and only interested in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates, a perennial also-ran, were leading the National League when a sports writer/punster wrote a column entitled “The Pirates of Pennants.” My father laughed when he saw the column and patiently explained the operatic allusion to me.

  2. And now I know why such a thing as Leap Year exists — thanks, Betsy! I mean it. I love that Retrospect is exposing me to information I might not have gleaned otherwise. And with two stories highlighting Pirates, which I’ve not seen in any form, I feel I must at least watch the movie now. The photo of Linda Ronstadt in the Broadway production reminds me that I recently watched a wonderful documentary on her, “The Sound of My Voice.” One of my favorite voices, always powerful and outspoken, now, despite battling Parkinson’s and no longer singing, she is still dynamic and vibrant. Highly recommended, especially for us baby boomers.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Glad I could provide a bit of information, Barbara. Pope Gregor didn’t get the calendar completely in sync, so had to optimize with this accommodation.

      I saw “The Sound of My Voice” last summer and absolutely loved it! I grew up on Ronstadt’s music (as did most of our generation), so it was great to be reminded of all her terrific songs, her fabulous voice and powerful message, which cannot be silenced, even by the ravages of Parkinson’s. I loved her tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors this past December too.

  3. Marian says:

    I learned a lot from your story, Betsy, thank you. Most of my G&S knowledge comes from The Mikado, so I’ll put this operetta on my “to see” list.

  4. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy, my sister in all things musical! I was fortunate to see Linda Ronstadt in Pirates on Broadway in 1981. I was already living in California then, so my mother must have gotten tickets for when I was home for a visit. She was fabulous! I have been a fan of hers since the Stone Poneys days, but when she did that aria of Mabel’s it took my breath away. Haven’t ever seen the movie version, but will probably have to now.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I, also, loved Ronstadt way back even to her Stoned Poneys days. Her voice is incredible and she proved as Mabel that she can handle ANY genre. Lucky you to have seen her in the original. Alas, I only saw the movie, but did see Kevin Kline on the escalator of MoMA some months later, was right behind him and hummed a few bars from “Pirates”, just to see if he’d respond. He turned around, but didn’t do a sing-a-long with me.

      Have fun tonight…climbing over rock and mountain!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Love that operetta. I really enjoyed seeing Linda Ronstadt’s performance recently in the documentary “The Sound of my Voice.” Thanks for teaching me a bit about the background of “Pirates of Penzance.”

  6. Thanx Betsy, I saw Pirates of Penzance with Kevin Kline lo those many years ago!
    And had I not already written about both my college crush and my Beatle crush, I could write about my Kevin Kline crush!

  7. Another Pirates aficionado! I could replay my response to Suzy but instead I’ll just refer you to it.

  8. Dorothy Rice says:

    Your primer (and Suzy’s) on Pirates is much appreciated – as I confessed commenting on her story, I’d seen the play but somehow missed the major plot point regarding leap year. The whole purpose of which, which you explain so well in the opening paragraph – was also not something I’d ever had a clear idea about. I’m inspired to see another production and the movie for sure. Thanks so much for a fun, well-written and information piece of leap year history!

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